It takes more than business cards to make meaningful connections at SXSW. We asked experts for their tips on navigating the social side of Austin.
It's not enough to have the right networking apps on your iPhone and pockets full of business cards at South by Southwest Interactive. As tens of thousands of potential clients, collaborators, hires, and investors descend on Austin, you can bet it'll be a challenge to hear through the noise—figuratively and literally. We talked with SXSW veterans and marketing experts about how to make yourself stand out (without being a nuissance) and create worthwhile connections (without wasting time).
1. Don't plan too much. "I think the thing that I really advice people to stay away from is over-planning their schedule in advance. There's so much that happens at a hotel lobby or at a party or in a hallway in terms of meeting people. It does introduce you to people who you might not meet at other industry events. There's a temptation if you've never been before to book out your every step. I'd encourage folks to find the one or two things you're really excited about—and leave everything else open. You don't want to short-circuit new opportunities by overplanning on the front end." —Josh Williams, CEO of Gowalla, the location-aware service based in Austin
2. Ditch your friends. "Honestly, it's pretty much just talk to everybody. That's the magic of SXSW. There are so many fascinating people there. Be vocal in panels, because that will let people know that you are interesting, too, and want to talk to you. Don't be shy. There are people from all sorts of backgrounds, it's this fusion of marketing and technology. Don't just hang out with your friends you can do that at home." —Richard Schatzberger, chief technology experience officer at Co Collective, a firm that develops brand strategy, product innovation, and new ventures using a collaborative model
3.Plan for themes of engagement. "You've got to do some planning up front. It doesn't have to be so long in advance, even if it's just a couple days prior, identify your goals. Who in your network is going to be there that you need to connect with? Then identify if there are some common themes. One that's common this year is the blurring of lines between the real and digital world. There's a further expectation that you're engaging with both, all the time. There's such a breadth of events here at SXSW, you need to recognize that some of the value you are going to get out of it is that you're going to get to hear different perspectives." —Hilding Anderson, digital strategist at SapientNitro, a global integrated marketing and technology firm
4. Connect online before in person. "It's really helpful to check out Meetups and other online groups from home before you go. These are the kinds of things you have to plan to be members of, like a Facebook group. There's one I just joined called New Yorkers at SXSW, and there's also NYXSW.com. It already has several hundred people, with panels listed and good parties to go to." —Jonathan Isaac, global head of planning at LBi, an Interactive advertising, marketing, and digital agency based in New York City
5. Skip a talk in favor of a meet-up. "Some of the most effective networking opportunities are happening before or after the sessions, and some just over a cup of coffee in the morning can lead to really extraordinary relationships. But it's also important to pay attention to the hashtags that are floating around, and connect to people nearby that way. You can also take advantage of the meet-up opportunities—this is the first year for that—they're designed to be one-hour networking events, and it's people who are interested in the topic, and others who can help them. The sessions can be overwhelming, and this is a new way to connect to people in your sphere, or bloggers, and people who can just give you advice on how to best navigate SXSW. —Kathy O'Reilly, director of social media relations at job-search site Monster.com
6. Allow room for serendipity. "I think as SXSW has grown so large, some of the most valuable conversations tend to happen in the most unexpected situations. Now you kind of have to look for those moments in the hotel lobbies or at the bars afterward at night. That's kind of part of what makes it special, what makes it SXSW. I woldn't be here with Gowalla if it wasn't SXSW connecting me with folks I now work with, starting nine years ago. It's one of those things I couldn't put a pricetag on. It has the quality of being a catalyst. So let it." —Josh Williams, CEO of Gowalla, the location-aware app based in Austin 7. Plan your post-SXSW strategy early—and stick to it. "One of the other things is recognize that you're not going to have all of the time you need to do your networking at the show. Have a plan for how you're going to keep up connections and whom you want to keep up with. You can have a digital plan, and be sure to follow it, or you can just use business cards. You are going to forget two-thirds of the people you meet and want to reach out to by the end of the show, so you need a plan." —Hilding Anderson, digital strategist at SapientNitro, a global integrated marketing and technology firm
IMAGE: Courtesy Snapfoc.us
Last updated: Mar 10, 2011
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is senior writer at Inc. @Lagorio