If marketers were gladiators, then South by Southwest would be the Coliseum. Instead of Roman plebs, the audience consists of the crème-de-la-crème of tech journalists and bloggers, each of them waiting breathlessly to discover the Next Big Thing. In place of swords and spears, the participants are free to choose their own tools. From flyers and t-shirts to blogger lounges, relaxation domes and lavish parties, every marketer has a myriad of options at her fingertips to help a brand get noticed and be remembered amidst all the noise at SXSW.
With all of these options, how does a marketer know which tools will best help his company make a splash at SXSW? Here are some lessons we at ReTargeter learned during our latest trip to Austin:
Join the Conversation in Real-Time
All of the sessions and virtually all of the parties at SXSW were assigned unique hashtags, which makes it possible to precisely target Promoted Tweets and insert your brand messages into various conversation streams. Look over the SXSW conference guide and see if there are any sessions or parties that would attract your desired audience. Then take the time to craft messages that are both relevant to the context and provide real value to people following the hashtag—simply spamming a hashtag with a link to your website is both ineffective and bad for your image. If you’re looking to use Twitter for lead generation, direct people to a SXSW-specific landing page and offer unique content or a special promotion in exchange for contact information to increase your conversion rates and ROI.
Give People Things They Want
SXSW is home to some of the most creative swag you’re likely to find anywhere. Companies have tried everything from glow in the dark yo-yos to branded lightsabers in hopes of building brand awareness and endearing themselves to attendees, but some efforts have stood out in their ingenuity. What does the best swag have in common? They offer people something they need and want, not just something that people wouldn’t mind having. At this past SXSW, the clear winners were the companies that had the foresight to check the weather report and see that it would be raining for much of the SXSW Interactive festival. So what did companies like GroupMe and Tumblr offer people? Branded ponchos. You know you’ve done your job right when people are scrambling around the convention center asking for your swag, and are visibly disappointed when they discover that you’re all out. Lesson learned? Most people are more than happy to act as a walking billboard for your brand if you’re going to keep them dry for free.
Bring People to You
If your overriding goal at SXSW is to meet lots of great people and build buzz around your brand, then hosting your own party is the way to go. As host, you will have complete control over the timing, location, decor and activations, allowing you to create a fully branded experience that’s unmistakably unique.
To maximize the branding value of the party, make it an invite-only event. This gives you the ability to bring together fascinating people who you want to talk to and do business with while keeping the freeloading party-hoppers at bay. Ask anybody who’s been to SXSW what made a party memorable, and more often than not they won’t say it was the food or the drinks or the ambiance—it’s the people they met and the conversations they had that stood out.
The challenge and the thrill of marketing at SXSW lays in the fact that the average attendee is both savvy and vocal. If you make a misstep, people will be quick to criticize you publically throughout the blogosphere and social media. If you do well, however, you can generate priceless word-of-mouth buzz around your brand from those same people. Ultimately, the brands that will emerge triumphant from the arena will be the ones who understood their audience, put careful thought into their promotions, and sought to create memorable experiences for people.