Hating on SXSW has become a major tech industry pastime, with floods of Twitter and LinkedIn users claiming the Interactive festival is irrelevant.
But SXSW Interactive hasn’t jumped the shark—it’s evolved into something larger. And stranger.
The festival is no longer the tech industry’s senior prom, where giants like Twitter and Facebook launch their newest and greatest products. But marketers can still fully embrace the SXSW of 2019 and beyond as a giant, sprawling beast focused around massive, high-budget experiential campaigns—like this year’s Westworld and Ready Player One activations. And these days, formal talks and panels are arranged almost a year in advance by large public relations agencies leveraging SXSW’s PanelPicker to maximum advantage.
Here are three major tips to keep in mind as you approach SXSW planning for next year:
Embrace The Size
SXSW has steadily grown in size and scale, and SXSW Interactive most of all. There were approximately 71,000 formal attendees for last year’s Interactive, Film, and Music conferences. That same year, there were more than 5000 speakers and 2000 conference sessions. By comparison, there were approximately 32,000 registrants at SXSW Interactive and Film in 2011.
While SXSW does not release detailed metrics on the number of Interactive visitors, anecdotal evidence suggests that SXSW Interactive has become the main economic driver for the conference. Marketers hoping to reach everyone and everybody who doesn’t have a hot pop culture property like Westworld will be out of luck; instead, reach out to specific audiences (such as food, gaming, and healthcare—all of which had separate speaking tracks) and tailor audiences to them.
Strategize For PanelPicker
PanelPicker is SXSW’s official user-generated panel selection event. According to SXSW, they will begin accepting proposals for 2019 sessions in late June of 2018, with the process expiring in mid-July. Nearly 4,400 proposals were received in 2017 for approximately 2000 slots in 2018.
Votes take place in a weighted process where the public has a 30 percent vote, SXSW’s advisory board has 40 percent, and SXSW’s employee has 30 percent.
In the last few years, panels assembled either by high-profile public figures or by large public relations agencies have had a disproportionate share of the final panels selected. Because large PR firms and celebrities can leverage high numbers of voting employees or social media followers, this gives them a possibly unfair advantage in maximizing their PanelPicker odds.
To maximize your odds of success with PanelPicker, make sure your panel has a unique topic, a unique argument for voters, and enough differentiating points to make sure your panel will receive votes from audience members interested in a potential topic.
Fewer Activations, More Small Dinners
The days of SXSW as a public debut for marquee startups like Twitter, Foursquare and Meerkat are long over. While Rainey Street businesses were eagerly rented out for activations by Twitter, Pinterest and others, and downtown Austin bars made plenty of cash by rebranding themselves as SXSW tech or entertainment clients, SXSW’s no longer the place for brands to make a big public splash.
Instead, strategize around having investors, media, analysts and other influencers all in one place. Putting together a group dinner for 15-30 handpicked attendees may well have a better return on income than a splashy public event that gets lost in a sea of endless dance parties.
In the future, Austin will still remain a sea of branded wristbands every March. But the demographics are shifting: As SXSW becomes less startup-centered and more a San Diego ComicCon-style celebration of the intersection between technology, marketing and pop culture, attendees are more likely to be affiliated with larger companies or to come from less entrepreneurial or engineering backgrounds.