conferences

Four ways to make SXSW better

I’ve just returned from year one of SXSW V2V — a Las Vegas spinoff of what has become an annual cavalcade of emerging music, technology, film, and an increasing number of really bad brand activations. You can read my take on V2V here, here, and here. What attracted me to V2V was the fact that it was smaller and more focused. I go to Austin for most years, and while I do enjoy it, I find it harder every year to justify from a business perspective, since the throngs of semi-pro tourists and the democratization of festival content seem to have taken a lot of the power out of the conference. I figured with only 1,500 people, and content narrowly covering innovation and entrepreneurship, we could collectively create a bit more value.

I was right, sort of. In general, I’d say that most of the presentations were at the Beginner level, but the small size and concentrated area kept the vibe more intimate and made for more productive conversations.

That said, here are five suggestions I’d like to offer the SXSW crew, not that they asked:

  1. Do more to facilitate connections between attendees. Sure, there are plenty of networking breaks, but that’s not enough. For example:
    1. The app and website should contain a social network. Contact me if you want to see examples of this done well.
    2. Badges should be scannable by smartphone. I met a bunch of folks without business cards. Their fault, to be sure, but you can still create more value here.
  2. Curate an Advanced track with speakers who push the boundaries of what practitioners need to know. The most common feedback I heard from friends after most sessions was “that was a lot of common sense.” I’d argue that common sense is good for people to hear over and over, but balance that with folks pushing the envelope.
  3. Offer videos of every talk for registered attendees to watch on the site. We can’t make every talk and sometimes have to skip one. We should be able to go back and watch it later.
  4. Let Behance (or someone) work with all of the presenters to design their decks. Some folks have great things to say but don’t have expertise in Keynote. Your audience shouldn’t suffer because you can’t make a good deck (although you really should work on your deck skills).

You Need to Pay Attention

Day 3 of SXSW V2V was short for me, thanks to the impending feeling that work is piling up while I sit in conference sessions. I did manage to catch one talk before the flight home. Liz Bacelar of Decoded Fashion and Jennifer Taler of Stitch Factory spoke about how technology is impacting the fashion industry. Stitch Factory is a co-working space for designers, part of the Downtown Project, and Decoded hosts fashion-centric hackathons in partnership with major fashion events around the world.

Both are on the cutting edge of what’s driving all modern businesses — not limited to fashion — collaboration. The key takeaway here was that you aren’t going to be successful anymore by just keeping your head down in your own industry. You have to pay attention to the ways that technology is shaping consumer experiences, and you have to look for inspiration and ideas from other industries.

They also gave a long list of companies doing interesting things in the space. Email me if you want a copy. Also check out my take on Day 1 and Day 2. And come back tomorrow for a bit of unsolicited feedback I'm going to offer the folks at SXSW.

 

Lessons from SXSW, Day 2

Part of the theme of V2V seemed to be promoting Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project, and the big nighttime party on Day 1 was designed to get us off the strip to a venue that Tony may or may not own called the Gold Spike. It lacked all of the swag that has made Vegas a place that people flock to, but the hometown vibe lent itself to interesting conversations. I met an eccentric tech developer who explained his theory of not handing out business cards because it makes people more interested in contacting you. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name. I kicked off Day 2 at a talk by my friend Toby Daniels, ringleader of Social Media Week, which I think is one of the more interesting conferences out there.

His talk touched on the theme of personal effectiveness in a world where we’re expected to be “on” 24 x 7. The highlight was a service called Headspace, which Toby uses for daily meditation, and I’m trying it out in my own meditation practice. Here’s a fantastic sketch of the rest of his presentation by ImageThink:

AOL founder Steve Case gave the day’s keynote, an interview session in which he championed the cause of entrepreneurship, as well as his own efforts to reshape healthcare, education, government, and immigration.

  • He makes a persuasive argument for entrepreneurship… The reason we’re the leader of the free world is that we’re a startup nation. We’re a nation of entrepreneurs.
  • For healthcare, education, and government… Education, healthcare, and government are more than half the economy. If we want to fix the economy, fix those things.
  • And for immigration policy that makes sense… 40% of the Fortune 500 were started by immigrants

All interesting stuff, but the key takeaway for me was that we have to stick with it:  After seven years, AOL had only 186,000 users. Investors were telling him that obviously his company didn’t have mainstream appeal.

