South by Southwest: must-attend event or marketing fail?

Attending conferences and networking with potential clients and like-minded people is a part of any job, regardless of the industry. Maybe you’re a comic book buff who sees Comic-Con as your big “must-attend” event (Batman costume optional), or maybe you love fashion and it’s Toronto Fashion Week that makes it into your calendar.


When it comes to technology and startups, there are a few events that I attend on a regular basis. There were the Sprout Up events I organized at Sprouter, which brought out over 400 entrepreneurs on a monthly basis (if you ever attended one you know I have an affinity for bad jokes). Now events like mesh, mesh marketing, GrowConf, and Startup Festival are the most popular events for entrepreneurs and small business junkies across the country.

But there’s really only one event that matters on a global level: South by Southwest (SXSW). The massive film, music, and interactive (technology) conference happens every March, and brings thousands of wannabe Mark Zuckerbergs and budding Michael Arringtons to Austin, TX for several days of panels, keynote sessions, breakout sessions, and more importantly, informal networking events.

I’ve attended SXSW Interactive for the past five years, and there have been many notable moments – seeing Biz Stone talk about Twitter’s growth; being interviewed by tech evangelist Robert Scoble; seeing The Roots perform at Samsung’s party last year (tech related? No. Cool? Yes), and of course indulging in some of Austin’s famous Tex-Mex cuisine.

As I’ve written in the past, it can be hard to make a splash at SXSW and get what you want out of the conference. Unless you have a million-dollar marketing budget, your t-shirt, giveaway, or laptop sticker will likely get lost in the shuffle (there are exceptions to that rule: see the Hootsuite #HootBus). And good luck navigating the cavernous convention centre to get to the session you want to see on time (double points if you get there and it’s already at capacity). If you have a wishlist of five people you want to meet, the chances of you running into them at the conference are about as slim as you getting a hotel room within a 10-minute walk of the convention centre.

But despite the fact that the conference grows exponentially every year, causing logistical challenges and making it harder to stand out, it’s still the best way to take the pulse of the technology industry. Companies like Twitter, Foursquare, and Highlight have all launched at the conference, and every year journalists speculate about what will emerge as the biggest trend of SXSW. And regardless of whether you meet your tech idol, you’re guaranteed to have interesting conversations everywhere you go, from the official events to the food truck parties to your hotel’s lobby.

This year I’m applying to be a panel moderator at the conference, and I’d love your support – you can vote for the panel here (click the thumbs up in the left sidebar). I’ll be chatting with startups like Clarity, Top Hat Monocle about Vidyard about why U.S. investors need to pay attention to Canadian startups. Let me count the reasons…

Will I see you in Austin next year?

Erin is the Managing Director at 88 Creative. Follow her on Twitter @erinbury.