This is the first year I haven’t attended SXSW in seven years. I’ve attended badged, unbadged as a speaker and as an attendee. This year I was in both the fortunate and unfortunate position of being swamped with work. I was very tempted when a big brand offered me a free ticket and transportation to and from the event but at the end of the day I had to do what was right for my clients, my business and myself. So I stayed home.
That all said it has been interesting to watch SXSW via social media and news outlets and to get a sense of how those on the edge or the outside of the tech/social marketing industry view it. This post is in part inspired by an article I read on CNET and posted about on Facebook. As I mentioned in my Facebook post I was surprised by the tone of the article. The writer seemed to be taken aback that SXSW has become increasingly a brand showcase. Obviously they haven’t been attending SXSW very long.
I, along with many others have berated SXSW organizers in the past for letting the conference become too big and too dominated by brands. This year I have changed my position. What I believe SXSW has become is a Brand version of CES. It isn’t limited to tech brands – Pepsi are a major presence, CNN have grown their presence each year, even Oreo’s all had a major presence this year. So why fight this direction. Rather I’d like to see SXSW actually embrace it. Every industry has it’s showcase. The automotive industry has events like the International Motor shows that take place in LA, Detroit, Dallas, Geneva, London and countless other cities. CES is the consumer electronics industry’s show case. Why not marketing?
SXSW could easily be repositioned as that, an opportunity for the smartest of the smart digital marketers to show off what they have done and what they are planning to do in the coming months. Along side this the other changes I would make would be to scrap the sessions. Yes I know that is sacrilege, after all what is SXSW without content – well actually SXSW without content is pretty much what I have already described, a digital marketing show case. So why do we need the content? A lot of the content is repetitive, derivative and some just ridiculous.
Rather I’d like to see a series of education sessions around the city paid and produced by Brands. This allows for a much needed and greater level of transparency than we currently get in sessions. When you attend a session, unless the speakers are completely honest, you have no idea who paid for them to be there, who they are promoting (either overtly or covertly) and what their angle is. If you were to attend a session or group of sessions clearly sponsored and produced by a Brand then you know, going into it, that the speakers have some form of association with the brand – and that, by the way, is totally ok. As a professional speaker I get paid to speak at events which means someone somewhere paid my speaker fee, travel and accommodation. Usually that is an event sponsor, which means at the very least I am going to give them a thank you from the podium.
In the format I am proposing the audience already knows the connection so there is no wondering. You can pull the curtain aside and simply enjoy the content. What is more, there would be a direct measure for brands in terms of ROI at SXSW. Instead of simply counting the number of people who stopped by the booth and took some of the swag, butts on seats and the ability to follow up with those people is much more rewarding.
So what do you think? Is this a model of SXSW you would attend?