How marketers can make the most of SXSW Online
The world of live events has not been the same since March 2020. That was when SXSW pulled the plug on an in-person festival as the threat of COVID-19 was just sinking in. The whole world has changed, in fact, and “SXSW canceled” will forever be a seminal moment.
A year later, SXSW is back after having endured all the slings of the pandemic and its impact on the marketing, technology, media and entertainment industries. There has been a move to virtual everything, a surge in streaming digital and video and new ways of communicating with apps like Clubhouse and Zoom. SXSW, which has always been looked at as the place to explore cutting-edge media and technology, has a chance to foster those future-looking conversations this year, but the participants will have to get more creative than ever before.
That’s how Stephanie Agresta, a longtime SXSW-goer, feels about the opportunity this year, after the show moved to a five-day, online-only event. Agresta is senior VP of marketing and communications at W20 Group, a San Francisco-based holding company, which is one of the sponsors at SXSW this year.
“When it comes to [return on investment],” Agresta says in a recent phone interview, “the good news for virtual events is that the total number of people you can reach is increased, it’s just in a different way.”
The upside for the events world—whether it’s SXSW, CES, IAB’s Digital Content NewFronts, Cannes, and all the other stops on the marketing circuit—is that online anyone could tune in, no need for a plane ticket. Also, sponsors can use all the same tools they use to measure their internet marketing to decide if a conference led to meaningful marketing results. There are downsides to SXSW Online—no Texas barbecue or strolls down East Sixth Street in Austin—but online, everyone has a chance to play.
Last year, when SXSW had to shut down as pressure around the pandemic ramped up, there was confusion about refunds for participants who had booked hotels, restaurants and sponsorships. SXSW organizers are more prepared this year, ready to take the whole show virtual in a smaller form. The participants and sponsors are also more knowledgeable about what to expect from such virtual events. They are more practiced in remote networking, and there has been experimentation with other conferences like Cannes Lions Live in October and CES in January.
The organizers behind these shows are creating the future of conferences on the fly. CES, run by the Consumer Technology Association, built a convention portal that worked with Microsoft Teams, for instance. At SXSW, W20 will create a virtual lounge, which will try to capture the spirit of an in-person venue in Austin. “The Lounge is going to be on Zoom,” Agresta says.
One of the ways festivals have adapted to fit online is that many of the panels and speakers are prerecorded. Keynote speakers and talks are pre-produced and then they live online as video-on-demand after a show, as CES did. The drawback is that the live element is removed, but Agresta says that’s why multiple platforms are needed to open the conversation.
W20 is creating content related to health care, a particularly relevant subject this year, and even though panels are not live, the conversation can cross over to places including Zoom, LinkedIn and Twitter.
Clubhouse is another place where SXSW-goers will be sure to congregate, Agresta says. The app is basically built to be a standout during SXSW, where every year it seems like an emerging app has a breakout moment. Twitter, Foursquare, Meerkat (which helped ignite the livestreaming craze) all broke out at SXSW in years past. Clubhouse is somewhat of a mix between podcasting and voice-chatting, where attendees set up rooms to host conversations.
Agresta says she already hosted a talk on Clubhouse on “SXSW matters.” “For the South by crowd, Clubhouse is kind of taking off,” Agresta says. “People want to have an engaging one-to-many, but-not-too-many, way of talking to people. People get to speak to each other and kind of mingle, but there isn’t the video piece, so that’s not pressuring you.”
Dinita Moore, founder and director at Hue + Satch, a startup digital creative agency, is all the way in London, but can attend SXSW this year, thanks to it being remote. She would travel if anyone could, Moore says.
“Honestly I just wanted to experience it,” Moore says. “This year isn’t the lineup I dreamt of, but it will do for a lockdown.”
Themes to be condensed
Moore paid the $249 it costs for SXSW Online. That’s a discount from what the live show usually costs, which is up to $1,350. Typically, SXSW spans about 10 days, and has three tracks for film, music and interactive technology. This year all those themes will be condensed for the online show.
SXSW still has some big names in the lineup of speakers, including Stacey Abrams, the Georgia leader who has emerged as one of the most powerful voices in U.S. politics. There also are film premieres, including Hulu’s documentary about WeWork, about the implosion of the office-space startup.
Last year, SXSW was able to recreate the film festival portion of the show via a partnership with Amazon to screen movies on Amazon Prime.
Kevin McGurn, Vevo’s president of sales and distribution, is also a SXSW veteran. The music video media company is always a natural fit for the live festival, and Vevo usually produces concerts and other activities. This year, Vevo had to rethink how it approaches events, since the live component of concerts is hard to recreate online.
Vevo has mostly backed off of playing too in-depth with virtual conferences in the same way it would have for an in-person event. It’s true that everything online can be measured with clicks and views, but it is more difficult to understand the audience.
“It’s a tough thing to get return on investment and to understand who is tuning in versus being able to show up and see who is in the room,” McGurn says.
One of the benefits of remote events though, is that in a digital environment all sponsors get similar billing. “I think in a good way we’re on a level playing field with everyone else as to what’s available to us and what the budgets are,” McGurn says.
Agresta says that there are ways to make the most out of the online environment. It’s not just about counting who clicked into a website, but collecting emails for newsletters and other marketing initiatives.
“Being in a digital environment provides for more quantitative measurements,” Agresta says. W20 will monitor how many registrants attend sessions, how many emails they can collect, downloads of white papers, video views and impressions.
There’s another benefit of not flying to Texas in winter this year: No chance of snow.