Standing Out at SXSW Means Creating Experiences Interlaced With Relevant Tech

Though not everyone is convinced that the fest is worthwhile

Making the most of what can be an overwhelming festival. Getty Images
Headshot of Nicole Ortiz

March is upon us, which means that marketers across the industry are gearing up for SXSW to check out the latest activations and panels from industry experts. For brands and tech companies looking to make a splash and create something that will really resonate, the festival is the perfect opportunity to unleash an experiential activation that draws their audience (and potential newcomers) and retains them for the long term. Ideally, anyway.

We asked our Adweek Advisory Board—comprised of 23 leaders across marketing, media and technology—to weigh in with their thoughts on what it takes to create a stunning SXSW activation that’ll stick in consumers’ minds throughout the rest of the year and if it’s worthwhile for your organization to get involved in the festival.

Creating an activation

Standing out from all the chaos of a festival can be quite a feat. However, the payoff of enticing consumers with a fun, possibly personalized experience they’ll remember is a worthwhile endeavor and a unique way to get your brand to endeavor.

“At a long conference like SXSW, you have to think about things from the attendee’s point of view,” said Baiju Shah, chief strategy officer at Accenture Interactive. “They’re going to see content from dozens—if not hundreds—of tech brands, and they’re going to interact personally with many of them. By the end, their suitcases will be overflowing with swag bags and notes from various brands. Experiences give you the opportunity to break through all of that physical and metaphorical clutter, leaving them with memories they won’t need a tote bag to recall.”

However, as George Sargent, Boston president of Havas Media Group noted, creating an experiential activation has to be consistent with your brand purpose. “If one of your brand goals is to be considered innovative, SXSW is a fantastic platform for demonstrating this,” he said.

Sargent continued, “The reviews/press of the experiential activations live on indefinitely and help with WOM and social buzz. SXSW provides brands an opportunity to create a deeper, more nuanced experience than might be possible in real life. This is critical for a challenger brand or a brand trying to transform their positioning.”

Integrating emerging tech

As Paul Woolmington, CEO of Canvas Worldwide, said, any “technology [used in activations] should always be in service of the idea or experience, not the idea itself.”

Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Hypergiant, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “It’s about making an experience and not just having tech for the sake of tech. Find a novel and interesting way to leverage that technology to engage consumers with the brand and create a lasting memory and impression that they can carry with them after the event has ended.” It simply won’t resonate at a festival like SXSW in the same way that it would at, say, CES, so you need to make sure you’re coming into the event with the right mindset.

Alicia Hatch, CMO at Deloitte Digital, pointed to how AR and VR are helping to enhance activations. She said, “SXSW is a unique environment because it combines technology, innovation, culture and creativity like nowhere else, which makes it a powerful platform for both activating big ideas and creating cultural moments that people will talk about for years to come.”

Is it worthwhile?

There’s been much debate about whether or not SXSW is worthwhile for marketers anymore. Some say its “cool” factor has worn off and that it seems to be trying to accomplish too much, while others still find value in it.

Shah pointed out that an influx of “corporate brands” has convinced some people they shouldn’t attend SXSW, especially the “cutting-edge upstarts the event was once known for.” He said, “While the mix of brands has certainly changed over time, the technology on display is no less revolutionary year after year.”

Allure editor in chief Michelle Lee said she doesn’t feel it’s necessary to attend SXSW. “There’s so much programming,” she said, “and you can easily end up listening to a bunch of speakers who aren’t giving you very useful or actionable information.” She continued that the festival “is so spread out, attendees need to be strategic about who they’re meeting with or it can become a big time suck.”

On the other hand, there are, of course, many who see a massive benefit to it (hence, the overwhelming amount of people you’ll find there any given year).

“Personally, I love SXSW,” Hatch said. “So many brands and tech companies really bring their A-game, so it’s always really exciting to see how everyone shows up, and it’s a great source of inspiration.”

Hatch echoed Lee, saying those who show up “need to really show up with something that’s not just unique and memorable, but is also illustrative of your company or brand and shows how you bring value to your customers or clients.”

Peter Naylor, senior vice president and head of advertising sales at Hulu, is on the same page as Hatch. “If you want to keep a finger on the pulse of what’s next in film, culture, music and technology, you need to be in Austin this March,” he said. “It’s not just about the activations and interactive experiences, it’s about the connections and conversations that lead to the next big thing.”

@neco_ornot Nicole Ortiz is a senior editor at Adweek, overseeing magazine departments such as Trending, Talent Pool, Data Points, Voice and Perspective.