SXSWi Recap March 16, 2012

Written by: Larry Weintraub
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If you ask me how SXSW Interactive (SXSWi) was this year, I’ll tell you it was fantastic and that I was personally inspired on multiple levels.  Yes it was crowded, I’m not sure the exact number but I heard tale of 20,000 plus attendees, and yes it rained for part of the time.  But SXSWi is all about what you make of it; I went with an open mind, a light agenda, and the desire to learn, and I had a blast.

To summarize SXSWi 2012 in just a few words, it was a place to get motivated for what’s next.  The sessions I attended and the people I met were all looking forward and not back. This year wasn’t so much about what the next big technology was, it was more about what the next big concepts are.  Concepts like The Future of Content, The Start Up Revolution, Storytelling, and Distinguishing Your Product.

Here is a (relatively) short recap of my trip to Austin (Sessions link to the audio when I could find them)…

About Austin / SXSWi

Inside ACC Day 1
  • Long Lines – It started a little rough, the line to get my badge stretched through the entire building.  Estimates were 2 – 3 hour wait time.  #humblebrag, I was able to sneak in with some friends who were sponsors, but I felt a little guilty about it.  This signaled that this year would be much more crowded than in year’s past and made me realize that if I wanted to see specific sessions or attend parties, I’d have to plan on getting there early.
  • Beyond ACC – A few years back the only place you would need to be during the day was the Austin Convention Center.  But now sessions are scattered amongst multiple hotels, bars, restaurants, and private homes.  You learn quickly that you just can’t go to everything and you have to plan your day around travel.  The upside is that Chevy provided free rides if you could “Catch a Chevy” or test drive one of their new cars.
  • Rain – For the first two days it rained hard.  It put a damper on the companies that had outdoor installations and it also made it challenging to get from place to place. The upside was that crowds weren’t too bad and Bing was offering up free food and drinks to lure you in to their soaked city.

Sessions

  • Lots of Sessions about “Me” – The first panel I attended was the CEO and founder of Thrillist talking about… well, Thrillist.  I also saw sessions where leaders from Google Plus, SCVNGR, Funny or Die, and Living Social talked about themselves.  There were quite a few of these, and some were better than others.  The best ones were where the speakers spoke about mistakes they made and gave insight into what was coming.
Kawasaki + Gundotra
  • Great session about “Me” – I watched the Fireside Chat between social media celebrity Guy Kawasaki and Google+ Plus mastermind Vic Gundotra.  Kawasaki literally grilled Gundotra about Google+ with questions like, “Why don’t you open your API already like your competition?,” “What are you doing about the SPAM issue?” and “Will we see advertising around everything we do in Google+?” I give Gundotra credit, he answered every question with articulate professionalism and he didn’t shy away from anything.  He took full responsibility for the API issue saying that his mission was to open it up by year’s end but that because of the Google ecosystem that includes search, Gmail, and Android, he needed it to be of the highest quality and he wasn’t willing to allow things to break all the time like they do on a certain other social network.  He claimed that they were hyper focused on the SPAM issue and pointed out that because of Gmail, they were the best at figuring this out.  And he stressed that while you will see advertising, because of the laser targeting capabilities that Google has, you should be seeing incredibly relevant advertising.  He also stressed that not everything will have advertising, he said that you should not expect to see ads when you open content like photos.  The main takeaway, and the most important point for marketers like myself was that Gundotra wanted everyone to stop thinking of Google+ as a social network and instead think of it as Google 2.0.  He said that for the first time, all Google products were working together including search, documents, email, social, and mobile.  This is just the start of a major renovation for Google, he said, and you will see a continuity like you’ve never seen before.
  • Great session about storytelling – I went to the session titled, “Does Your Product Have a Plot?” by R/GA’s David Womack.  A full house watched as Womack described the structure of a good story and how some brands have mastered the art of storytelling and how others have not.  I am a huge fan of storytelling and as Womack was talking I found myself scribbling thoughts on how to improve many of the projects I’m working on right now.
Tim O’Shaughnessy and Steve Case
  • Another great session about “me” (Part 1 – Steve Case) – My favorite session of all was the Fireside Chat between AOL founder Steve Case and LivingSocial CEO Tim O’Shaughnessy in a session called, “Tapping Into America’s Secret Sauce: Entrepreneurs.”  Both were there to promote their own initiatives but the insight that O’Shaughnessy gave about building his business and where it was going was truly enlightening.  Case promoted his political initiatives surrounding the Small Business / Start Up act which is culminating right now in the Senate.  He explained that 40 Million jobs in the US are attributed to small businesses and that we should be promoting growth in this sector vs. large businesses which ultimately don’t net a lot of new jobs, they just rise and fall and essentially stay even.  Case also spoke about the Sharing Economy and some of the investments he’s made in transportation (zipcar) and hospitality (Exclusive Resorts). He also referenced his appearance on the Colbert Report and how Colbert asked him about sharing toasters.  Additionally he discussed the idea of Crowdfunding concepts like Kickstarter and how the Start Up bill would allow this to happen on a grander scale and relieve some of the restrictions that currently prohibit companies from having more than 500 investors.
OgilvyNotes Interpretation
  • Another great session about “me” (Part 2 – Tim O’Shaughnessy) – Case admitted in full transparency that he was an investor in LivingSocial but then proceeded to ask some incredibly challenging questions of O’Shaughnessy like, “When will you go public?” and “Why did you partner with Amazon?”  O’Shaughnessy handled the tough questions well and consistently referred to Groupon without calling out their name.  He explained that the climate was not right to go public (Groupon!) but that it was a necessary step to compensate both investors and employees.  In reference to Amazon, he said that LivingSocial is a local company and Amazon is a massive national/global company and together they were ideal partners.  This is where it got interesting.  He explained that LivingSocial’s mission is to be the local company that powers businesses that have things to sell.  Meaning that LivingSocial was looking beyond just “deals” and finding ways to help small businesses grow through their platforms.  One example he had was that LivingSocial was helping restaurants create new businesses such as cooking schools in their less busy hours.  He said that the “deal” business was just one step in their plans.  When Case asked “What mistake did you make that you could advise others to avoid?” O’Shaughnessy replied, “Move faster.”  He explained that LivingSocial started as a Facebook-based advertising-based business that was earning $1 Million a month and then scrapped that business for the “deal” business.  He said that was a hard thing to do both for his employees and investors but that in hindsight he wished he’d done it faster.  He said that 3 months could have made all the difference (alluding to the fact that Groupon got the jump on them).  The final point that resonated with me was when O’Shaughnessy explained that they realized the impact of Facebook ads before anyone else.  While other web-based companies were using mostly Google search, they realized that their audience was responding tremendously to Facebook ads.  He told the audience to pay attention to new forms of advertising and marketing that others haven’t figured out yet.

