Each March, the city of Austin is invaded by brands, artists, celebrities, policymakers and the masses looking to inspire and be inspired during SXSW. Brands, both emerging and established, leverage SXSW as a kind of cultural currency, creating experiences, stunts and events across the city to engage, connect and build buzz.
It’s an investment to pop up at SXSW with an experience, so if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to do it right. Brands that show up year after year in the same vein are doing themselves a disservice, as it’s critical to lead with a clever approach and relevance that help you stand out from the crowd. Take The Handmaid’s Tale’s tastefully provocative stunts, which garnered attention through red smock-clad women across town, or art installations defiantly promoting resistance that are equal parts eye-catching, identifiable and connected to larger conversations.
Marketers can create an experience that delivers at SXSW with a few simple strategies.
Be helpful and solve a need
SXSW provides opportunities for free swag at every turn, but the things that stand out the most are the ones that enhance the attendee experience. Austin is warm in March and crowded with folks walking around for hours on end. People get thirsty, feet get tired, transportation can be hard to find. Create an experience that addresses these needs, providing food and beverages (extra points if it’s trendy) or lounge space for people to sit down and recharge their phones. It doesn’t need to be over the top; you just need to show attendees you understand them.
If it’s not Instagrammable, it didn’t happen
Some brands are rethinking their influencer marketing strategy (thanks, Fyre Festival), but social media still matters, and creating an experience that people want to share with their networks on a micro-level is imperative. You can do this through impactful environmental design, a high-profile appearance or a personalized or custom experience that drives connection and conversation. Pandora brought its Music Genome Project to SXSW and used facial recognition to assess moods and music taste, creating personalized sounds for attendees. The experience doesn’t have to be far-reaching; it must allow users to interact with the brand in a way they’ve never done before and then compel them to share with their friends.
Make it multi-sensory
Neuroscience tells us that engaging multiple senses makes memories sharper, more evocative and, most importantly, emotional. Budweiser was at the forefront of this with their Beer Garage a few years ago where guests could experience their rich history and brewing process through an immersive virtual reality experience that included the actual sounds of the brewhouse and the unmistakable aroma of hops. HBO famously recreated the town of Sweetwater last year and invited attendees into an immersive Westworld experience where they could interact with actors playing hosts and uncover clues about the upcoming season. A superfan couple even hosted their real-life wedding on the set.
Invest in pre-event promotion
SXSW is huge, it’s crowded, and it can be hard to navigate for newbies. The festival does a great job with apps to see what’s going on, and a wealth of third-party tools are popping up to help attendees find and keep track of the parties they want to attend. But with so much going on, you either need to plan early enough to find yourself in a prime location with naturally high passerby traffic or you need to tell people about what you’re doing before they arrive. Reach beyond your brand channels to get on official lists and in round-ups by SXSW regulars to help spread the word.
No matter the activation, if a brand follows these cardinal rules, attendees will walk away with a memorable experience worth sharing. To truly be successful, you must start from a place of clearly defined goals. Seeking buzz and conversation? Meaningful connections that drive affinity? Products in hands or downloads? SXSW is only worth your time and precious marketing dollars if you’re clear on what you need it to achieve for your brand.