Well, it's gone for another year. Along with my voice and ability to walk without wincing for the next few days.
So here's the big takeaways from the show for me:
Got Big Brand?
If you didn't, you were likely pummled into extinction here this year. Even napkins had QR codes. Nick Douglas wrote in SF Weekly after last year's event that "...the crass commercialization of non-tech sponsors is turning SXSWi into another generic mega-conference: A better money-maker with less focus and respect for its attendees. " In my experience this year, the scale -- and likely spend -- of what non-tech big brands did in Austin dwarfed anything I've ever seen before. Pepsi was absolutely everywhere (likely visible from space) and , and the hallways of the Austin Convention Center were utterly packed with branding. It had a different feel than, say, 2009 when Chris Anderson and Guy Kawasaki discussed the Long Tail and the power of free. And Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, presented to a packed house about the power of social media, business culture, and 'doing more with less.' This year felt more like taking your free Chevy Cruze taxi to the popup Apple Store to snag your new iPad 2 (plenty in stock! Act now!) while sipping free said Pepsi. In years past small startups could launch companies with little guerilla marketing ploys in the hallways. This year, even attempting that would have been ludicrous.
I think we've reached the end of the 'big launch' that we've come to expect from SXSW. Why? Four reasons:
- No one cares about your product. They can't. There are just too many things vying for that conference goer's attention to do so (a hangover likely one of them.) You must build your audience before you get here. SXSW is not the place to do it, at least not anymore.
- It's not cheap. Not even close. And not just from a money perspective, but from a production one. The 'get it out there fast and iterate' model that fueled social media's growth is dangerous here. At SXSW in years past, maybe you had a second chance if your app or product crashed or went down. If your service showed a Fail Whale at SXSW now? Better dust off that resume and pray you did not use your house as collateral.
- We love failure that's not our own. Oh, just admit it. Watching anything go down in flames is proven Twitter Platinum. [insert required Charlie Sheen reference].
- Tech has become secondary. Sure, there's sessions dedicated to the internals of some tech, but it's nowhere near the same environment it was when Twitter launched. When web devs and tech bloggers attended in droves, had intimate gatherings at local bars, they understood your pain. Now when it's packed with social media marketers, they don't. Period.
"So it sounds like it sucks. Was it that bad?"
Nope, quite the opposite. It reinforced the fact that social is now part of everything, all the time, and that it's not as free or cheap as everyone once thought. For example, I don't think I heard one reference to using free tools or how you can "fire your PR and marketing teams and just use Twitter!" like I did in years past. Social and the app culture have grown up, gone mainstream, and been overwhelmingly adopted by non-tech companies. Even 2 years ago I was laughed at by execs when telling them how important Facebook would be to most businesses within a year. No one laughs about that anymore. And SXSW was proof-positive of how straight-faced they are about it now. And how willing they are to open their wallets to prove it.
If Content is King, then SXSW needs a Royal Kick in the...
Sessions were lackluster. Again. The panel, speaker, and content selection process of SXSW is broken. When you actually have panels dedicated to how the conference is beginning to suck you know there's trouble in paradise. Some were comically basic, had nearly their entire audiences leave before they were over, or were plagued by terrible presentation skills. Listen SXSW: we're not amateurs anymore. We get the basics now. We need thought leaders who know what they are doing, can prove it, can actually present to an audience, and are most importantly willing to share it. In tons of different disciplines. This is the big leagues, people. Act like it and prepare ahead of time.
The magic of SXSW is about attending sessions outside your comfort zone and drawing insight from all of them, from people that know (and can present) their content -- cold. My friend Lisa Dilg of PerkettPR suggested all session pitches be accompanied by a short video showing the host's presentation skills. I'm all for it. I'd rather watch a 30-second clip of that and vote on not having to waste my time crossing the city to watch you suck.
Some were amazing, however.
Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Body presentation had it all: gore, transformation, inspiration (I bought the book while listening to him), and stone-cold facts. It was quick and to the point. I was impressed more by his answers to the follow-up questions than the session itself. He knew what he was talking about and had the data to prove it.
Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) explained the birth of his character and how "he was never seen in public out of character... until one day..." that had everyone laughing. He drove home how serendipity and hard work play a huge role in what all of us do with our lives and how redemption is there for everyone who choses to work hard enough to achieve it.
Holy spread all over Austin, Batman!
This year there were sessions literally all over the city. Absolutely everywhere. Check this out. Travel time now became part of the equation when deciding what to attend and when. Sure, we all do that for parties - but for content? There were just too many people and not enough transportation between venues. I heard tons of people griping about arriving at their destination only to be greeted with a line to get in to an already-full session. But, the good thing is my quads are now ripped from all that walking.
There used to be a feeling of comraderie with fellow orange badge-holders that was missing this year. Everyone seemed to be rushing to get somewhere rather than just letting SXSW come to them.
Parties were another sore spot for many. Comically long lines were the norm this year and there was little chance of getting in unless you'd registered ahead of time or were on a VIP list. The Mashable party - a SXSW staple - turned away many who treated it in previous years as a must-attend event. Even though it stretched for two days. It suffered because of it. We're all part of the problem here: many of us are used to, and expect, VIP access to events. Here we're all in one spot at once and there's only so much room. One big name and entourage hits a party and the place is overrun in minutes.This has always been an issue with SXSW. It's just getting worse the bigger it gets because seemingly every venue is hosting something so it's harder to pop in to a place and have a beer if you're sick of trying to beat the line to the next venue.
I do have to give props to Frog Design for their attempt to address this at the opening night party: the venue they used was gigantic. But the lines still stretched 3 city blocks to get in.
Hey, Let's Have a Trade Show the Day Everyone Leaves!
I'm all ears to find a reason behind this decision. The Trade Show opened on Monday, the second-to-last day of SXSW Interactive. And it runs through Thursday of this week during the Music portion of the festival. Call me silly, but I can't imagine a lot of music fans lining up for demos. It was also a very eclectic mix of exhibitors. Countries like Germany had big spreads. I stood there for a good 3 minutes (decades in trade show browsing time) trying to figure out why they were there. Many of the other booths w Terrible demos, bad messaging, bored sales people. Last year you could not walk 30 feet without hitting another tech startup with something interesting; this year I found myself wandering aimlessly through the aisles.
Some did it right, HeyWire (full disclosure, a client) was one of the few exhibitors that let me know what they did with a glance and gave me a compelling reason to use their . gapingvoid studios - the brainchild of Miami artist Hugh Macleod - had me literally browsing through limited edition prints for nearly an hour. And laughing my ass off most of that time at their uncanny deadpan insights.
...And Why I'll Go Again Next Year
Why? It's undoubtedly the best event I've attended for networking and meeting people I'd never have the chance to.