SXSW: The good, the bad, and the ugly

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grumpy-cat-sxsw

“Grumpy Cat” was a star attraction at SXSW

After a two year hiatus, I returned to South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Interactive for the 2013 event. As in the past, next week we’ll start a series of posts sharing session insights and key takeaways so you can benefit from the experience, without the big price tag! But first, I wanted to respond to the many independent consultants who’ve asked me if they “should” go to SXSW.There are still good experiences to be had at SXSW, but you have to work to find the ROI. While in the past you could fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and have a successful event, that really doesn’t work anymore.

Once upon a time, South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Interactive was about ideas and connections. Today, it’s about corporations and commerce. For those of us who loved the conference of old, it’s hard to adjust and not draw (unfair?) comparisons.

Here’s my personal assessment of the good, the bad, and the ugly:

The Good

Nate Silver

Nate Silver

At one time, SXSW was the one place you could see almost everyone actively working in digital PR and social media. While that’s no longer the case (I knew I was in trouble when I was standing among eight of the top speakers at the Solo PR Summit, and none of them were going), there’s still a tremendous critical mass of interesting folks on site. Many who plan ahead manage to successfully connect with those they most want to see. And not everything has changed for the worse – the always popular Allhat party this year raised donations for the Horseboy Foundation, which brings the healing effects of horses to autism families.

Though there weren’t any breakout launches at this year’s event, SXSW remains a good place to learn about new technologies and see demonstrations of products you’ve heard about, but haven’t tried. This year, I heard the most excitement around 3D printing. Did you know there are “printers” that can make stuff out of plastic on demand – from jewelry to machine parts? Pretty cool.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the quality of the sessions I attended. Perhaps I’m getting better at picking which ones to go to, but I believe there’s truly a more professional approach to presenting at SXSW than in the past. Stay tuned for upcoming posts on some enlightening and thought-provoking sessions I attended.

The Bad
sxsw 2013 crowdThe crowds are out of control. While the content of sessions is better, they’re now spread out among different venues and often are closed to entry early, having reached capacity.

It’s not fun to ride a shuttle bus for 15 minutes to get to a venue 20 minutes early to see a session, and then get told its already over capacity, and oh, by the way, all the other sessions at that venue have reached capacity while you’re figuring this out, meaning you aren’t going to see diddly squat during that timeslot (yeah, that happened to me). I found it’s virtually impossible to see back-to-back sessions at SXSW, since by the time you get out of one and make it to the next (even if in the same venue), it’s reached capacity.

If I worked for a company that had paid my way, my expectations may have been a little lower. But as indie consultants, unless a client is footing the bill, an event like this is a significant investment for us. Full priced tickets to SXSW Interactive were over $1,000 – shouldn’t the organizers sell-out the event if there aren’t enough seats to accommodate attendees?

I also dislike that the growing emphasis on big brands means people who once had interesting conversations with you are now running off to demonstrate their company’s products, or to help host an invite-only agency reception for the high-flying brands they’d like to land as new business. This is one of the perhaps unfair comparisons to years past – the increased business-focus of attendees may be good for SXSW overall, but it’s a damper on the grassroots, community feel the event once had.

SXSW now reminds me a lot of COMDEX – a once must-attend tech industry event that eventually collapsed under its own weight. SXSW organizers should be wary of COMDEX’s fate, or they are condemned to repeat it.

The ugly

cattle velvet rope3I didn’t actually see a velvet rope at SXSW, but figuratively they were everywhere. If you get excited by celebrities, cooler-than-thou hipsters, and working to be on the guest list of the best parties with all the right people (a la Studio 54), then you will love SXSW at night. Otherwise, get in line with the rest of the riff raff.

Yes, you may be able to get into the “hot” party (or any party, for that matter) if you have connections, but for indie consultants it’s getting harder. Without a big name agency or client brand behind you, your odds of being treated like a person of value at most of these events are slim to none.

I’ve always hated scenes like this (is there anything less cool than people trying to be cool?). On the plus side, you can learn a lot about folks you thought were your friends (“hey Mr. Aloof, I was nice to you when you were nobody, but good to know you’re better than me now”). Overall, it’s not my idea of a good time, but I still managed to squeeze in some fun with a few good folks.

