On June 28th, the “Panel Picker” opened for next year’s SXSW Interactive. The organizers have tweaked the list of categories to reflect the core values of SXSW — creativity and innovation. You have until July 20th to submit your panel idea for next year. It’s worth it because they’ve give you a Gold badge which means you can access the Film events also (if there is room for you).
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 8, 2012
South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive has become the loudest tech noise event of the year. For five days hackers, hustlers and hot-shots descend on Austin. An event that has grown exponentially over the past four years. Not as focused and adult (I use that term loosely) as CES or Cannes but raw and big as you might expect to come out of Texas. It’s “Networking for Nerds”.
SXSW started as a music festival in 1987. What would become “Interactive” was spun out of the the main festival into it’s own separate entity in 1995. Music was the biggest draw until 2010 when Interactive surpassed it. This year was my fourth consecutive year attending SXSW Interactive. I didn’t need to wait until the event was over to know that it was considerably larger this year. It was noticeable everywhere. As of the last day of the show the unofficial tally was 24,569. In 2009 the attendance was 10,471. The ticket price has also increased. The early-bird price in 2010 was $395 and this year was $595. The walk-up price this year was up $200 from 2010 at $950. These attendance numbers do not reflect those that come just for the parties. Most not requiring a festival badge at all. Either way the festival this year grossed at least $14,618,555 in registrations.
|2013||31,752 (est.)||31.8% (est.)|
Over the last four years the Interactive festival has seen a growth rate of approximately 235%.
You can theorize forever on how or why this is. I think it is directly relatable to the post-recession tech boom. In 2009 Foursquare launched at SXSW. They brought 50 people with them that year and this year they brought about 600. SCVNGR was another favoriate also was featured at SXSW. Since, Foursquare has launched several successful partnerships included my favorite with American Express this past year. SCVNGR has remained alive with a niche audience and very small user-base in comparison even though they have raised a reported $20m in funding. Gowalla (an Austin native) made a big splash debut in their hometown and won the best mobile award at SXSW in 2010 (beating Foursquare) but shutdown just before the festival this year. About three months after they were acquired by Facebook. They posted the below image on their website at the time but as of the posting of this article I’m not aware if users were ever able to download their data (which is/was owned by Facebook?)
Start-ups can attract multiple millions in seed capital, wall-street types aren’t the only folks that take notice. The quick adoption of new technology has moved from the basement to the boardroom.
“The mix of digital creatives — including Web designers, app developers, marketers, social media gurus and bloggers — attracts an ever-growing number of companies that want to get their apps, services or more mainstream products in front of them. Scrappy start-up companies hoped to get a jump-start at the fest the way previous hits like Twitter and Foursquare did, and established companies like Nike, HP and American Express used the fest to get face time with the geeks.”, writes Omar Gallaga in his March 17th article for The Statesman’s Austin 360.
As festival director Hugh Forrest said in an introduction of presenter Al Gore on Monday during SXSW 2012, “Geeks are the new rock stars of the pop culture landscape.”
In 2007, a little-known company called Obvious Corp. used the festival to promote a new service called Twitter. During the event, Twitter usage increased from 20,000 tweets per day to 60,000. “The Twitter people cleverly placed two 60-inch plasma screens in the conference hallways, exclusively streaming Twitter messages,” remarked Newsweek‘s Steven Levy. “Hundreds of conference-goers kept tabs on each other via constant twitters. Panelists and speakers mentioned the service, and the bloggers in attendance touted it.” That year’s event introduced the site to many digital early-adopters, who went home and began building buzz for it. Many companies have since tried to re-create what Twitter did at SXSW.  WatchMojo has produced a 5 minute history of Twitter that gives your enough back-story.
