First timer SXSW advice from the Pros

Dear SXSW first time attendee,

I’m so excited for you. The South by Southwest Interactive conference held in Austin, Texas each year can truly offer unforgettable experiences and mind-expanding takeaways. But the truth is, it can also be a big, expensive let down — if you allow it to be.

In full disclosure, this will be my eighth year in a row in attendance. I’ve presented three times and written for the SXSW World Magazine. I’m a fan, and although many have attended longer than my piddly eight years, I’ve seen a lot change since that first time. Back in 2007, real-time micromedia and location-based networking had not been adopted. Affordable smart phones did not exist. Affordable tablet computers did not exist. Facebook’s omnipresence existed only in its founder’s head. Social media – and thus social media marketing — at least as we know it today, did not exist.

Back then, personal 3D printing was laughable, personal drones were Orwellian, and Google Glass was unthinkable.
Many attendees brought laptops, although tablets were the most popular form of note taking device five years ago… that is, paper tablets that required an innovative device called a “pen” for operation. I attended panels on blogs, corporate blogs, the future of journalism and geocaching that year. I listened and took paper notes. I don’t recall us attendees spending the entire day and evening staring down at our phones reading email and social streaming updates from those back home.

Dan Rather (yes, Dan Rather) gave a meandering keynote that frustrated an audience who didn’t yet know the joy of live-tweeting criticisms while a speaker pours their heart out on stage. Instead, we listened diligently and kvetched in the hallways post-speech. Face to face. And without a permanent record of our snark logged in the time machine known as the Internet.

Corporate sponsors were numerous, but most confined their event activation to flyers in the swag bag and a 12’x20′ booth on the trade show floor. Of the marketing community, I was one of only a few asking marketing strategy questions at the end of tech-related panels. I was a fish out of water, and loved it. And I bring up how different it was eight years ago compared to now to purposefully help paint a picture of how differently the world will be eight years from today.

This is the event to get a sneak peek of that future reality.
Today Fast Company published an amazing in-depth oral history of the conference that does a tremendous job of teeing up the story and legacy of the conference on interactive, marketing and our social fabric as facilitated through technology. The event has come a long way and its leaders, speakers and connections have impacted many aspects of business, marketing and culture. That’s why 30,000 will show up this year.

And as the fanboy here, I’m quick to share that the conference has had a huge impact on my career, too. At a panel in 2008, I was an eyewitness and participant in something new we started calling a “digital backchannel” spurned by this new thing called Twitter. Wired, Robert Scoble and others linked to my post as an example of new communication possibilities through mobile and short-messaging. This is one example, and with more than 200 SXSW-tagged posts between my music blog, this blog and a now-dormant agency blog, there are too many to list.

My primary takeaway of SXSW 2013 last March was a focus on human + tech experience over social:

Social media is no longer an emerging trend. Facebook turns 10 years old next month. 10. Twitter is 7. Foursquare is almost 5. Social media is a normal method of communication and engagement in 2014. Media that is social is now mainstream, and therefore we marketers need to be thinking about what’s next, how and why… Technology empowers us and betters our lives in so many ways other than Facebook Likes and mommy blog posts (don’t get me wrong, I love a good mommy blog post). It was fantastic to see true innovation this year — ambient umbrellas that forecast the weather, replication technology to make copies of physical objects, affordable flying machines (drones), and more.

These are the kinds of experiences I take back to my work, my clients, my family each year, and — frankly — these experiences at SXSW greatly impacted my role (and responsibility!) in helping interactive and technology change the future.

In the coming week you will read articles, posts and tweets about how the SXSW conference has jumped the shark.
You will hear from long-time attendees that the event is too bulky and rife with corporate sponsorships to foster genuine connections and collaboration like the good old days. You will hear from people (who have always secretly wanted to attend but cannot) that the event is an overblown “geek spring break” where no real work happens. And you will likely perceive an expectation for the launch of the “next Twitter” or “new Foursquare,” and then share in the disappointment that there is no single killer app or platform that creates a global shockwave this March.

