The (Big) Trouble With SXSW

As Festival Grows, Its Intimacy Gets Lost in the Crowd

By Published on . 8

Ian Schafer
Ian Schafer
I've been going to the South by Southwest conference (SXSW) for several years now, and every year it gets bigger. This year was no different. More than 12,000 people reportedly attended SXSW Interactive this year, giving it its biggest crowd ever. In fact, from what I experienced at this year's SXSW, everything seemed big in Texas, but not necessarily "best."

Geolocation was big
There was a lot of noise about the competition between Foursquare and Gowalla. Both seemed to feed into it by scheduling parties at the same time. Other geo-related companies like MyTown and Whrrl also had presences. While Gowalla had the hometown pride rallying around it, Foursquare from NYC seemed to be the scrappier of the bunch, moving from location to location with a pick-up actual Foursquare game, temporary tattoos and pins. Foursquare's badges were also bragging rights (I unlocked the "Porky" badge for eating a lot of BBQ) throughout the event.

Lots of panels discussed the various impacts of geoservices, from mobile couponing to social networking to gaming. This was definitely the breakout topic at SXSW Interactive.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the event was what a bunch of 30-year-olds seemed to discover almost simultaneously -- the utility of geolocation. After "checking in" at nearly every spot, it became rudimentary to check the "friends" screen of apps to see where your friends were. This was a huge help when deciding which panels to attend or, of course, which parties to go to. Foursquare seemed to be the app of choice among conference goers. More than 300,000 Austin, Texas, check-ins occurred over the course of the event, contributing to an increase of over 100,000 new users, likely as a result of check-ins being broadcast to Twitter and Facebook.

Brands' presence at SXSW was big
SXSW has never been more commercial. In a quest for techno relevance, brands showed up in full force, from Pepsi to Chevy to Zone Perfect. Everywhere you looked, there were stickers, bars, flyers being handed to you. It was as if SXSW was the center of the nerd-o-verse (it was, for a week) and brands sought every opportunity to officially and unofficially associate themselves with the event and its attendees.

While definitely big, and surely effective, a major promotional presence at a supposedly intellectual and academic discussion of technological issues can leave itself open to criticism. Few added value to attendees in a major way. SXSW costs a lot of money to attend. Attendees do not want to be marketed at. Instead, many felt like pawns yet to be manipulated. Maybe tolerance would be higher if admission or hotel room prices were subsidized by marketers attempting to influence tweets, posts, and status updates.

Public relations presence at SXSW was big
Speaking of influence, it was as if everyone realized, at the same time, that SXSW was a wellspring for buzz. There seemed to be more PR and event professionals in attendance than ever, coordinating events and pitching tents. "Step and repeats" once only seen at SXSW Film now made an appearance at SXSW Interactive. This contributed to a lot of the jadedness that many attendees communicated in the same tweets that PR pros wanted their brands' mentions in.

Criticism of the panels at SXSW was big
Due to the size of the event, there were more panels than ever before, which meant more opportunities to be disappointed. Every panel attended meant another one missed, leading to many cases of "panel remorse," especially as many panels and keynotes failed to live up to the hype. In the most popular example, hundreds gathered to hear Twitter's Ev Williams get interviewed, only to be disappointed in the result -- something that is becoming a nearly annual occurrence and a growing problem for conference organizers.

But more panels meant more opportunities to learn. Many attendees found fantastic panels to attend, especially as they veered off the beaten path of social media and into things like neuromarketing. There were definitely some gems, but they just felt more like needles in a haystack this year.

The big verdict
I may not be in the majority, but I still love SXSW. There is no event that brings developers, marketers, advertisers, students, and communications professionals from every level (unlike DLD or TED) like SXSW Interactive does. Its growth has been steady, and while it has definitely lost much of its intimacy (I really miss that), it is still important. SXSWi forces us to look critically at technology, at press, at panels, at ourselves. And it's because I love SXSW that I hope it brings back some level of intimacy next year by limiting big brand involvement to a handful of relevant brands, screening interviewers and panelists (not just topics), and keeping an eye on the size. Marketers need to know about technology -- not just devices -- and SXSW is the closest thing we have to a world's fair for connectivity and intellectual conversation about human behavior. And that alone makes it indispensable.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ian Schafer is the CEO of Deep Focus, and can be stalked on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ischafer.
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