The Real Reason Every Marketer Should Attend SXSW

The sensory overload has become a metaphor for the modern world

In a few days, hordes of people will descend on Austin, Texas, for SXSW Interactive. And a good chunk of them will be from the marketing and advertising world.

Tim Leake

It's a fantastic opportunity for networking. It's a great chance to glimpse how technology is changing our industry. And there are loads of parties. Really, lots and lots of parties.

But if you work in marketing or have anything to do with it, the real reason to go is that SXSW is that it's an eye-opening metaphor for the cluttered media landscape that marketers have to deal with in today's world. It is a master class in attention scarcity.

Brands, startups, bands, speakers, agencies, films and events engage in a battle royale to get noticed—doing their best to out-shout, out-appeal, out-free-giveaway, out-party and out-VIP-list each other.

Walk around Austin during the festival and you'll find yourself adrift in a sea of logos and other literally shiny things trying to entice you their way. There's a Samsung lounge, a Spotify house, a Doritos stage, an AOL hangout and a Puppy Chow collaborative workspace. (It's possible I might have just imagined a few of those.)

There are people passing out stuff on every corner, reminding me of the immortal words of Mitch Hedberg: "When someone hands you a flyer, it's like they're saying, 'Here, you throw this away.' " And there is an unusually high number of girls on roller skates, sporting fanny packs and T-shirts splattered with logos of ad-tech startups that have names containing no vowels.

This, actually, is just like the world we all live in now—only turned up to 11, pumped full of steroids and force-fed seven cans of Red Bull. In other words, it's heightened and exaggerated in order to make obvious the things we might otherwise not realize.

The reason it's hard to stand out at SXSW is the same reason it's hard for brands' marketing to stand out every other day: There are too many amazing things competing for your audience's attention. It is so easy to be absorbed and focused on our own work and our own messaging that we don't realize we're creating something that isn't worthy enough of the attention we seek. Too often, in trying to stand out, we end up just adding to the noise.

So, what can we learn about standing out, both at SXSW and in marketing in general?

There is no magic bullet for everyone. It's the small, unexpected surprises that are the best. And small interactions are OK. In the advertising world, we've been conditioned to think that all things must be big in order to be successful. We are gradually realizing that this is, in fact, rarely true. If it looks like noise, it's probably noise.

The "focus group of one" is correct more often than it gets credit for. If it wouldn't be interesting to you, it probably won't be interesting to many other people. Value wins. Simplicity wins. Razzle-dazzle does not.

Content leads to relationships. But it's the relationships that are most important. We sometimes forget this and stop at the content. Earning attention is only half the battle. You also have to be compelling and persuasive. Otherwise, you made a lot of people look, but didn't actually make an impression. If it seems like "what you're supposed to do," then it probably isn't.

I often say that today, it's not enough to be more interesting than other advertising—we have to be more interesting than Game of Thrones. Because people can watch or do anything else instead of paying attention to your online content. And Game of Thrones is probably a lot better than whatever online content you made.

That's a really a high bar. Last year at SXSW, this was literally true. The most memorable and amazing thing I saw was the Game of Thrones Oculus Rift experience. How is a granola bar or insurance brand supposed to compete with that?

Guess we'd better start figuring it out.

—Tim Leake is director of growth and innovation at RPA.