What the hell are ad people supposed to do at SXSW?

Credit: JEALEX Photo/Getty Images for SXSW

There are reasons that literally THOUSANDS of marketers – and I – head to Austin every year for SXSW, even though we know the parties and panels will be crowded, internet connectivity sporadic, and rain inevitable: The festival is the annual pilgrimage of inspiration, the ultimate networking opportunity, and sets the foundation for the rest of the year’s marketing planning.

SXSW is called a festival for a reason; it’s a curated collection of ideas, some of which will cause a splash, many which will flash and fade, others which will never come to fruition. The panels run the gamut from introductory to hands-on and almost every topic, but the real energy, lessons and opportunities come from the pulse of the festival – the conversations between panels, during parties, and over BBQ and tacos are where ideas are parsed, applied, pressure-tested, rejected and adopted. The richness of the festival is in the discourse with friends, colleagues and perfect strangers, where the experiences and innovations are dissected, and where the theoretical is analyzed through the lens of the real world and through the dual viewpoint of marketer and consumer.

The spirit of SXSW is serendipity – catching the unexpected, the nascent thread, the spark.

SXSW remains relevant for marketers and brands, but your approach needs to evolve much like the festival has. No, it isn’t the same as it was in 1994 when the interactive and film tracks were first introduced, or even the same as it was in 2007 when attendance first began to swell, but it remains the premier place to meet, learn and share ideas with people from around the globe. And even with this evolution, some of you think it’s over-rated, but that’s why its crucial to understand the reasons you’re there to get the most out of your time and investment.

Understand that the presence of technology has amplified.

SXSW Interactive first made waves as the place for non-technologists to learn about, experience, and play with emerging technology. In the last several years, it has grown to include the application – real and theoretical – of both new and known technologies across business and marketing. The common thread was and remains creativity and the application of technology.

The democratization of technology tools created bite-sized opportunities, and that accessibility enables marketers to leverage rapidly emerging and morphing tech. This shift increased SXSW’s relevance for marketers, as the festival has always been deeply committed to co-creation and participation with hands-on workshops, tool-specific education tracks and access to the very people who are developing these technologies. Because SXSW has always shone in terms of technology application by highlighting use, prioritizing case studies, and offering attendees the opportunity to speak with creators and users, the relevance and value has increased exponentially.

Understand that the programming has evolved – and that’s a good thing.

SXSW welcomed this increased interest and made another critical shift in programming, moving from more traditional learning tracks and creating interactive “convergence” topics such as government, style, health/biotech, food, social impact, sports, etc. This change reflects the new landscape and attendees’ needs/desires, further differentiating the programming from new(er) conferences and increasing its value to the marketer even while losing some of its community feel and dividing long-time advocates. That community still exists in pockets, running almost like an undercurrent through the experience. (Thursday night at The Gingerman, and some of the long-standing non-official events such as 20x2 are well worth your time if you’re looking to get a feel for “old” SXSW.)

The shift to convergence topics included the addition of structured case studies, bringing brands and corporate leadership to the stage with the experts, enabling candid conversations about challenges and issues as well as results, providing critical fodder for reapplication but moving further away from the spirit of entrepreneurial exploration.

Today, marketers can justify the investment of time and dollars in SXSW to their leadership because they bring back tangible examples of success, business cases and data points to support investment even as they have to actively seek opportunities to expand skills or get down-and-dirty with emerging technologies to create new paths.

Understand that the parties are, in large part, the work.

Beyond the programming, the parties, gatherings, and even the activations and experiences that take over downtown Austin are ripe with networking and inspiration. Exposure to the latest “shiny objects” from the companies that make them can spark creativity, and even inspire you to say, “Hey I can do that. And I can do it better.”

SXSW remains a place to make connections, and whereas it used to be the underground job fair for creatives of all types, it is now a place for brands and organizations to find new talent. Start-ups attend to be inspired and also to explore funding and meet with potential investors, and there are still opportunities to participate in hands-on workshops and mentor one-on-one sessions with industry leaders.

Understand that ideas can be born at a taco truck.

So, see you at the taco truck. Next to the BBQ place. I’m the one wearing Spectacles, drinking small-batch local whiskey, talking to strangers.

Laura Chavoen is director of social Grey New York. She tweets @chavoen

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