Conversations

Aside from the great sessions I attended, I received tremendous inspiration from the countless conversations I had primarily with people I was meeting for the first time or hadn’t seen in quite a while.  The topics that motivated me the most revolved around:

  • Content – It was clear from all the major media companies and countless start ups that content geared for online and mobile viewing is being produced at a rapid rate.  I have a personal point of view that within the next two years, once the connection between our mobile devices and our televisions becomes seamless, there will be an explosion of content.  We will go from 1,000 channels on our television to hundreds of thousands; that we’ll see far fewer shows that reach 5 million people and more that reach 10,000.  But those shows will be targeted.  We’ll see shows about home improvement, gardening, tax preparation, education… you name it.  There will be seemingly endless niche-based programming that will not have major ratings, but it will be appealing to advertisers and sponsors because of it’s hyper targeting.
  • Innovation – Riffing off of something that Tim O’Shaughnessy said in his panel, true innovation is not about improving another company’s product by 10%, it is about complete reinvention.  There was a lot of bouncing of ideas with people and improving each others’ concepts.

Sponsors 

Lots of them.  It is really hard to stand out at SXSW because there is a ton of competitive noise and very little space to properly brand yourself. That said, there were a few standouts:

  • Chevy – You could not miss Chevy at SXSW.  Their cars were everywhere as was their signage.  As previously mentioned, they provided tremendous utility with their “Catch a Chevy” program which helped people get from place to place – a significant help with the bad weather, the spread out sessions/parties, and a huge lack of hotel rooms.
  • Bing – Great setup with food, drinks, and games.  Bummer on the rain and the technology breakdown of trying to register on non-working laptops was comical given the Microsoft sponsorship.
  • Nike – Amazing installation for people that owned the Nike Fuel band.  Block long exercise court lined with massive digital walls.
  • The Sponsored Cafes – CNN and Fast Company took over restaurants and offered free food, drinks, entertainment, and co-sponsored interactions from the likes of 3M, Samsung, and Kind.

Parties

Also lots of them.  The best thing I experienced this year was seeing music at some of these parties.  I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to avoid music to just focus on tech, but sometimes  you just can’t get away from your true love.  And this year I ran smack into a couple of amazing bands that ended up being highlights of my SXSWi experience.

Ghostland Observatory
  • Friday night I was introduced to Ghostland Observatory at the Start Up America Partnership (Steve Case’s cause) party and was literally blown away.  I haven’t been this excited after seeing a band since the first time I saw Nine Inch Nails play.  Turns out I’ve been living under a rock and these guys are already huge, but thanks to @Brad Alesi at The Marketing Arm for introducing me to these guys.
  • Speaking of Brad Alesi, he also introduced me to Green River Ordinance at the AT&T w/ Jason Falls party.  Again, I didn’t go expecting to see a band, just to hang with some AT&T folks and to have great hot dogs @Frank, but turns out I got treated to a great band, who like Ghostland has been around for quite a while and has a huge following.  I must be living under a rock.  But glad I climbed out to see these bands.

In conclusion, I had a great trip, saw some amazing sessions, ate like a fool, rocked out, and came back invigorated!

Here are some other reports back from SXSW that will give  you some additional perspectives: