I first attended South by Southwest Interactive in 2010 on a mission to understand the SXSW cultural experience. Over the years I’ve learned that SXSW Interactive’s #1 draw is no longer about being there for the launch of the next Twitter. Today’s SXSWi gets more attention than ever before and there are more conversations happening online than a person can handle. This creates a lot of noise and makes it harder to break away from the pack, especially for startups. As MRY's CMO David Berkowitz told me: "It is now practically obligatory for tech startups to attend SXSW, which makes it almost impossible to stand out. Meanwhile, there hasn't been a billion-dollar smash hit to break through at SXSW since Twitter, and that happened in 2007." With so many startups, tech darlings and big brands trying to capture and make news during one of the noisiest weeks of the year, it takes a lot of creativity and money to shine.
While SXSW has a trade show and a plethora of panels to attend, it’s not an industry event where brands show up to reveal new products. SXSW was never intended to be an industry event like CES or MWC. It has always been a celebration: first for music, then for film and multimedia in 1994. Since then, the festival has allowed us to celebrate, debate, observe, and explore innovative digital expressions, from web startups and digital technologies to the rise of social media, apps, and a plethora of memes.
In the context of SXSWi’s present and past, there are four main reasons why it’s a must-experience for those looking to innovate in tech and marketing:
1. It's a Cultural Convergence Unlike Any Other
With 50,000 people flocking to Austin, TX, SXSW has become a destination unlike any other, where people are expecting to find something unique each and every day. Austin, which is known for its "Keep Austin Weird" unofficial slogan, is the perfect place for entertaining the soul and educating the mind.
At SXSW, it's OK to be an experiential nerd. It's nearly expected to eat 3D printed food, stay at AirBnB houses, complain about (illegal) Ubers and their surge pricing, and carry around a ridiculous amount of devices, batteries and chargers. It's OK to do business over Tex Mex, open up about your innermost “worldchanging” ideas, discuss the shortcomings of wearable devices, and debate about the future of the "Internet of Things." There’s something interesting happening at all times, and often you find yourself torn, as there are more options than time in the day.
2. It's a Destination Full of Branded Utility
Startups and big brands are always encouraged to make something people want. Sometimes they launch products as Nike did with the FuelBand in 2012, and sometimes they surprise everyone as Apple did with a pop-up store in 2011. While many companies have shown up at SXSW over the years to clutter it with unwanted promotional materials, the most savvy aware of an important fact: If you don't enhance someone's life in a creative and valuable way at SXSW, no one will care. The most loved brands are the ones that add value to the overall festival experience.
From the Samsung Blogger Lounge to GM’s “Catch a Chevy” program, marketing has become both memorable and utilitarian at South By. Branded utility has become an essential way for companies to make themselves known and understood, and SXSW is a place unlike any other to see innovative ways in which brands are getting closer to consumers through meaningful experiences.
3. It's a Gathering Place for Non-Stop Learning
When I first attended SXSW in 2010, I spent most of my time planning and attending panels. However, in recent years, I have not attended more than a handful of panels in total. I've found that I learn a lot spending time with friends, colleagues, peers, and strangers. Whether in a branded lounge, a convention center hallway, a dinner, or a pedicab, every SXSW moment is an interesting one.
4. Above All, There's a Sense of Community
What makes SXSW so attractive is that people of different walks of life - including brilliant minds across industries - gather in one place to celebrate the things and subcultures they are passionate about, and everyone has some form of bond that connects them. You see successful startup founders, multinational executives, VCs, artists, students, and young professionals who barely made it to Austin. Regardless of the objective, there is a genuine desire to connect with like-minded people and break down barriers that exist outside SXSW. SXSW is exclusive to those who experience it, but it is also inclusive to anyone who wants to join in.
For me, SXSW is an essential part of my annual creative process, as it allows me to see what matters right now, helps me uncover what is missing in the worlds of technology and marketing, and allows me to do so with a group of people I respect and admire. SXSW will always need more innovative minds enhancing and augmenting the experience. The days of focusing on breakout apps like Dodgeball, Twitter, Foursquare, GroupMe and Highlight are long gone, but that doesn’t mean innovation at SXSW is gone with them. Innovation doesn’t necessarily need to launch at SXSW for sparks of innovative thinking to happen and become valuable for the rest of the year.
SXSW is a haven for innovators. If your mind isn't racing with innovative ideas while you're at SXSW, you're likely doing it wrong. And, if you've never been there, there's always next year.
Esteban Contreras is the author of “Social State,” Director of Strategy at Sprinklr, and founder of Social Nerdia Consulting. Follow him on Twitter @socialnerdia.