Is South by Southwest in danger of being overrun by marketers? Experts advise letting go of traditional strategies in favor of effective grassroots tactics.
"A lot of people get there and put up their big house and their shiny lights and expect people to flock there—it doesn't work. You need to begin it before SXSW and build some anticipation." - Hilding Anderson, digital strategist at SapientNitro
There's a popular line of thinking this year: South by Southwest is in danger of being overrun by marketers. With brand logos lining the convention center halls, sponsored freebies on every corner, and large-company-hosted parties stacked 20 deep each evening, the saturation of marketing indeed can be overwhelming. The concern is widespread enough that a panel this year begs: "Help Save SXSW From Marketer Douchebaggery," and a Twitter hash-tag is dedicated to the issue: #saveSXSW.
For growing companies, it's a dual challenge. Isn't this the most optimal gathering of tech-minded innovators at which to propel a start-up to Twitter- or FourSquare-esque fame? But also, how can a fledgling company stand out in the clamor made by marketing powerhouses?
"Since Twitter launched, SXSW has become the place to launch something," says Josh Williams, who founded FourSquare competitor Gowalla, which is based in Austin. Williams has launched three products at past SXSW Interactive festivals. "But now that it's like geek spring break, it's becoming increasingly difficult to repeat that formula, because there are so many more people, and the signal-to-noise ratio is increasingly difficult to overcome."
Marketing Your Business at SXSW: Find Your Niche
Veterans of the conference suggest there are ways to ditch the traditional marketing mindset and instead find ways to use a presence at SXSW Interactive to spark meaningful interactions. After all, attendees are there to explore, learn, and—of course—enjoy themselves. A key to both engaging and empowering them is to not attempt to reach all of the tens of thousands of attendees at once.
Jonathan Isaac, the global head of planning at LBi, an interactive advertising, marketing, and digital agency based in New York City, says that SXSW can be a significant test for a brand, because it is a congregation of some of the country's most savvy marketing thinkers, who can be super-sophisticated customers.
"The other thing about it is that it's a huge booze-filled party where everyone is drunk all the time," he says. "Surrounded by such a cacophony of brand nonsense and people thinking of you is the worst thing you can do is try to out-shout everyone."
Williams suggests one straightforward tactic: focus.
"If you come here to launch something you have to come knowing exactly who your audience is in this crowd, and you have to know how to reach that niche," he says.
Especially for small and growing companies, the SXSW brand cacophony can also be perilous due to both significant competition and hefty technical issues.
"There are a dozen venues, everyone is spread out, and there are a dozen other companies trying to do the same thing as you," Williams says. "You put yourself in a position where everyone is launching apps, and you are at the mercy of servers staying up, and service carriers working. You can make a splash, or you can get washed away."
Dig Deeper: How to Make a Splash at SXSW
Marketing Your Business at SXSW: Stay Small but Stand Out
It's a mantra you hear in elementary school, and it's a mantra you hear in brand-strategy meetings: stay true to yourself. But it's the easiest marketing fail out there.
And it's easy to think the same great parties work as marketing ploys at SXSW year after year. Sometimes they do: Red Stripe, Red Bull, and the Camel House are known for throwing good parties. But that can't work for everyone, Isaac says.
"I don't really think that's legitimate brand-building activity for most companies. If you're HP trying to throw a great party at SXSW. it's a bit like wearing a wig," he says. "It's not true to who the brand is. But it can sponsor the SXSW mobile app, and that feels natural, and everyone is exposed to the brand."
Taking that mentality to a smaller scale can work for start-ups, says Lindsey Thomas, the director of public relations and marketing at JiWire, which made an app that navigates location-based marketing, and is based in San Francisco.
"It's how you leverage your strategy, and knowing that the fun stuff always gets the attention," she says. "But it only works if the little PR stunts you throw work with your brand."
Dig Deeper: Finding the Next Big Thing at SXSW
Marketing Your Business at SXSW: Feed the Needs
A logical way to do that is to stay at the scale of your company—be small and grassrootsy for a start-up; sponsor or hold a hip event if you're mid-sized—and cater to what's practical at SXSW. Consider the case of Twitter. Its SXSW launch catered to a desire: letting friends know where you are and what you think is interesting at the moment at SXSW. It's similar to the purpose of GroupMe, a multiple-contact-messaging-service, which is seeking to be one of this year's debutants.