Attend SXSW?
I don’t think SXSW is a must-attend for most independent consultants, but it’s hard to resist the siren song.  A few tips, if you decide to go in the future:

  • Register early to ensure you get a downtown hotel reservation.
  • Plan ahead and put feelers out to make sure you get notices of important events in advance
  • Consider venues when deciding which sessions to attend, and decide which are your highest priorities
  • Schedule who you’ll be meeting/when/where for social events beforehand, since the crowds have made logistics difficult
  • Most importantly… try to get a client to take you so they pay for it!

Did you go to SXSW? Why or why not? If you went, what was your experience and feedback? Let us know in the comments!

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  • mikeschaffer

    I skipped SXSW this year for a bunch of different reasons (new job, baby on the way). While I did miss catching up with friends, I felt a lot of the frustrations you outlined here building up in recent years.

    With upwards of 40,000 people ascending into a few blocks of downtown Austin, the human element of “why would I subject myself to this stress” starts to outweigh the benefits of being there, no?

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    The stress/benefit equation is a good way to look at it. Once it reaches a point where you spend more time trying to get where you’re going than you spend getting value, even die hard fans will think twice. It’s not there yet, but it’s close.

  • http://twitter.com/madamebelle Laura Bellinger

    Great post, Kellye! I still find SXSW helpful, but definitely agree that you have to plan well in advance and plot out your day, in order to not miss the sessions most important to you. So true what you said – that you have to arrive at sessions at least 1/2 hr in advance – 45 min to an hour even better, so you’re not able to attend tons of sessions.

  • http://twitter.com/barbaragiamanco Barb Giamanco

    Kellye, I always wondered about going and it certainly seems cool, but I’ve resisted because the clients that I want to land are likely not there. And, as you pointed out, it is a significant investment for anyone, but especially for a solo consultant or small business owner. I have to choose carefully the conferences I attend, and I need to be sure that I get the best financial and educational return possible.

    A couple of comments that struck me…

    “If my company had paid for me to go, I might have had lower expectations.” Really, why? If anything they should have even higher expectations. When I still worked in corporate and went to events, my bosses expected to see a return for their financial investment. I believe that should still be the case.

    You mentioned the capacity issue…yes, SHAME on the organizers for not cutting off registration to ensure that those that paid could attend the sessions they came to see. That suggests to me that the folks running SXSM take the money but don’t actually care if the people that paid get the value that they expect. To me, that’s short sighted thinking that will crash and burn their event over time.

    Finally, the parallel to Comdex is right on. In the early days of my corporate tech career, we HAD to be there, although I hated going after the first year. And, I will never forget the day when my employer, Microsoft said…we aren’t investing in that event any longer. To them, it was no longer worth it. SXSW beware!

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    Thanks – glad to hear you found your time there worthwhile!

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    Thanks, Barb. Regarding expectations, I was specifically referring to the ability to attend sessions, and the fact that many on the company dime are there to do other things — with session attendance as an afterthought. Thanks for the opp to clarify!

    Your point that “the folks running SXSW take the money, but don’t actually care if the people that paid get the value that they expect” is probably true. And that’s sad. Sorry to hear you’re a fellow former COMDEX refugee. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/MackCollier Mack Collier

    Hey Kellye! Was wondering what your take would be.

    I’ve been to SXSW three times. The first 2 times was in 2008 and 2009, and when I got home my thoughts were ‘wow it was awesome to meet so many amazing people, but damn that was expensive!’.

    I didn’t go back in 2010 because of the expense and when I went back in 2011 I decided that if I was going to go, that I *had* to get some business from the trip. So I spent weeks setting up meetings either with current or potential clients, or people that I wanted to meet either for my book interviews, or in some other way that I thought could help me down the road. The point was, I treated it as an investment that I had to get a return on. And I did, the 2011 trip make me enough business to cover all three trips and then some.

    But I haven’t been back since in great part because in 2011 I could see what you mentioned, that it was getting just too damned big. And like you, I saw that many of the ‘big names’ in the social media and digital marketing spaces aren’t going.

    The fun times are easy to find, but you have to work to find the money. If you can put in the time and energy to make the connections, SXSW *may* be worth your time. But I think it’s simply gotten too big, I doubt I will ever go back.

  • http://twitter.com/KellyeCrane Kellye Crane

    Thanks, Mack! I did manage to achieve my ROI goals for going to the event, but it was very difficult to do so (I still have the blisters on my heels to prove it!). I’m thinking in 2014 I could probably achieve the same results by attending 2-3 different events, for the same cost, and have a better overall experience. But SXSW will always have a special place in many hearts, so they could always turn it around. I plan to stay tuned!

  • @cmpr

    I have never seriously considered going and your well written blog post cements that decision. Thanks!

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