It’s been a week since I returned from SxSW. Just about the right amount of time for my thoughts on the experience to gel. This was my first SxSW festival and so I don’t have any other personal data points, but I’m a veteran of conferences, seminars, forums, you name it, for more years than I care to detail. SxSW has a reputation for music and film. When I would mention to co-workers that I was attending they all thought I was going for music. But of course my interest is on interactive. The festival organizers reported this was the first year interactive attendees eclipsed music registrants. 12,000 paid to get into the interactive track, a 40% increase. Needless to say my expectations for SxSW were quite high as I touched down in Austin.
What I liked about SxSW
- Meeting and being around smart, energetic, creative people from all over the world. It turned out that the people you met outside the events was the most valuable part and is what makes the festival stand out.
- The scale of SxSW means you have great networking opportunities. I was able to make some very interesting connections and reconnections. Got to catch-up with old friends, turned some Twitter-acquired relationships into real world friends, and had a couple of promising business development meetings. Also met some Social Media celebrities.
- The venue. Austin is a great place to hold SxSW. Fantastic weather, terrific citizens and delicious food. Oh yeah, gotta love the bike cabs.
- Thoughtful keynotes by some heavy hitters who freely shared their ideas and inspired the crowd.
- A wide variety of event formats. Panels, solo presentations and workshops allowed you to experience the content the way it made sense to you.
- The battle between the location-aware services, Foursquare and the local favorite Gowalla. I’m a Foursquare user and unscientific research at the festival tells me it’s leading, but Gowalla is a close second. Sorry Loopt, you’re not even in the game right now. SxSW is probably the only opportunity, for a while, that will award you a Super Swarm badge for checking-in with at least 250 people. “Nailed it.”
My frustrations about SxSW
- Too many things going on at the same time.
- Event titles were vague, couldn’t easily determine themes or content value.
- Had to dig to see who were on the panels or giving presentations.
- Many events, especially the panels were beginner level.
- They weren’t prepared for the higher volumes. Long lines everywhere. When you really wanted to attend a session you had to get there early or risk being shut out. That meant you had to miss something else while listening to the AV guys say, check, check, check.
- Not enough practical ideas or advice that you could use immediately.
- Last minute additions that were easily missed. I didn’t know Clay Shirky was on a panel until I saw the live Twitter stream from the actual session. Yes it was mostly my fault, but come on guys.
- The most compelling keynotes or events were spread out over several days (business people can’t be out that long).
In short, it’s time for SxSW to raise the bar. I would say only 10% of the scheduled events I attended were valuable. I know it’s tough to shape content for such a diverse group, but they may be underestimating the wisdom of the crowd. Don’t talk down. Time to make the badge people reach for the new ideas and strategies. Bring on new topics and voices, add projects and case studies, cut the number of sessions and raise the price of admission. It’s a festival, and they do a great job at keeping that sentiment, but there has got to be a way to bridge the festival with the formal in a manner that doesn’t kill the fun and excitement that is SxSW.
My photostream from the festival is on flickr here. Please contribute your thoughts on SxSW here.