I Went to SXSW and All I Got Was…

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SXSWi 2009-Sketchnotes-Final Badge by Mike Rohde

This year was my first trip to the SXSW Interactive Festival, and I’m finally getting a chance to cull my impressions and thoughts about everything I experienced.


  • It’s all about the people. Yes, I saw some inspiring and informative sessions, but I also came away having met a lot of amazing people, some for the first time and some who I’ve known or worked with but never met in person. The sheer quality of most everyone I met was pretty incredible. I was a bit nervous attending by myself, but I quickly learned that you’re only alone if you want to be at SXSW.
  • It’s ok to check out. Wonderful people aside, I reached a point around the 4th day where I kind of maxed out – on lack of sleep, on energy of making new introductions, on mental capacity to focus on one more session. So, I unplugged. I rented a bike, and spent a couple of hours outside in the sunshine. Biked the path around the river, ate Tex-Mex at Chuy’s & blackberry ice cream at Amy’s, perused the rows of boots at Allen’s Boots. It was probably the single best decision I made the entire time I was there, and gave me the energy to finish out strong. (I also had to learn at SXSW that it’s ok to walk out of a session if it’s not doing it for you. I got stuck in one that I really should have left, and didn’t make that mistake again.)
  • You can’t be everywhere. I had to come to terms with not being able to attend everything I had hoped to. (There were a couple days in particular where a number of really strong sessions overlapped.) I’m sure I missed some great things, but know I will be able to catch most everything online. (Some videos are already up on YouTube, podcasts on SXSW and more video promised to come.)
  • Preparing is good. I spent some time before leaving for SXSW planning out a schedule (with built-in overlaps) using both the my.SXSW site and the SCHED*SXSW site. (The SCHED site ended up being the better performing of the two and included more unofficial events.) I imported both to iCal and my iPhone, and it made decisions and getting around much easier (especially if I was ditching one session and heading to another).

From the various keynotes, presentations and panels I attended, seven themes emerged for me. (I tried to sample across a range of corporate, non-profit and education sessions – areas where I’m involved professionally – and also a few purely inspirational sessions that weren’t necessarily business-related.)

  1. Micro-communication and mobile technology. There’ve been a lot of stories about how Twitter (again) dominated SXSW (and on how much AT&T dropped the ball on coverage). Ok, I get that for people who’ve been going for years this is old news. But as a first-timer, it was really interesting for me to see how it truly dominated every part of SXSW – enabling real-time meetups, tracking insights and feedback from sessions I was (and wasn’t attending), and allowing in-person conversations to continue online. At times it was overwhelming, but ultimately the usefulness won out over the hype for me, especially when I simply tuned out much of the live-tweeting from the sessions. (Kaitlyn at the Catch Up Lady blog had a similar experience with Twitter, and asks some good questions too.)
  2. Internal adoption. At the “Digital Tsunami: Breaking News at Breakneck Speeds” panel discussion, Christopher Barger from GM talked about trying to integrate social media across silos and make it the responsibility of multiple departments (e.g. not just corporate communication, but also product development). This came up in a few other sessions too, and overall there seemed to be consensus that internal adoption across departments or functional areas will be one of the keys to corporate success in the space.
  3. ROI. The question of how to measure ROI and success in social media came up repeatedly, both for non-profits and corporations, and while we have some starting points, I didn’t come away with a sense that we’ve reached a consensus yet. (The “Social Media Non-Profit ROI Poetry Slam” put a fun but still useful spin on this serious topic.)
  4. Filters. This comes up in a lot of my offline conversations, and was definitely a theme I noticed at SXSW. There’s a sense that strong filters are needed but that they’re not yet fully developed, and that includes both better human filtering and better technical filters. In the “My Boss Doesn’t Get It: Championing Social Media to the Man” session, Peter Kim said, “The key to using social media at work and staying productive is to filter for relevance.”  Amen, but still a challenge. (See Peter’s SXSW wrap-up here.)
  5. Transparency and privacy. This topic isn’t going away anytime soon, nor should it. As corporate entities (and those acting on their behalf) become more ubiquitous in social media, the issue of transparency and privacy prevailed during a number of SXSW discussions.
  6. Non-profits and “social good.” On the non-profit side, I’m really interested in Beth Kanter’s SXSW follow-up blog post about the debate between social media for social good vs. social media for charity/fundraising. (Forgive my over-simplification of her excellent analysis.)  For the non-profit clients I work with, this is a really important discussion.
  7. Pick up the phone. “As unsexy and low-tech as it sounds, the telephone is actually one of the best branding devices out there,” Tony Hseih said during his opening remarks. (See his whole fantastic talk here on video.) The topic of in-person dialogue came up in at least four sessions I attended. There are times when to speak to someone – either in-person or by phone –is still and will remain the best mode of communication. All of these tools and technology can help, but at times, a human connection reigns supreme.

This gets us back to the beginning, doesn’t it? It’s all about the people.

All in all, it was a tremendously worthwhile event, and I’m already thinking ahead to next year.

What else did you come away with or would like to know?

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