South by South West (SXSW) is the most significant event of the US digital and interactive conference circuit. It attracts A-List bloggers, the biggest and best tech companies, ambitious start-ups and thousands and thousands of the brightest minds in the online community to Austin, Texas for an amazing week of information, presentations and evening events.
SXSW is an extremely stimulating and almost overwhelming experience. Thousands of people constantly move around the Austin Convention Centre heading to the various panels and presentations. Multiple events are held simultaneously, making it hard to choose which to attend. Many attendees attempt to check out more than one session in an hour, while others follow one event on Twitter whilst attending another.
For many, the greatest value of SXSW is meeting and talking with others they have only previously known online, or holding impromptu doorway meet-ups with so many keen minds.
Then there are the parties. SXSW has multiple official party events every night. These are usually packed and difficult gain access to. At the same time there are unofficial parties and impromptu gatherings in bars and restaurants across Austin. And this is a town with A LOT of great bars and restaurants.
One now famous impromptu event occurred on the Friday night when Gary Vaynerchuk decided to create a rush on a small local bar. The bar had about 10 people in it until Vaynerchuk put a message out on Twitter get down there. Within 20 minutes the place was jam-packed and the poor staff were struggling to keep up. The mezzanine section became dangerously crowded and it was noted that if some disaster struck at that time half of the blogosphere would disappear.
- Macs seemed to outnumber PC’s by about 8 to 1. Apple seem to be the preferred computer of the digerati.
- iPhones also seemed to be in favour, outnumbering Blackberrys clearly. Nothing else came close to these two mobiles.
- Twitter is heavily entrenched amongst the digerati. In fact, Twitter is now an important part of how SXSW runs. Organisers and participants use Twitter actively to communicate and cover the event. If you want to know just about anything from this year’s events and panels just search the #SXSW tag on Twitter. From there you will notice more # tags for each panel or discussion.
- The New v Traditional media debate isn’t really on the radar here. It seems to be accepted that change has happened in the US and the debate has ended (compared to Australia where it still rages on). The fact that yet another venerable newspaper, Seattle Post Intelligencer, ceased printing during SXSW was further confirmation of the changing of the guard. SPI will move to an online only format with only a few staff to remain.
- Not all the panels and sessions are high-quality. Several talked in very general terms that failed to inform a very educated audience. Others were guilty of using their session as more of a promotion for their company and didn’t address the topic the audience was there to hear.
- Explaining and justifying social media to business is a challenge o the experts as much as it is for the attendees. The first panel I attended aimed to address this topic but failed to really present any convincing conclusions despite the quality of some of the panel, including the very impressive Peter Kim. I managed to have a drink afterward with panel member Rebecca Caroe (from England) which was much more enlightening.
- Briefly meeting Alex Bogusky of hot US ad shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky after his presentation on How to Bring Bike Sharing to the USA.
- Tony Hsieh from Zappos.com did a great presentation on how Zappos has fostered an amazing customer-focussed culture, which has resulted in a vastly different business model. At a time when economies are crumbling due to corporate greed and short-term thinking, the Zappos message is great medicine.
- Building Your Brand with Social Media assembled a quality panel including Chris Brogan, Loic LeMeur & CC Chapman. These guys had some wonderful insight and conducted a very entertaining discussion.
- Gary Vaynerchuk’s hi-energy Q&A session around Video Blogging. Gary’s main message was to stick to your strengths and concentrate on the content rather than the technology. For example, Gary’s not a great writer but he’s an incredible talker so video blogging is the best option for him. It took him a long time to build his content, improve it and grow audience. He felt there was no easy way to achieve the sort of success he has enjoyed outside of pure energy and hard work. His final message was to be authentic in everything you publish.
- The SXSW Interactive trade show was eye-opening too. Some fantastic new ideas and companies were on display and I am sure I will be utilising many of what I saw in the future.
- Meeting bloggers and digerati who I have followed for several years was great. Gary Vaynerchuk, Guy Kawasaki, Loic Le Meur, Chris Brogan, Dave Armano, Peter Kim, Kevin Rose and Beth Harte were some I had time to chat to. But there were also plenty I missed. There’s just so much to do and see.
- New friendships and contacts. This could be the most valuable aspect of SXSW. Putting a face to a name. Making a real-life connection with some of the industry’s best and brightest was invaluable.
SXSW is a massive event. Its overwhelming and intimidating even to veterans. But its also a sensationally valuable experience.
I’m already planning for SXSW 2010.