The highlight of the day’s talks was from Brian Solis, analyst at the Altimeter Group.

He’s one of those guys who constantly says the things I’m thinking, in ways that are more eloquent. Here are a few of those lessons:

  • The connected consumer (he calls it Generation C) is not an age group, but people living in a way that’s fundamentally different from what we’re used to. It includes a lot of Gen Y and younger, but also a significant number of Gen X and some Baby Boomers. If you’re still thinking along demographic lines, you’re missing the boat.
  • You are not in a position to compete for this consumer’s money, until you have successfully competed for his attention
  • Marketing is about experience. Period. Online, social, offline, in-store, product, support. Everything you do creates experiences (or worse, they happen without your input) that impact the way people perceive your brand.
  • Your job as a marketer is to address the Experience Divide — the gap between your brand promise and your customer’s experience. That’s it.

Here's the deck below. For further reference, check out the Cluetrain Manifesto, and Brian’s book What's The Future of Business

Coming up, lessons from Day 3, and some notes for the SXSW team about how to make the next one even better…

Three Things You Should Learn from SXSW, Day 1

This week I attended the first ever SXSW V2V conference — a gathering of 1,500 startup entrepreneurs, innovators, and me.

Since you're too busy working on important things to hang out with me in Vegas, I've distilled a few of the key lessons worth noting.

The first session I attended was by a group of Thiel Fellows. Rich guy Peter Thiel gives free money to entrepreneurs under 20 who look smart. Mostly, it was a bunch of guys starting out who didn't have too much to say, but seemed like they will someday. However,  Zach Hamed is a senior at Harvard and ran down a long list of free and inexpensive tools you can use to launch a digital product for around $100. Pretty badass. The list is too long to post here, but send me an email and I'll send you the list.

His big lesson: You can do things for a lot cheaper than you think, especially if you're going to start something, test, learn, and improve, which is of course what you should be doing.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh gave the keynote for Day 1, an inspiring presentation about his efforts to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas, including a $300 million investment in real estate and entrepreneurship. He's already created one of the biggest e-commerce sites on the web, and influenced the way we do our business at Rebel, and is now tackling a much bigger challenge: how to create a real world community that increases in value as it grows. One of my favorite parts of the project is an outdoor mall made out of shipping containers, designed to be fun for kids and adults, and with both education and commerce built into the experience

For me the key takeaway was the power of what you can create if you're really focused on what's important to you. Sure, he has a lot of money, but there are a lot of people out there with a lot of money who aren't making any meaningful investments into their communities. What if the big money in Detroit was thinking this way? See his presentation here:

Tony's presentation was passionate, and the work he’s doing is amazing. The one downside was the graphics, which was sort of a common theme throughout the day. Makes me wish that SXSW had engaged Behance to design all of the presentations for the speakers.

Behance CEO Scott Belsky gave an extremely well-designed presentation about lessons he's learned from connecting a creative community.

He spoke about the concept of "credible mass" vs. critical mass. Too many marketers focus on the number of people they're reaching, without considering how much each of those people can do to help their businesses. He argued that if you can get 150 of the right people to like something, that can be more important than thousands of randoms, citing an example from 55DSL, who used Behance to crowdsource a new logo design. They got 15,000 entries, and found that each designer had spent 3-4 hours — six years worth of labor. Imagine what they could have accomplished if they had been more deliberate about how to use six years worth of people's time.

Finally, Jenn Dearing Davis of Union Metrics ran down lessons we can take from movie marketing. Here's the deck, and a few key points:

  • Let users peek behind the scenes. We tried to get a client (their agency, actually) to shoot b-roll of their TV commercial and release the storyboards and interviews with the creatives, so fans could see the process they go through in figuring out how to advertise their product.
  • Build up to an event. A lot of the speakers touched on the importance of cadence, which is essential to success in social media marketing, and all marketing, and everything else.
  • Run contests and other promotions that let people play with your content. Don't just give away iPads in exchange for entries.
  • Invest in high quality content. She referenced a couture fashion photo shoot with the cast from Hunger Games. We say that if you're only going to post pictures from your website onto your social channels, you shouldn't even bother.
  • Enlist opinions from your audience. Run polls and surveys. Make them feel heard, but also take their feedback with a grain of salt.
  • Ultimately, she says the key to success is good content shared consistently over time with lots of engagement.

    Stay tuned for more coverage from Day 2…