South By Southwest, or #SouthBy for short, is a mashup of industry festivals—film, music, interactive, gaming, comedy, and education—all of which take place in and around the Austin Convention Center over a 10-day span in March.
The first SouthBy was held in March of 1987. Now, 32 years in, both SouthBy and Austin are huge. The city’s population was 461,000 people in 1987 (the year I graduated from college). Today, it’s double that, and the metro area is close to two million.
The festival in 1987 had just 150 registrants but saw attendance swell to 700+ on the first day. Today, there are more than 70,000 badge holders busy hearing and giving talks, performing, and showcasing their work. Additionally, another quarter million people visit Austin during SouthBy for the concerts, parties, free drinks, and more. Some locals leave town to avoid the extra crowds and traffic, others join the festivities.
Free Programming, a.k.a. Brand Activations, Are Everywhere
Badges, which guarantee admission to panels, films, and music showcases, cost more than a thousand dollars. That’s fine for people who will return to work and submit an expense report. For the bootstrapped entrepreneur, college student, or hourly wage worker, a SouthBy badge is not affordable. Thankfully, there is so much sponsored content offered to attendees for free that you don’t need a badge to take part in SouthBy.
Brands bought into SouthBy years ago, and the scene is saturated today. It’s not about a stuffed schwag bag—it’s about an entire section of downtown Austin transformed into brand popups. Starting last Friday, I visited CasaMexico, Inc’s Founders House, Michigan House, and Land O’ Lakes’ Copernicus Project. And these four are just a
Visibility Is A Problem And An Opportunity
Not every marketer is on board. Colleen DeCourcy, chief creative officer of Wieden + Kennedy, for one, said it’s “too hard to find people and difficult to attract a sizeable audience in the chaos” and that SXSW “feels very disorganized” overall. That’s true if you want it to be.
One of the great things about “free SouthBy” is the lack of scale. As a participant, I want intimacy, not scale. I want small rooms with good acoustics and lighting. None of that is available to me inside the Convention Center. For that, you need to poke around and discover what’s out there. That’s how I found off-SouthBy activations like Casa Mexico and Michigan House.
Alicia Hatch, CMO at Deloitte Digital, is on the love it page. She told Adweek, “SXSW is a unique environment because it combines technology, innovation, culture and creativity like nowhere else, which makes it a powerful platform for both activating big ideas and creating cultural moments that people will talk about for years to come.”
She didn’t say that those big ideas are easy to come by. When you’re launching a new product like Twitter, then yes, by all means, make a loud splash in