Conferences are a tricky thing. There are so many of them, especially in the fields of digital media, marketing, and advertising, that it’s hard to know which ones are worth it. But what about SXSW Interactive, which earlier this month unleashed a vast stream of tweets, articles, posts, press releases, and controversy, including the question of whether or not it even still matters and an example of a social good gone bad? If you’ve sat out SXSWi so far, you might be wondering if all the chatter means that it finally jumped the shark.
From my perspective, it’s more important than ever. I’m the head of a digital talent agency, so making connections and meeting innovative, creative people is extremely important to me. And I believe that it’s the people who set SXSW apart. SXSW is one of those conferences where the people in the audience are as good (if not better) than the speakers. And I think that’s the whole point.
Austin proper is a fabulous elixir for networking and making connections. Throughout this year’s festival, there were more than 500 parties designed to lubricate the business-development action that was happening all over town. Here’s why I think you should give it a shot next March if you haven’t already:
The thing that drives SXSWi is its nearly infinite sense of possibility. People here want the future to happen, and they’re voracious about finding out more about what it might be like. They like filling their brains with ideas from speakers, attendees, and anyone who will talk, including the pedicab guys. Everyone’s sharing and bouncing ideas off of one another.
Yes, it’s frenetic, but it’s also productive. Bigwig VCs get pitched at Fast Company after-parties. Newly minted CEOs get previously elusive time with the right reporters at the CNNGrill. Access is easy, and it doesn’t matter what level you are, people are there to do business, to be inspired, and let Austin’s weirdness seep in. And seep it does. As you stroll through the swag fiesta, speculating which startups will be roadkill on the superhighway, there remains an upbeat feeling that anything really is still possible if you put your mind to it. This is exactly why Mashable dubbed 2012 the year of infectious optimism.
Nearly everything about the SXSW conference is designed so that you bump into other attendees. It’s extremely walkable as long as you’re staying downtown. Exchanges happen fast, but they’re not fleeting. I never collected business cards so fast in my life (and I’m pretty good). In one speed date, I was invited to sit down to charge up my phone with other “juicers” surrounding the FedEx power-pack guy. By the end of my 15-minute charge, I had scored a new client, who was about to start building his office in New York. It was that easy.
Turns out, the hot thread in the social tech-startup scene was all about how to be more spontaneous and in the moment. Even before the conference began, Silicon Alley newbies Pixable and Sonar scored love on the Mashable top apps list, along with other sites that revolved around the same theme.
I believe this is that main reason that people return every year. Even though you can see most of your colleagues and clients back home, there is something special about randomly finding them in the “wild,” instead of at offices. You get to know them as people and become closer to them, whether it’s at a late-night 80s dance party or sharing popcorn at a movie screening.
On Sunday, I got to check out the world premiere of the Deepak Chopra documentary, Decoding Deepak — I sat in the same row as the guru himself as his life was revealed by his son. (Guess what — Deepak’s as addicted to his BlackBerry and growing his Twitter followers as the rest of us.) A quote of his — “Whatever relationships you have attracted in your life at this moment are precisely the ones you need in your life at this moment. There is a hidden meaning behind all events, and this hidden meaning is serving your own evolution.” — could also be said of the festival itself.
On my way home, the random meetings continued. I got a free lift to the airport followed by an unexpected upgrade to first class for no reason except that I was in the right place at the right time. I plopped down into my seat, got my free drink, and found myself talking to a best-selling author also coming off of his SXSW high. We chatted the entire flight about something I’d talked about in my SXSW presentation: how companies need to extend the lifetime value of their employees — for everyone’s sake. We exchanged business cards and agreed to meet within the month. At any other time, this guy might have put on his headset and ignored the broad to his right. But we both wanted the ride to continue. And so it did.
The point is, what happens at SXSW doesn’t stay at SXSW. The connections there happen quickly, but the best part of the conference is that these moments are designed to be just the beginning. “See you in New York,” folks said as they left, and they meant it. Ideas may be exchanged in Austin, but they’ll get acted on back home. And that’s why you might want to make your way there next year.
PS. If you went to SXSW, please share your biggest takeaway and what you’ve done with it since you’ve been back in the real world.
[Photo: Luca Sartoni/Flickr]