SXSW Interactive Is A Crazy Mess—Here’s How To Make Sense Of It

South By Southwest Interactive TipsYes, I’m one of the thousands of people in Austin this week for South by Southwest Interactive. This is my third year attending the conference. I came in 2011 at the suggestion of a mentor, and in 2012 after being selected to lead a core conversation with Deb Maue. I took last year off, and I wasn’t sure I’d be back. My prior SXSW experiences could be summarized as follows.

How Not To Do SXSW

  • Nights one and two: ALL THE PARTIES! Meet a bunch of people, drink too much at open bar, not remember who I connected with the next day.
  • Wake up too late for the first round of panels on Friday and Saturday. Stumble from panel to panel for the rest of the day, getting some value. Tweet a lot.
  • Over correct for my earlier mistakes and go to bed by 10pm on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. Wake up to all the tweets from the people that had fun until the wee hours of the morning.
  • Start feeling like going to panels are a chore, but keep doing it to get my money’s worth.
  • Leave on Wednesday, feeling like I had been in Austin FOREVER.

This year is going to be different. I’ve been planning out my strategy in some shape or form since last summer. I’m writing this in hopes that first-time attendees can learn from my mistakes and make the most of the event.

An Intentional Approach to SXSW

Submit a session proposal about a relevant topic you’re passionate about.

I’m very excited to once again lead a core conversation. This year it’s Solo Social: What To Do When You’re On Your Own. I love the core conversation format. Instead of being a sage on the stage, the presenter is expected to lead a guided conversation. It’s like a roundtable without the table. I lead conversations that will gather a group of like-minded individuals to talk through common challenges. This will be valuable for them, but will also benefit me because every person in that room will know my name, and hopefully we’ll have a chance to connect during or after the event. I don’t have to prepare a massive slide deck and rehearse a 45-minute presentation. All that’s required to get a core conversation proposal accepted is to propose a topic that is likely to draw an audience and provide value.

Outcome: Guaranteed networking and name recognition.

There are other very important reasons to submit a session proposal. First, all presenters receive a free gold badge (interactive + film) for the event. An interactive badge can run anywhere from $800-$1300, depending on when you purchase it. Given the additional cost of flights and a long hotel stay, this can make attendance cost-prohibitive, especially if you’re self-financing (which I did the last two years). Second, presenters get access to a priority list of hotel rooms. The price is the same as regular attendees, but it’s possible to reserve a hotel within walking distance of the convention center if you make your arrangements soon after accepted proposals are announced. These hotels will have been sold out to the general public for months. This year I’m staying at a hotel near the Texas State Capitol with free breakfast for less than $200 per night. I consider that a win.

Outcome: Reduced expenses and increased convenience.

Determine Your Attendance Objectives

Hopefully you’ve spent some time thinking about what you want to accomplish if you’re planning to spend thousands of dollars to hop a nerd bird to Austin. SXSW Interactive is a gigantic event that now appeals to developers, marketers, entrepreneurs, technologist, designers, journalists, and innovators in all professions. It’s likely almost anyone could make a purposeful trip to SXSW if they spend time thinking about it. My objectives for this year are:

  1. Gain a better understanding of the enterprise social media management and analytics market.
  2. Continue to learn about of customer engagement and social media—how are people measuring it, what business outcomes have they demonstrated?
  3. Increase the number of corporate social media strategists in my professional network.
  4. Dive into data to better understand how I can leverage social data for market research.

Outcome: Focus on parts of the event that matter to you.

Build Your Schedule To Achieve Your Objectives

To do this well, you’ll need to start early. I’d suggest starting to create your schedule 3-4 weeks prior to the event. That will give you ample time to review the schedule for panels that appeal to you, complete required sign-ups, and start to research unofficial events that you may want to attend. The final outcome will look different for everyone, but for me it means:

  • Attend fewer panels
  • Sign up for hosted events
  • Participate in the mentor program
  • Register for a workshop
  • Schedule purposeful time to explore the exhibits and tradeshow

Attend Fewer Panels

I expect to attend about 10 panels this week, which is less than half the amount I could attend if I would hit every open slot while I’m in town. Instead, I’m going to panels that help me achieve my objectives (and seeing Neil deGrasse Tyson, because I’d just be silly not to). I’m mostly attending panels in blocks of two or three, but never more than that. Spending all day in panels makes me feel like a zombie and is a sure-fire way to make me want to avoid going out after dinner.

