How to Make the Most of SXSW’s Activations and Networking Opportunities

Navigating the overwhelming amount of panels and people

For both seasoned pros and newcomers, it's hard to know where to even start at SXSW. - Credit by SXSW
Headshot of Ben Plomion

SXSW Conference is a pay-to-play experience for marketers making the trip. But not all attendees are there to play. They’re there, forking over significant time and money, because they expect a return: personal and brand exposure, industry insights, new connections and a glimpse of tomorrow’s technology.

But capturing those returns can be tricky. Amid the dizzying array of panels, pop-ups, parties and other attractions that deliver amusement, it’s not exactly obvious where or how to capitalize. Every year is different, but there are some broad strokes that uninitiated marketers can trace to make the most (and avoid the worst) of SXSW.

Run free

If what you do comes off as fake, there are plenty of more authentic brands for attendees to explore.

Marketers shouldn’t stay within the confines of SXSW proper. It’s not actually necessary to pay for festival badges to get many of its benefits. The official panels, which a lot of people plan their schedules around, can be interesting but are not essential. The companies and speakers appearing on panels can be self-promotional in ways that undermine their educational value. And there are many compelling open-to-the-public extracurricular events. These often draw attendance from the industry’s forward guard and feature some innovative brand experiences outside the walls of SXSW.

Learn

Brand experiences inside and outside the festival offer unique opportunities to study our industry’s cutting edge. Use them for inspiration. Panels, mentoring sessions and workshops can be informative, especially when they’re tackling hyper-specific topics. Marketers should also look for inspiration outside of the marketing/branding arenas of SXSW. Check out what creatives are doing in film and music. Introduce yourself to new technologies on hand that serve the creative industries. Marketing is becoming more data focused, but creativity is still marketing plutonium. Mine SXSW for that super fuel.

Express yourself 

In building a brand experience, the strategy could either be “go big” or “think small.” Technology allows so many immersive, interactive possibilities. The Gatorade Combine from 2017, where attendees ran an in-game simulation as a football quarterback, is a great example. You can also tease out a product or an idea that’s in development very subtly. Either way, stay hip to the most cutting-edge technology—like VR once was—and look to integrate it somehow.

One thing to keep in mind is that when it comes to swag, expectations are high. If it’s crap, it will end up in the crap bin. Simple, practical swag is best. A gamble on branded umbrellas will hit the jackpot if it rains. Before, during and even after SXSW, marketers should hype their brand’s participation on social media. Blast out photos and lock into trending hashtags as well. But above all, be authentic. If what you do comes off as fake, there are plenty of more authentic brands for attendees to explore.

Connect

Networking opportunities are SXSW’s biggest value. Paradoxically, official festival events aren’t the best places to capitalize on those opportunities. Even if the people you want to meet are attending, speaking or presenting, what you really want is one-on-one time with them. Use the catalog to find contact information on people you want to talk to and email them directly. Try and set up coffee, drinks, lunch or dinner with them while you’re both in town. Very rarely will people say that they’re not interested.

That said, you can still also use the catalog to find out where people will be and what they’re discussing so you can “join the conversation,” either at an event or on social media where Twitter users will be setting up real-time hashtags. You can always be a part of the chatter remotely, but the person you want to know is not always the person you should know. So when you’re out at bars, clubs and restaurants—and you will be—don’t be shy. If you tap on a random shoulder, it’s probably attached to someone who is there to network, just like you. And they may just turn out to be the influencer that you didn’t know you needed to know.

If SXSW sounds like fun, that’s because it is. It can be a little too much fun, in fact. So here’s a final bit of wisdom: Go easy on the partying. It’s not Coachella. Don’t wear your feathered headdress, and steer clear of the midday tequila shots. You’re there for business, and you’ll actually get a lot of it done if you keep your wits about you.

This story first appeared in the March 4, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Ben Plomion is chief growth officer of computer vision and digital innovation firm GumGum.