SXSW: The March Interactive Festival for Communication Pros
What started out as a small local music festival in Austin, Texas has become one of the largest assemblies for interactive communications, music and film. Known as South by Southwest (SXSW), the Texas festival runs for nine days in March, with more than 70,000 in attendance.
SXSW started in 1986 by 31-year-old Austin native Roland Swenson, who was once a proofreader for a weekly newspaper. Since then, the annual festival has grown into one of the most influential events for tech brands, film producers and musicians. According to a USA Today article, SXSW has helped to connect Internet startups like Twitter, Foursquare and Jobhuk.com with more than $500 million in funding and campaigns. Additionally, the festival has assisted in jumpstarting the successful careers of filmmakers like Lena Dunham and contributes about $200 million a year to the local economy.
“The reason we exist today is because we launched at SXSW,” chief executive and founder of Jobhuk.com, Praneeth Patlola, told USA Today. “It’s the best platform in the country for tech startups.”
So what gives SXSW its immense popularity? It’s the only major conference to offer three themes in one place – interactive media, film and music. The interactive portion, which kicks off the first five days of SXSW, covers anything from tech brands to digital content to social media channels (SXSW was once the major platform for the launch of Twitter and Foursquare Inc.). The film and music sectors, featured during the last four days, have become a showcase for names big and small, including Prince and New York filmmaker Gary Hustwit.
USA Today also revealed that special guests are also expected to make appearances, including Chelsea Clinton and Edward Snowden. The hotly anticipated iTunes Festival will make its USA debut at SXSW with headliners Coldplay and Willie Nelson.
Now 57, Swenson told USA Today that he never expected SWSX to reach the height that it has. When SXSW started, it was difficult to get the festival off the ground. Swenson says they struggled to get more than 300 attendees the first few years.
“If we could get 150 people to attend, we’d be happy,” Swenson said. “Then it just kept growing.”
Given that SWSX has become an outlet of wide outreach and inspiration for communications efforts, it’s important for established and growing brands to become a part of the SXSW discussion. Of course, not everyone can attend. That’s why this week, PR News posted an article of the “Top 10 SXSW Hashtags PR Pros Should Follow” as part of an effort to keep communications professionals an active part of the discussion.
Some of the essential hashtags for communicators include:
• #SXBigData – Algorithms and online behavior
• #DigiCronut – The Cronut: the nexus between content and commerce
• #NewDigAge – Technology’s impact on society
• #DoBrands – Do brands fit in with wearable computing?
• #compelling – Images in the age of social media
• #SMData – Social media analytics
• #reachhack – Digital marketing
• #youth – Teens on social media
• #pitchfix – Pitching and visual storytelling
• #SMFuture – Exploring the future of social media
Professionals who’ve attended the SXSW have emphasized the importance of participating simply because the festival has encouraged people to talk to each other and that benefits their brand by learning about others. In a competitive market where it’s tough for start-ups to stand out, SXSW provides the perfect opportunity to help them get above the fold.
“There’s that cross-pollination between people making the content and people who are distributing that content and getting it out via the Web,” filmmaker Gary Hustwit told USA Today. “It’s a great chance for all these worlds to come together.”
While attending the festival has become a popular option for many companies, a few startups like WhatsApp and Secret Inc., both rising messaging applications, have chosen not to attend this year. According to an article by The Wall Street Journal, this behavior may be a “backlash” of sorts to the mainstream popularity of the SXSW Interactive portion.
Evelyn M. Rusli and Douglas MacMillan of The Wall Street Journal wrote,
“The shift to more intimate social interaction is also reflected in the latest generation of mobile apps. Unlike the early social-media stars that helped propel SXSW’s popularity, this year’s crop is more about sharing private moments with close friends than broadcasting to the world.”
How can gatherings like SXSW help to further the future of public relations and digital media?