Outcome: Minimize time in chairs and lines; maximize value.

Sign Up For Hosted Events

I’ve also RSVP’d for two hosted events, the Social Business Shakeup breakfast on Friday, and the Data and Analytics Brunch on Saturday. At least one of these events was fully booked before I left the office on Wednesday, so prior planning was definitely necessary. You’ll find some of these listed on the official SXSW schedule with “RSVP” required. Others are unofficial and can be found in your favorite vendors’ email newsletters or by watching the #sxsw and #sxswi conversation on Twitter. I expect a sales pitch at both of these events, but I’m truly interested in the services provided, and definitely looking forward to chatting with fellow attendees.

Outcome: Gather with like-minded attendees in an intimate environment

Participate In The Mentor Program

I signed up for the mentor program the first day it was available. On Sunday I’m meeting with three accomplished female leaders in the social media space—one at a large auto manufacturer, another at a well-known software provider, and another who started her own social analytics agency after completing her Ph.D. I have only seven precious minutes with each of these women, but I’ve researched their backgrounds and thought about what I’ll ask them in advance. I’ve even reached out and had some initial conversations with one mentor, who’s offered to review my resume in advance of our meeting. I’m so thankful SXSW is offering this service; I think young and mid-career professionals would be foolish not to take advantage of it.

Outcome: Get personal mentoring and make valuable professional connections.

Register For A Workshop

A new SXSW feature this year is the workshop session format. Workshops are a 2.5 hour focused, hands-on session. While the cost is included in your badge, you need to register early (I registered about a month ago, I believe). I’ll be attending Begin at the End: Content Planning for Insights on Saturday.

Outcome: Dive into a topic and get to know attendees through interactive activities.

Schedule Time To Explore Exhibits & The Trade Show

Finally, I made sure to schedule a large block of time to explore the exhibits and tradeshow. I want to see what vendors are represented, learn about the new things happening in social media for the enterprise, and—of course—grab some swag. I’m doing this on Sunday after my core conversation. In fact, I’m not even attending any panels on Sunday and I think it has potential to be the most valuable day of my trip.

Outcome: Stay up-to-date on industry trends.

Seek Out Comfortable Social Interactions

I <gasp> might not go to any parties this week. I’m an introvert through and through, and will only hit up a party if a small group of friends is attending with me. I do, however, have informal meet ups and coffee dates planned. I’m also considering attending a group workout, and perhaps going for a run with a friend I met at a previous SXSW. You may not see me tweeting from the Snoop Dog concert, but I’ll likely have some great conversations with new friends over pints of craft beer each night. Don’t feel like you have to go to parties if it’s not your scene. If it is, have a blast—but be prepared to wait in line.

Outcome: Expand your network

Don’t Stay Longer Than Necessary

After attending this and many other conferences over the last few years, I’ve found that it’s much preferable to feel like you have to leave too soon than to realize you’ve stayed too long. SXSW Interactive officially runs from Thursday – Tuesday. I’ve found that staying for the entire day on Tuesday feels sort of like you’ve gotten stuck in a ghost town. The crowd actually starts to thin out on Monday. Will you miss something if you arrive late or leave early? Yes. Will you have a better overall experience if you leave while you’re inspired rather than tired? Absolutely. There’s a Tuesday afternoon workshop about social listening that I’m really bummed to miss, but I’ll contact the presenters next week and ask if they’ll share their materials. And remember—most sessions are recorded, so you can go back in a few weeks and listen to the panels that you really didn’t want to miss.

Outcome: Preserve your mental health.

How Do You Do SXSW?

Hopefully this information helps you plan your experience, but I’d love to hear what you are thinking about before, during, and after your SXSW visit. Share your thoughts in the comments, please!


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