Consider the utility. Twitter, Gowalla, and Foursquare each brought with them a way to see what was garnering buzz, and therefore what parties or sessions to attend, or to avoid, should that be your mood. Either way, they had immediate usefulness.
Also consider immediate needs. Williams says some of the most compelling marketing he's seen at SXSW involved filling the necessary voids for attendees. And that means food, drinks, and shelter from the occasional storm.
For instance, he met the creators of Foodzie, an online marketplace for artisanal edibles, because they were catering to attendees waiting in outdoor lines for parties by roasting s'mores. Gowalla itself used a food truck to market in the past.
"We were able to tell thousands of people about our service, just for giving away tacos and paying for a parking space," Williams says. "There are a couple of things people want at a conference like this, and the first is food when restaurants are packed."
The others? Clothing and rain gear, the latter especially when it pours. He says there's place for the often-unnecessary swag when people might pack too little clothing for the event, or for everyone in inclement weather. While Gowalla's tactic has been to give away green T-shirts to wear on usually-coinciding St. Patrick's Day, Zappos dropped rain ponchos branded with its label when the weather got wet one year. Both found success.
"No one really needs an extra sticker, but if you can meet the food, water, or clothing needs, you're all set," Williams says.
Dig Deeper: Running an Event on a Budget
Marketing Your Business at SXSW: Be Creative but not Obnoxious
While the SXSW Interactive trade show grows larger, there's an expectation by attendees that they'll be the objects of marketing. But industry experts agree there are more organic methods than just hunkering down at a booth and hoping people wander by.
Hilding Anderson, digital strategist at SapientNitro, a global integrated marketing and technology solutions firm that's hosting the "Carnival of Convergence" at SXSW this year, agrees that events should be structured based on their value to the visitor.
"I think the opportunity of what works well is a little more organic than just getting a booth," he says. "It's using a lot of the social networks to reinforce your brand message, and with a growing sophistication of tools available online, why not either use them or be a part of that?"
Isaac agrees, noting that a brand's strategy for SXSW shouldn't begin at the actual event, but rather start generating itself online weeks or months ahead of time. It's not just building buzz, it includes creating awareness and connection.
His agency's mantra is to not be interruptive, but to be additive—in other words, adding richness and value to peoples' days.
"A good thing that companies are realizing is that it shouldn't begin at SXSW," he says. "A lot of people get there and put up their big house and their shiny lights and expect people to flock there—it doesn't work. You need to begin it before SXSW and build some anticipation."
He cites the company's partner, Yobongo, as an example. The networking app, which lets users find nearby users with similar interests, has been spending recent weeks "getting in the right Twitter feeds," he says. While the start-up isn't doing much overt marketing, he's hoping for great things.
"I think you'll find Yobongo is going to be quite prominent in a subtle way this year, because it's something people will actually engage with," he says.
Dig Deeper: The New Rules of Event Marketing
Marketing Your Business at SXSW: Ditch the Traditional Marketing Altogether
Effective networking might just be a better tool to a start-up's success at SXSW than banner or advertisements, according to Richard Schatzberger, chief technology experience officer at Co Collective, according to Richard Schatzberger, chief technology experience officer at Co Collective, which is hosting a pub crawl with friends at SXSW called Townholler.
There is a lot of kind of trying too hard to be cool," he says. "Instead, try to get demos in peoples hands. Give them beta access, little slideshows. It's those things that are going to build real relationships with people, not just freebies. Especially as a start-up. Giving people real trials of the product you're working on is the thing that will build your product."
The first time Schatzberger hosted a pub crawl, he used solely social media to publicize it, and in real-time.
"We just started with a couple of tweets, saying we in New York were going to meet at a certain place. We started out with about 20 people, most of whom were our friends," he says. "Everyone came and checked in, and broadcasted that on Twitter. Then we went to the next place, and more and more people showed up. And then it turned into an exponential event."
That's the same formula Townholler is using at SXSW this year, and it's hoping to be a respite from the blatant marketing rival firms employ.
Christine Lagorio 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 executive editor of Inc.com. @Lagorio
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