SXSW 2018 Planning for Brand Success


SXSW 2018 runs is March 9th - 18th this year. That’s less than 60 days away... 

Brands — if you haven’t already started SXSW 2018 planning, you’re already behind. Like WAYYY behind.

SXSW a catalyst for brands, technologists, entrepreneurs, musicians, creatives, investors, insiders, and so much more to connect in the same space and explore the trends of the year to come. With 99% of the speakers and showcases already announced, badgeholders are already shortlisting their top experiences by the dozen.

I've been an active participant in SXSW since 2007. My first experience was cutting limes and dragging out the trash in dirty nightclubs on 6th Street. Skip ahead to now— I'm an active advisory board member for the SXSW Accelerator Pitch Event, and an organizer of a noteworthy showcase during the music portion of the festival.

Over the past decade I've seen this multifaceted conference grow at an exponential rate. In 2007, SXSW for brands and tech companies were nowhere as big as they are today. That year, some cute bird company that posted 140 character status updates through the internet launched. It would be another two years until some a playground themed named app that texted your location would debut. Both found success in the nascent days of SXSW Interactive, and each saw critical acclaim and massive user growth as a result. Since then, SXSW draws some the biggest names in venture capital, technology, and business from around the world.

If you're point for events at your startup, technology or VC firm, you definitely should carve out a chunk of that marketing budget to get in front of some of the world's biggest thought leaders and influencers. It's a great way to expose your brand, gain traction, and build relationships with potential customers and evangelists while generating some great organic content to share online.

It's a trend that's been slowly building for the past few years:

Spending on sponsorship activations grew to an estimated $595 billion last year, and forecasting suggests that number could rise further in the coming years. If brand activation continues to be a relatively cost-effective way to create genuine relationships with consumers, it’s easy to see why digital marketing budgets are on the decline with regards to brand activation.

In short, the universe descends upon Austin Texas for 2 weeks in March, and with it comes tremendous opportunity those ready to invest their time and prepare for the ride.

In a recent Fireshow Podcast episode, APM friend, host Moby Hayat sat down with Hugh Forrest (Chief Programming Officer, SXSW), to learn more on how to make the most out of SXSW.

If you're an attendee or brand looking to maximize your impact while navigating this incredible sensory experience, here's the key things you should consider when preparing for March.

Have a Game Plan

This sounds like a no brainer, but most first-timers don't bother looking at the schedule or even download the SXSW Go App until they're already on the plane or picking up their badge. 

With something as rich and intense of a sensory experience as SXSW, if you just show up, it will be easy to get overwhelmed by the event right from the start. If you have a clear game plan of attack, it’s more likely you will have a positive experience as soon as you step foot off the plane.

Understanding the local geography is important to navigating venues and knowing how long it will take to get from A to B. Most events will be in walking distance, and the conference offers a variety of shuttle routes that will get you uptown, downtown, crosstown, and all in between very quickly. Downtown Austin is relatively simple to navigate, and the majority of official event activities will take place within the borders of IH 35 and Congress Avenue, 15th street and Cesar Chavez.  

If you have a friend or colleague that is native to the city, keep them close. They will be the Virgil-to-your-Dante as you descend into the madness that comes with a 400k+ attendee event. They'll be the best guide in getting you to the location you want to be for that talk you want to hear and meet that person you want to see.

Set Goals

Are you looking to get into new markets nationally and abroad?

Are you launching a product or looking to meet a potential VC to scale your business?

Setting clear, actionable goals prior to attending SXSW is critical in ensuring you're getting maximum value from that badge or event sponsorship. Use that schedule outline your day-to-day activities. Try not to over commit to events on opposite ends of the town.

After establishing that game plan, look to see which influencers and what brands will be at these events that you can network with. Do your research on the organizers and sponsors.  

According to Hugh, if you’re launching a product, it's best that you try to launch at least month prior to SXSW to identify and patch up last minute bugs. While legend goes Twitter debuted during SXSW 2007, in reality they actually launched the summer of 2006 and accumulated 20,0000 users before they ever set foot in Austin. After careful planning and a successful showing, that user base grew 3X by the final day.

They reasoned that while launching immediately at SXSW would gain massive amounts of traction, the traffic could be massive enough crash the app. Knowing this, they took the preparations necessary to onboard enough users without ruining the UX.

"[The] challenge for a startup, particularly if it's an app or product, is that if you launch at SXSW and are successful and get massive traffic, it could pull you down. If you launch and you're not quite as successful, you could be finished within two days because press has judged you, written you off already. So it's better to have a little bit of momentum heading into the event, leverage that momentum on site, push from there."
—Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer, SXSW

Be Flexible

Remember that first tip about establishing a game plan?

It's entirely possible you'll throw it out the window after your 3rd session on Day 2. That's because you discovered the coolest event that no one told you about around the corner.

Having a game plan is critical; it's also wise to abandon the plan if a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arises as you follow it. The whole point of having a plan is to set you up for serendipitous opportunities. Not having one and expecting serendipity to happen organically just doesn't work. This applies to events of any scale. Plan to be spontaneous.

The magic about SXSW that no other conference can match involves intimacy at scale. It's the secret sauce that so many companies and brands look to achieve by attending and sponsoring. You and thousands of other people all discover something at once, and share the moment together in a way that creates stories that last a lifetime.

No digital marketing campaign can hope to achieve the magic that SXSW offers attendees. After a few events under your belt, you'll start to establish relationships with people that make SXSW an annual ritual. You'll discover opportunities that make careers grow and brands flourish. While it's unlikely Mark Cuban is going to write you a check in the middle of JW Marriott lobby, you very well might run into one of his team members at a pop-up event around the corner that starts the conversation.

"One of our proudest moments at South by Southwest was in 2016 when President Obama spoke here...his chief digital officer was someone I met at SXSW ten years ago who was on the early Twitter team. We'd always kind of stayed in touch, it was again a small relationship made that paid off big time ten years later."

—Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer, SXSW

You don't need to have the marketing budget of Samsung to make a splash at SXSW. For those who want to crunch the numbers on their investment, social media data management firm Sprinklr has a nifty ROI calculator for all levels of participation. With some careful prep and a little bit of grit, you too can crush SXSW for your brand, product, or service. 

So go get that badge. Triple down on those business cards. Book your flights. Make sure you grab a hotel room or luxury hostel bed before they're all gone. Make SXSW your next favorite event of 2018.

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About the Author


Martin Martinez is the Founder and President of A-Player Media, Inc. He loves all things live music, events, and startups.

Follow with him on Twitter @martinmarteen

From the Blog

Martín Martinez

Founder & President, A-Player Media, Inc.
Lucid Dreamer | Navigator of Crowds