(A marketer’s perspective)
My first visit to SXSW, and Austin for that matter, while exciting was also overwhelming. I work in the live streaming industry and my perspective is from a marketing and social media standpoint. I wanted to engage in panels and sessions geared at brand storytelling. Upon entering the Austin Convention Center I had sensory overload. The tech innovations were there to see and also to try- a phenomenal experience. With so much going on, I felt like I missed a lot(FOMO is real at SXSW). If I were lucky enough to go again, there are a few things I would do differently.
1.Plan to go to fewer sessions and go EARLY
While planning my SXSW schedule I decided I should have 1–2 main sessions and 2–3 backups each day. This turned out to be too much. I had the SXSW Interactive badge which gave me access to the primary line for Interactive sessions. (Music and Film badges waited in the secondary line, while Platinum was all access).
Using the SXSW GO mobile app was great because I could easily favorite the sessions I wanted to attend and add them to my calendar and set a reminder, but I would arrive 10–20 minutes before a session or right when it started, and it would be full.
Next time I would still stick to Interactive sessions, but I would choose 2 main sessions a day (spaced at least an hour apart) and I would get in line a good hour in advance.
Having 1 or 2 backups is fine, but make sure they’re in the same venue, but chances are they will be full too. Popular sessions often have an encore later in the afternoon (they’ll let you know). In that case, head over to a lounge for free coffee or charging stations while you wait. Take that time to explore the main exhibit halls or check out the art installations, too.
2. Go beyond the sessions and experience brand activations around Austin
In the rush to attend the sessions on my schedule and make the most of the conference, I missed some fun looking activations. I heard that big brands pull out gimmicks to hype their products. While some brands go overboard, for marketers, a lot of activations exemplified brand engagement at its best. As a first-timer peeking through the fence, I didn’t realize TNT’s giant wave pool in downtown Austin was open to all SXSWers. Maybe I wouldn’t have squeezed into a wet suit and tried wave riding, but at least I’d get a close up look. While the Mashable House’s photo booth where you could recreate Beyoncé’s pregnancy shoot was a little much, I wouldn’t have minded a 45 minute nap in one of Casper’s Refresh Rooms!
3. Catch way more music (it’s Austin, after all)
For a marketer at SXSW for business and networking, catching music festivals was an afterthought. I assumed that since I didn’t have the music badge or wristband I couldn’t get into the worthwhile shows anyway. I should have known the Live Music Capital of the World would feature fantastic and free music abounding. From 6th Street to Rainey Street to Congress Street, bars and restaurants opened their doors and all but begged passersby to come in and listen. Guerrilla artists set up stage on street corners to drum, strum, and entertain. By asking other attendees, I found out about free shows. Sometimes I’d get a tip about where the concert lines for secondary badge holders looked promising for entry. Next time I would forgo more than one good night’s rest for an all-encompassing music experience.
4. Stay Closer to the Action
Pedicabs are handy if those boots can’t do anymore walkin’ and you’re staying in the city. Since our hotel was outside the city, we had to rent a car for the 20-minute ride. If my coworkers companions’ schedules were different, we had to coordinate a way back. Since there’s no Lyft or Uber in Austin (*sniffle*) you must download an alternative app like Ride Austin. Options are great, but when I used it didn’t seem to work as well. If I could afford to stay close by, I would choose to walk over the hassle of cabs navigating throngs of festival-goers.
5. Make use of Abby the SXSW chatbot
I was lucky enough to attend a networking meetup with Ben West, founder of Eventbase, the company that created SXSW’s chatbot Abby. While I’m skeptical that Abby is a gender-neutral name for a bot (as he revealed the SXSW committee had decided), hearing West talk up the AI bot made me think I should have tried to use it more. Abby, part of the SXSW GO mobile app, uses Natural Language Processing to get you a fast reply in an interface that’s user-friendly. I asked her where the Van’s House was (she had no clue) and what my next session was (she promptly provided me the right answer). While she can answer FAQs with ease, asking her the meaning of life or rambling a drunken soliloquy (as West said one user did) will not yet yield a witty reply. For SXSW 2018, I’m curious how much Abby will have picked up to make the event experience even more valuable.
Overall, I had an overwhelming and awesome SXSW experience. As a first-time attendee, I feel like I had just a taste of a triple chocolate Voodoo Doughnut (I had one from the 6th Street bakeshop — it was delicious), and I am already craving the experience next year.