There is an underlying truth to all of this criticism, but I will point out many of these take-downs are coming from people who watch primetime television, listen to Top 40 music, and are probably wearing a shirt with a corporate logo on it right this very minute. Valid criticism from people looking to criticize.

Mason Cooley once said, “Hypocrisy is the outside of cynicism,” and so I have this to say in response: like everything you experience in life, you will get out what you put into it.

The conference is indeed gigantic, however. It’s easy to get overwhelmed, overstimulated and experience the fear of missing out (that dreaded FOMO). I encourage you to jump in, go with the flow, and approach the conference with a strategy for getting the most out of the experience as possible.

Here’s my advice for first-time SXSW attendees:

  • Seek out the smartest, weirdest, most disruptive topics and experiences you could not get back home.
  • Do not go to any client panels unless they are your clients and you absolutely have to.
  • Do not go to any panels that are essentially case studies you could read about online.
  • Do not go to any panels where you yourself could be on the panel.
  • Do not to go any panels with a primetime television or social media celebrity.
  • If a panel sucks, get up and walk out immediately.
  • Again, seek out the smartest, weirdest, most disruptive topics and experiences you could not get back home.
  • Go to everything early and expect to wait in line.
  • Bring battery backups for your devices.
  • Eat a big breakfast.
  • Wear comfortable walking shoes.
  • Bring a jacket that can tolerate rain.
  • Network like crazy. Don’t hang out with your crew from back home. Meet and befriend creatives, innovators and disrupters.
  • Spend a day when you get home processing, blogging and sharing your takeaways (and formally connecting with the amazing people you met).

If you aren’t willing to put in the effort for an amazing experience, stay home next year and complain about it on the internet with everyone else. And maybe rethink your career track.


PS: I also asked a few of my friends for their advice lists. See below!

Angie Thompson‘s Advice for SXSW Newbies:

  • If you’re not one of the lucky people to get a hotel downtown, expect that when you leave your hotel in the morning, you won’t return until the wee hours of the next. Pack and dress accordingly.
  • Login to your SXSW profile before you leave town and upload a photo for your badge. This saves a lot of time when you get down there.
  • Don’t bother taking notes during a session – you won’t be able to truly absorb it. Just jot down a few notes immediately after it ends of things you found particularly interesting and you can always search the panel hashtag afterward for all of the key quotes/points.
  • Always have a granola bar and bottle of water on hand.
  • Don’t try to squeeze too much in and don’t overplan your day. It will always change.
  • Have a back-up for any session you’re attending so you have the flexibility to leave if the first session sucks and still make use of your time.
  • Always take note of where a session is located ahead of time – some venues are a ways away and involves transportation.
  • If there is a session you absolutely want to see – go early. Chances are others are thinking the same thing.
  • FOMO is counter-productive and being consumed with it guarantees you’ll miss out.
  • Austin is amazing – take some time to get to know the city.
  • If you liked your experience at SXSW, make sure to book your hotel for next year before you leave town.

Lauren Melcher‘s Advice for SXSW Newbies:

  • Get your badge as early as possible. Airport –> hotel bag drop –> convention center badge line –> tacos/BBQ.
  • Don’t rely on conference wi-fi. Bring your own hotspot or plan to use 3G/4G devices.
  • Take lots of pictures.
  • Scour the schedule in advance and star sessions with your sxsocial account. It will sync with the mobile app, which is useful for tracking upcoming sessions, learning when something’s been canceled, and mapping travel routes.
  • Catch a Chevy (client).
  • Expect to be frustrated by the distance between sessions you want to attend. It happens.
  • Go to hands-on exhibits and off-schedule events, like the Maker Tent and Mobile Saturday by Urban Airship.
  • Register for every party and event that you hear about, so that you have options for what’s nearby when your plans inevitably change.
  • Book readings are a great place to meet specific speakers if that’s your thing – short, smaller groups, easy access.
  • Try the captain crunch-covered chicken with cole slaw in bacon waffle cone at the convention center. It’s a favorite.

