SXSW 2011: Strong on Networking; Less on Content

I just arrived home from South by Southwest Interactive after six days down in Austin, Texas. Given that my voice has pretty much deserted me after numerous days trying to have conversations in overly noisy places, I thought I’d get some of my thoughts on the conference down on “paper” for you.

Networking Mecca

SXSW really is one of the key networking opportunities for people in the social space, and as attendee numbers continue to rise (more on that shortly, the opportunities are ever-increasing.

Yes, there are lots of parties at SXSW, but the people who get the most out of the event are those who use those events as a springboard for smaller, more focused conversations with other people.

While SXSW feels like a giant reunion to me, I tried to push myself out of my comfort zone and meet new people.This resulted in me meeting and begin to get to know people I’ve wanted to hang out with for a long time like Lionel MenchacaSusan BeebeChuck HemannLisa Grimm (way too much laughing ensued there), Aaron Stroud, Eric Schwartzman and Chris Baccus.

However, by forcing myself to meet new people, I was also able to enjoy serendipitous meetings with folks like Kendall AlimentRoger Dooley (neuro-marketing – fascinating), Patrick O’KeefeEric Kim (check out Twylah – it’s very interesting), Avesta Rasouli (founder of Coloft), Christel van der Book (Flipboard) and Andrew D’Souza (Top Prospect, a social recruiting site).

Foo Fighers show at SXSWTips:

  1. Don’t just hang out with people you already know. If you spend the whole time with people you could meet any day of the week normally, you’re missing out.
  2. Book meetings with people you want to meet well in advance. Breakfasts are often best, as days can get hectic and plans for lunch and dinner often change constantly.
  3. Look beyond the big parties. Sure, the big parties can be fun (the surprise Foo Fighters show was a massive highlight for me personally) but don’t spend all of your time at them. Grab a few people, grab dinner and get to know them better.

Size isn’t everything

I heard from a few sources that SXSW this year was about 30 per cent bigger than in recent years. This year it felt too big, with sessions spread throughout the city which provided a disincentive to attend. I think event organizers should consider whether bigger is always better, or whether they should cap the event size to prevent degradation of the event.

Content varies in quality

While SXSW, to me, is primarily about the people, the panels do still provide the main reason that people attend most conferences. Sadly, thanks to the panel picker system – which I think is a broken process that leads to catchy titles and popular people winning the day over interesting sessions – the quality is hit-or-miss at SXSW.

I went to some interesting sessions (Gary Vaynerchuk was again a SXSW highlight, while Angela LoSasso (disclosure: client), Adam Lavelle and Siobhan Quinn did a great panel on real-time marketing) but avoided many others. I’m glad I did, as I heard from many people that they fell more into the “miss” category, chiefly at the hands of moderators failing to keep topics on-track.

The session situation needs to be addressed. Too many people seem to submit panels just so they can get free conference passes, then fail to prepare anything of value to audiences. It must be near-impossible to coordinate so many sessions, but when the sessions at a conference become a laughing stock, there’s an issue that needs addressing.


  1. Plan-out your conference schedule ahead of time, so you don’t have to spend time poring over the conference program and missing out on other opportunities when you’re there.
  2. Focus on quality over quantity. Don’t just follow the cool titles; look for people who have expertise in spaces relevant to you and make an effort to attend those sessions.
  3. Decide on the topics you want to learn more about (for me: location-based marketing, influencer identification and marketing in streams – three key trends this year) and focus on them, both in the sessions and outside.
  4. Don’t feel that you always have to be in sessions. As I mentioned above, take advantage of the opportunity to get out, meet new people and make new connections.

No breakout companies this year

Twitter got its big break-through at SXSW in 2007. Foursquare arguably did so a couple of years later. At this point, though, the noise from companies vying for attention is so overwhelming that it’s very hard to break through and get significant attention without either extreme creativity or extreme spending.

This year I didn’t see any big winners, but I would agree with Jeremiah that “intimacy” was prevalent as a trend, with group SMS companies like Beluga and GroupMe getting attention from the early adopters.

Conclusion: Worth it

While I have serious concerns about the ever-expanding size and hit-or-miss quality of the sessions, for me the pros of SXSW still outweigh the cons. The blogger lounge alone provided significant value for me through the opportunity to meet and learn from new people. Meanwhile,  the smaller meetings and get-togethers provided the opportunity for me to get to know key people in the space and get in-depth on topics that are most relevant to me.

While it’s easy to get swept away in the hype, if you resist the crowds and clear your own path, SXSW is still a must-attend event in the social space.

Dave Fleet
Managing Director and Head of Global Digital Crisis at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.