Over the last four years I’ve tried to balance my time between networking events and panels. This year prior to coming to Austin I spent time using both the online schedule and the mobile app provided by SXSW. First I sorted through the 2,699 Interactive speakers and flagged people I either knew or knew the company they worked for. With over 1,000 panels, discussions or keynotes, I ended up with a schedule of approximately 10 things happening at the same time that I wanted to see (you can see my schedule here). Overall over the course of the 5 day festival there were about 50 things happening at the same time during the day. With the main session blocks starting at 9 AM, 2 PM, 3:30 PM and 5 PM. Everything not only filled the Austin Convention Center (spanning over 6 city blocks with 881,400 gross square feet of space) but also the ballrooms of twelve other hotels within walking distance.
I think the panels that I ended up going to this year were a healthy mix of deep-dive technology and also how technology is and will be helping humanity. Starting with learning about how applications utilize hardware acceleration to how laughter can save the world and get us to talk about real issues more comfortably. Programming applications that help people discuss serious topics to then return to programming tools that help further communication. People and code in a cycle.
The first panel I made it to was Friday afternoon’s panel Applying Behavior Design by Adaptive Path‘s Chris Risdon (@ChrisRisdon). It was some great insight into the history of the research into how people make decisions. Not just users of your application but decisions in general. Increasing motivation and removing friction in the design of your application. References Robert Cialdini’s book, The Psychology of Persuasion that was written in the 90′s and not in context of technology but what has very relevant topics to our activities online today. How data points in our application or game usage craft our experiences and feedback loops. Highlighting techniques on how to get your user to get to the value of your application through utility and usability.. Trial periods, default options and other persuasive and cognitive techniques.
Later that afternoon I headed over to one of the many hotels that were on the outskirts of the downtown zone for Freelancer F*ck Ups: Don’t Make My Mistakes! by New York City based freelancer Matt Schiffman (@darrownet). His presentation is on SlideShare so you should download it. Unfortunately SXSW did not record all of the panels so you can’t listen to this.
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 10, 2012
Matt has a very keen insight into the business-end of freelancing. Freelancing is not for everyone. You do not enjoy the stability of a full-time job position but there are many benefits. Along with the benefits there are many pitfalls that could put you in a serious bind if you are not careful. Matt’s POV is that you need an attorney to review everything and a great accountant (he referred me to the later). You have to set precedent with your clients early and not let them walk all over you. Overall you need to manage your work-load and family because of you don’t you will loose one of them and you can’t afford to do that.
Later in the afternoon was How to Read the World, the opening keynote of SXSW Interactive by Baratunde Thurston (@baratunde). I had been looking forward to this for months. I first met Baratunde at SXSW in 2009 on the shuttle from the airport to the downtown. I’ve been following his work ever since and he’s amazing. Coincidentally he was hired as one of the guests to be interviewed by Whitney Cummings in the Lexus campaign I produced the digital execution of, Lexus Darkcasting for SKINNY NYC (now VITRO). The website is no longer live but you can see the case-study video (with a clip of Baratunde) at VITRO.
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 10, 2012
Baratunde speaks at universities and special events with heads of state around the world. His keynote at SXSW was a little different from some of his others. Even though he had just recently published his book, How To Be Black, he was not pushing it. This keynote that opened up the festival was focused on the power of comedy as a revolutionary art. Not just the comedy itself as a vehicle of expression but how easy it is for satirical works to be produced, distributed and consumed by and for us using the technology at our fingertips.
— سلطان سعود القاسمي (@SultanAlQassemi) March 10, 2012
Technology and code, and how people interact with it, is something I’m familiar with. Baratunde goes deep into an area of politics and satire that I am fascinated with but could not do justice in trying to recap so I’ll let others do it for me. Other’s like Nora. Below is one of the Ogilvy Notes by Nora of ImageThink (@ImageThink).
Check out the rest of ImageThink’s work with Ogilvy and other partners for SXSW 2012 & 2012 and the 99% 2011. Most of us do not think in terms of charts and graphs, we think in pictures. ImageThink depicts the idea in visual metaphor. Graphic recording is a low-tech high-impact effort. Watch the video on YouTube they produced that explains their service.
