SXSW 2013 – Should You Be There?

Since interactive was added to the South by Southwest line up in 1994, SXSWi has ballooned from a smaller, more intimate gathering of a few hundred people in the 90s to over 30,000 attendees today.

With the few days of torrential rain to kick it off, SXSWi 2012 was more Glastonbury than the usual geekfest at first glance. And the question was overheard more than once: has this yearly mecca for discovery, learning and networking lost its edge? Will you be back next year?

Now the much needed days have passed since SXSWi to rest and digest, here are thoughts to help answer that question.

1. To make a splash at SXSW, efforts need to start well before Austin. Much talked about at SXSW this year were the ambient check-in apps such as Highlight, Banjo and Sonar. Highlight was the clear winner buzz-wise – as seen here in Mashable’s SXSW Start Ups leaderboard. They cleverly came out of beta before SXSW with a targeted influencer launch to make sure they hit pre-show prediction lists, so established a clear lead despite other competitors such as Sonar having been in-market longer.

2. The bar was set high for brands in 2012. American Express quite simply ruled the roost when it came to an integrated marketing effort at SXSW in 2012 (disclosure – this is an Ogilvy client, yet this is a personal opinion from an attendee’s perspective). From the launch of Sync.Tweet.Save – which went live with Austin-based offers – to the crowdsourced Jay-Z concert, with tickets to the show only available to American Express card holders, the effort was seamless. Short of actually setting fire to something large next year, this is how to make an impact. We can all learn from it.

3. The start-up scene is still alive, just lives in a more structured way at the event. 2012 saw the launch of the Start Up Village which was new at the Hilton, where the SXSW Accelerator is hosted. The Accelerator brings a group of start ups (full list here) together to present to a panel of judges after a contest over three days (finalists that stood out include Umbel, whodini and Hoot.me). VCs at SXSW are also a great source of leads, yet just bumping into these guys without a set meeting has become harder. So make the connections now.

4. The networking is unparalleled. It requires some organization and an avoidance of pack mentality. SXSW is still the only place that houses the industry’s brightest over five days. It is also the time to cement the relationships held in the interactive space in real life. Each attendee is the only one with the power to make that happen for themselves. Now the event is the size it is, this means using good old fashioned meeting scheduling for the most part. Serendipitous meetings will still happen – the richest interactions are often with people met when waiting in line – but these occur most frequently when not in a large group of coworkers or friends.

5. For those wanting a well-structured conference with a set schedule, this has never been the right event. South By has always been a huge melting point of people, technology, parties and promotions. The best laid plans will always invariably change (see rain, above). If that is not the right type of event for you, your company or brand and customers then this is not the right show – even more so now it is larger. Flexibility is key – from being able to work at bustling co-working spaces such as Grind’s Austin outhouse without a qualm, or understand the fickle nature of audiences invited to a company event that only stay for an hour.

 6. Not all panels are created equal. There are some stellar panelists and speakers at the event – the Onion’s Barantude Thurston and Frank Abagnale were two highlights. Mo Krochmal of SMNNY storifies many of panels here and Ogilvy Notes captured stunning visual notes from key sessions as a good recap. Yet with any the event the size that SXSW is now, there will inevitably be some not so stellar ones. If you are pitching a panel for next year as your ticket in, make sure it is more than just a snappy headline.

All these points in mind, will I be raising my hand to attend in 2013?

Heck yes. Now I have had chance to fully digest all I saw, did, learned and reconnect with the people I met, 2013 still remains a must.

Will I see you there?