Nathan T. Wright‘s Advice for SXSW Newbies:

  • Wear comfortable walking shoes: You’re going to walk everywhere: to hotels, parties, restaurants, and at least 163 loops through the Austin Convention Center, which is the size of a small city. Be good to your feet. I’m a fan of Sauconys.
  • Avoid your hometown crew: You’ll likely feel the urge to pal around with people you already know from back home. Resist this. Meet hundreds of new people instead. Divide, conquer, and report back to them later. You’ll see your local friends when you’re back home.
  • Don’t cave to elitism: Like every industry, the tech world has its share of pseudo-celebrities, primadonnas and toolbags with an inflated sense of worth. Don’t play their game. Don’t fawn over them. Don’t worry about what parties they’re at. If the line to a venue is too long, ditch it and find another one.
  • Replace one meal each day with a CLIF bar: I eat one of these each day for breakfast at SXSW. CLIF bars are packed with protein and will hold you over until lunch. Food expenses add up fast, and you can save $100-$120 by eating these instead.
  • Charge your immune system: You’re going to shake a lot of hands, swap a lot of germs, drink a lot of free drinks and ultimately get very little sleep. This is a recipe for an immune system crash on your way home (known as “South by Scurvy“.) Start boosting your immune system early and sustain it throughout the trip. Vitamin C has always worked well for me.
  • Prepare for phone death: Your smartphone battery will die quicker that you think. To keep it alive, invest in an external battery pack or snap-on case. I just picked up a Mophie Juice Pack Air for my iPhone.
  • Don’t live-tweet everything: Resist the urge to live-tweet every sentence from every panel and keynote. This will kill your phone (and you). Broadcast a few choice nuggets here and there, plus your own perspective. That’s enough.
  • Stay flexible: There are an infinite number of parties and panels to attend. Unless you’ve figured out how to clone yourself, there’s no way you can take it all in. RSVP to as many parties as you want, triple-book your panels at, then decide what you want to do at the last minute.
  • Don’t listen to “veterans” like myself: Find your own fun. Make your own path. Most of all, have a blast.

Steffen Ryan‘s Advice for SXSW Newbies

  • Use the SXSW app to save panels you want to go to, so you’re working with a shortlist. And don’t think too far ahead. I often refer to my shortlist during the session I’m at and make the call for the session I want to attend next.
  • Think about not only what you’d want to see but also what you can realistically make it to in the moment. Be okay with plans changing. Sometimes the deciding factor in which sessions you choose will be how close in proximity the next one is to where you currently are, because they reach capacity quickly.
  • Don’t try to cram in too many sessions. Although you’d be able to attend a session every hour, this would be draining and you could instead spend an hour in between walking around the open air experiences or simply just making it over to a prime session that’s a little farther away — or having a conversation with someone.
  • Take notes in an email to yourself during each session and push send before you walk out. Otherwise you’ll kick yourself trying to remember a key quote from a presenter. With Gmail you have a fully searchable archive.
  • Don’t worry about going to all the “can’t miss” parties. Yes, there are free tacos and Lone Stars, but is two hours in line really worth it? Instead go check out some of the great music Austin has to offer.
  • Be as minimal as possible, but know that what you leave with in the morning is likely what you’ll have with you all day, and probably into the evening. It’s nice to have a backpack but you might get sick of bumping into people with it at crowded events. (This doesn’t apply as much to those staying at hotels right downtown, though, so make friends with one of those people and maybe they’ll let you store your bag in their room…).
  • A light sweatshirt comes in surprisingly handy.
  • Try to attend wildly different sessions. Don’t worry if something doesn’t seem directly relevant to your job as long as it’s interesting. It’s better to be inspired than underwhelmed, and usually there will be something that turns out to be relevant after all.

Lastly, here are some of my favorite posts from my years at SXSW:

Okay, so what are your best tips and pieces of advice?

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