While you look at their graphic recordings listen to a portion of the keynote (SXSW only recorded a little) and a behind-the-scenes of the keynote he recorded a few days later. Baratunde has also started Cultivated Wit (@cultivatedwit). The platform will use “comedy to engage and tell more immersive stories in a world that often moves too fast or seems too complicated”. There is no content yet but you follow you can add you email to a mailing list and also follow them.
As previously mentioned, this year was packed. The fact that it was raining for most of the time so far didn’t help either. By the time Baratunde’s keynote was over the festival was in full-swing which means everything worth seeing had a long line or a room that was already at capacity when you got there. My wife Nicole (@nicole_w_miller) had the best idea. Once she made it into one of the exhibit halls that were holding the big events she just stayed there. Working her way up from the back until she was front-row.
One of those events was the Dennis Crowley (Foursquare) interview by MG Siegler (@parislemon), general partner of CrunchFund and columnist at TechCrunch. Foursquare rocketed into mainstream at SXSW in 2009 (I commented on that earlier). Foursquare is woven so very tightly into fabric of SXSW Interactive. The approximately 235% growth of SXSW Interactive since Foursquare’s launch is due (I.M.H.O) to the success of start-ups like Foursquare and their business trailblazing success.
MG’s questions cover everything from Naveen’s (co-founder) recent departure at that time, the new Radar feature, privacy issues, learnings from Dodgeball and other networks and hints at the new designs that were in the pipe for the future launch of the redesign this past June 7th. A goal of Foursqaure, which I think is achieved in the re-design is making it possible to quickly learn about a neighborhood that is new to them.
“There is a difference between building a product and building a company.” said Fred Wilson to Dennis around the time of Foursquare’s Series B funding round.
Dennis didn’t realize what that meant at the time. It was two guys that came down to Austin in 2009 and built a product. Now the product grows and you either sell or build a company.
After the Foursquare panel I moved quickly across the street to find out that the next panel I wanted to see was already packed. I squeezed into the room and stood along the wall for the fifth consecutive year of Browser Wars. Browser Wars V brought to the table again the individuals responsible for the web browsers used today: Firefox, Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer and Opera.
This is the third browser wars that I’ve attended. Each one has had an over-packed (I don’t know why SXSW organizers don’t give it a bigger room) and each year the panel starts to argue amongst themselves. Even though the room was packed the topics discussed are a sub-set of a sub-set of a niche. This year started off talking about DRM (Digital Rights Management) but devolved into passive-aggressive borderline confrontational jabs at one another’s browser. Year after year the same problem arises. One browser supports their impression of standards and another browser supports another. They all gang up on the standards organization, W3C, for moving too slow. The reality is that some of the browsers roadmaps are defined by businessmen at the corporate level and not the programmers. Others point at web developers in the field (like me) that are perpetuating the browser hacks because we are forced to.
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 10, 2012
My clients sometimes don’t even know what web browser they are using. The average home user just expects the “internet” to work and won’t think too hard about how they get there–or even what personal information they may be volunteering. It’s a very real argument that it is very important for web developers building applications that must work for every user browsing on every device. I’ve seen commercials running in prime-time blocks on major networks for both Google Chrome and Internet Explorer. Big money is being spent to produce these commercials.
Apple has already created a very successful walled-garden environment of applications and hardware-lock. In order for everything to work together nicely you need an iTunes account and then use Apple’s hardware. It all works perfectly but you are “forced” to adapt to the Apple way. A goal of standards-organizations for web, video and audio is to create an environment that put the user in charge of the experience. If the user want to purchase a song then they own the song and can listen to it on any device. Unfortunately this gets into rights and licensing and then that in turn gets the lawyers involved and then you have one big mess. This is usually one of the more technical of the panels I attend and one of the more academic. The panel was recorded and I think you’ll agree when you listen to it Charles Mccathie Nevile from Opera may have the more rational point of view out of the whole bunch.
To me it breaks down into two groups when thinking about the web browser paradigm. One is the scientific, theoretical group that conducts endless research. The other is the average home user that bought the laptop at the big-box store for less than $500. He or she boots it up and opens up Internet Explorer and goes to Netflix. Who do you think the big companies and advertisers listen to?
