Having soaked in yet another SXSW Interactive festival this year, digital agency Huge's editorial director Jose Mejia seems to have walked away with the feeling that the festival has scaled back - despite around 26,000 people descending on Austin Texas during the two-weeks that the Music, Interactive and Film festivals take place. Here he offers his views on this year's festival, the start-ups ad brands he came across - or didn't - and what he believes it meant to those who did attend.
Taking the time to walk around downtown Austin, there was less of the familiar feeling of being suffocated by overexposure to marketing messages and logos that I’d come to associate with making a breakfast taco run in the late morning. Sure, I was accosted by a guy trying to force a free popsicle into my hand on behalf of a startup I can’t remember. Yes, there were plenty of Path posters all over every possible surface between East Cesar Chavez and 15th St. But, it all came across so much more innocuously than usual.
The only constant at South by Southwest is that each year is sure to be different than the last in some way. SXSWi 2013, however, marked an interestingly clear shift. It was a much quieter affair than years past, something that I knew to expect after watching friends struggle to secure money from sponsors for their parties and activations. Many of the most prominent particpants in creating annual spectacles in Austin seemed to scale back their presence this year. It would be far too simplistic to place the blame entirely on budgets, though.
After speaking to people from all walks — startups, agencies, brands, and a few publishers — the consensus seemed to be that no one was seeing long-term ROI come out of their splashy activations. The short-term spike in attention and positive sentiment wasn’t translating into long-term love affairs. That’s a fact that shouldn’t surprise anyone.
What is startling, though, is that more people haven’t thought to apply a more modern take on marketing to their SXSWi extravaganzas.
Chevrolet’s been a steady presence down in Texas during SXSWi for the past three years for good reason: getting around downtown and surrounding areas is a major headache. Chevy offering people the chance to catch a free ride to dinner or to the apartment they AirBnBed a half-hour north of the convention center because they booked their trip late is precisely the kind of value-adding we praise companies for executing in digital all the time, but don’t give enough credit for when it happens offline.
A similar theme played out in the halls and ballrooms of Austin’s convention center and hotels. It was in one of those hallways that I heard someone joke about the industry reaching “Peak Startup.” There weren’t very many standouts amongst the sea of middling companies trying to emulate services that already exist and win solely on branding and a dream. What was apparent and not so much of a joke was the lack of focus on genuine user needs by a lot of the new startups present this year. They left that, apparently, to the hardware companies.
I’ll admit I’m a bit biased here. While down in Austin, Huge ran a tech school completely free of charge where people learned how to code over the course of four days. We also set up shop at a small bar tucked behind a nondescript storefront downtown and let word of mouth bring an incredible array of people to us. No RSVP page. No hard sell. It was more than just a breath of fresh air after a long day of lines and lists; it was an escape from everything else at SXSWi.
I left Austin with a renewed sense of just how powerful it is to give people what they really need instead of what you think you can convince them to want. That’s a lesson that serves well whether you’re
the next big thing or you’ve been around the block, a hot new app or the latest in wearable technology, a lumbering brand or a savvy agency.