The following morning was Pitching Start Ups to Ad Agencies and Clients presented by David Tisch (@davetisch) of TechStars, James Cooper (@koopstakov) of then JWT and now Thompson Punke (a bad-ass ping-pong clothing and accessories brand) and John Laramie (@JLNY) of ADstruc.
The conversation started by defining how large companies, advertising agencies in particular are trying to be more innovative. At the time JWT had recently inked a deal with TechStars as a primary sponsor. Ad agencies need forces internally and externally to push new technology. A large ad agency and it’s clients are corporate and thus are mired in a world of Microsoft Office products. They often times do not have anyone to champion innovation so leaders in the field that have the ability to open doors and start conversations such as the folks behind TechStars are there to help.
The advertising industry is in this classic conundrum where we always tell our clients that you have to innovate, you have to be nimble…as agencies we are the worst at that..it’s like physician heal thyself…we are terrible at that.” “Could an agency create the next Foursquare? No.” says James Cooper
The agency model is an interesting one. Some people are very quick to say that it is “broken”. I don’t think the model is necessarily broken it’s just different. The model is slow and sometimes not hip and cool. Agencies consistently want to innovate, talk about innovation but don’t spend anytime innovating their own thinking.
The game is sometimes trying to convince large brands to make a move on a new application. An application such as Foursquare could be seen as to “new” even though that most of would see it as tried-and-true. Even if the agency might not be able to create the next hot new application it might be able to line-up the right kind of people internally with client to create a great campaign using the next hot new app.
This conversation is continually one of my favorites. It’s persisted for years as the start-up world has boomed and the classic traditional advertising agency world has moved slowly in comparison. But the worlds are different. One are lithe and nimble risk takers and the others are cautious, risk-averse and share-holder controlled. Each model has it’s benefits.
There are many great points addressed in this and I recommend that you listen to it. Another point addressed is how agencies will throw millions of dollars at a TV campaign that fails and no one fusses. There seems to be an expectation of the risk involved with creating TV. If you throw millions at “ad tech” and it does not work everyone get’s cold feet to do it again. Why is that?
Later in the day I headed over to Don’t Just Sell Things: Change the World where Cindy Gallop (@cindygallop) sat on a panel with others. I’m a fan of Cindy’s and would listen to her speak as often as I could. Just Google here to learn more about here. She and others on the panel talked about using our business learnings to help change the world. The goal is to try to get brands involved with social change. Moderated by Mathew Bishop from the Economist (@mattbish). Some of us want to check out hearts at the door when we go to work but it’s becoming more and more irresponsible. It’s worth a listen if at least to think about something different than tech and start-ups. You’ll be charged up afterwards.
Monday afternoon was Adprovising: Agile Marketing Made Easy by Tim Leake (@tim_leake) of Hyper Island. It was part of the festival’s Future 15 program which gave each presenter 15 minutes. Tim delivered a quick and concise review of campaigns that have succeded and failed based on how the brands reacted to consumer response. If there was a mistake, how did the brand react and how quick?
Starting in the 1950′s, the US began funding research into the relationship between man and computers. The original idea of “augmented reality” was not what you might think of. It was a bigger and grander idea of how humans could connect to a network of information using interactive devices. Unfortunately, technology has not been available until now to deliver on the original vision. Chris and Heidi introduce us to some of the original characters and personalities involved in this pioneering time.
After I got my nerdy history fix I headed over to Confessions of a Community Moderator where a former co-worker, Rebecca Russell (@theotherrussell) was sitting on the panel. Moderated by Chris Gokiert of Critical Mass (@criticalmass).
— Celia Jones (@celiajones) March 13, 2012
All of us have at least thought about commenting on a product or Tweeting a brand. Some of us have done it. The folks on this panel are responsible for when you do. Establishing that two-way communication and most importantly understanding the delicate touch needed to represent a popular brand. You are the voice for brand online and you have to know how to deal with the social ruffians.
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 13, 2012
One of the last panels I made it to was The Future of Work and the Free Radical moderated by Richard Schatzberger (@schatz) of Co: with guests Althea Erickson of Freelancer’s Union, Benjamin Dyett (@BenjaminDyett) of Grind (@GrindSpaces), Josh Rubin (@JoshRubin) of Cool Hunting and Scott Belsky (@ScottBelsky) of Behance.
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 13, 2012
The workspace is changing–finally. The idea of working for yourself as a freelancer is no longer as scary as it might have once been. Organizations like the Freelancer’s Union and New York City’s own Grind are offering opportunities and support for individuals that no longer want to sit in an office all-day. Individuals that want to with others and collaborate on many projects.
“Refine what you’re passionate about and spend a lot of time building a real plan around it…have a plan.” says Dyett of Grind
We no longer need the resources of large companies to get work done. Grind for example has created a frictionless workspace that enables members to have desk space, conference rooms and a printer that works–well.
The rise of freelancing is like the Industrial Revolution. This a new way of working that we will see more of in the near future. You can’t think of it as a job though. It’s a lifestyle. You have to understand that you need to be able to market yourself and showcase your work.
PressPausePlay was referenced. It’s a documentary all about the creativity unleashed in the our digital revolution. It contains interviews with some of the world’s most influential creators in this digital era. You can watch it on Vimeo or download it from their website.
Offices mean fixed cost and daily routine. Home is isolated and full of distractions. And cafés get old after the second latté. You need to get out, network and join up with others like yourself.
It’s a lifestyle.
Insights & Takeaways
Living in New York City you might think that I get all of the best options for networking on a daily basis and would not need to go to Austin. The truth I find is that Austin is the only time each year when you can run into everyone from NYC in the advertising tech space.
It’s a great networking event if you choose to live that lifestyle. If you think you could become a Free Radical as mentioned above then Austin for SXSW Interactive is the place for you to go. What get out of your time there is equal to what you put in. For me, I use the tools of the trade to stay in touch with whats going on when I’m there. Foursqaure is the best tool for that. Keep in touch with people all year and make sure you connect when in Austin.
This past year Grind setup a satellite collaborative space in Austin across the street from the convention center. There was an Intelligentsia coffee station (see photos below) giving out free coffee to people that walked by. You could walk in, sit-down and get some work done. Most importantly you could meet new people and connect with others back in NYC that you don’t have to the time to do when you back home. Grind’s reputation is growing and they’re planning on opening other locations. Follow them and make sure you stop by their pop-up next year if they do it again.
SXSW is not for everyone. There are a lot of people. Kids of all ages. Some that come for the networking and parties and others that come to learn. It’s also not right for every brand to showcase. The Cannes international advertising festival recently wrapped in the french riviera. Like SXSW it happens annually but the clientele and the quality of work presented is more professional. Large brands and big corporations go to Cannes. While SXSW is a fun place to nerd out on the bleeding edge in an almost high-school spring-break vibe, Cannes is where you go when you want a more grown-up experience. Rei Inamoto sums it up nicely in his piece, SXSW Reminds Why Cannes Is Still King at AdAgeDIGITAL. While still others who have been to the festival for many years, like John Biehler of The Province may never return again for reasons he defines in his piece, SXSW 2012 wrapup and why I may not attend again.
I am so happy to see you again old friend and introduce you to my wife@ Austin Convention Center instagr.am/p/H-L3XYHNbm/
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 10, 2012
This year my wife, Nicole Miller (@nicole_w_miller) attended for the first time. We both enjoyed different experiences over the weekend. She dove more into panels while I tried to balance networking and relationship building with knowledge gathering. We both thoroughly enjoyed the grilled cheese available inside the convention center from The Original Big Cheese.
View My Activity During SXSW 2012
Flickr Gallery of SXSW 2012
— Alexander Rea (@AlexanderRea) March 14, 2012
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