A Few Thoughts on SXSW 2017

Through a B-School Student Lens, It Almost Writes Itself

Each year, thousands of people gather in Austin for one of the year’s highlight events for techie and creative types alike–and there’s no shortage of business insight for a Sternie to find in the shuffle. Here are a few points I couldn’t ignore:

SXSW was more of a logistic nightmare than it usually is.

In case Twitter hasn’t already made this apparent through one meme too many, people were panicking in Austin when they opened their Uber and Lyft apps to get around for SXSW. Austin voted to increase regulation on background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers in May 2016. The companies responded by shutting down their business activities in the city—which the country promptly forgot about, until they realized it was going to take much longer to get a ride from the airport when they landed in Austin for South By.

Conservative tallies of 2016’s numbers show SXSW drew well over 100,000 visitors in 2016. Even if there was a dip in attendance this year, like is anticipated, that’s still a lot of people to move around efficiently. Shell-shocked visitors were forced to resort to local ride-sharing businesses and established, local cab services—and if social media is any indication, most of them barely made it out alive. But there is a silver lining here: pedicabs (a.k.a. bicycle-drawn chariots) felt a boost, if we can believe the hype of local news reports.

Airbnb may be next on the chopping block in Austin—but competitors aren’t complaining. One:Night, an app that allows users to search for same-night room availability in nearby hotels, teamed up with millennial darling Casper matress company when flights out of Austin were cancelled due to bad weather in the northeast (yep, the hits kept coming this year). They took advantage of the situation in classic Oreo-in-a-blackout fashion, extending promotions for Casper-fitted, discounted hotel rooms when they realized tons of disgruntled techies were stranded (AND still Uber-less. It’s a miracle they survived). It’s nice to see a savvy response to the chaos now and again.

Brands saved their energy for other endeavors this year.

SXSW has been known in the past for its sweeping corporate presence, pervasive recruiting and press coverage. However, as the press published stories on the festival’s declining relevance, they create the reality by sending less people to the festival and by reducing what they publish on the event. Recruiters, seeing the reported reduced interest, anticipate a more narrow talent pool, and aren’t bothering to send as many people as they did last time. The press picked up on this and boom—you may not even need Uber or Lyft to find a cab this time around (see above). Companies like Capital One and Spotify made themselves known at the festival through multi-location event centers, concerts and programming in the past; this year, Capital One was down to one event center, and Spotify dialed their usual crowd-pleasing concerts and sessions down, closing them to the public for the first time.

One reason for the pullback is the reduction in marketing budgets for these firms. As any student who has taken the core Marketing course here will know, it’s important to find a way to explain your ROI on marketing investments in order to keep the money coming. Many firms just haven’t been able to do that—particularly with such large, multi-faceted campaigns as were run in the past. This year, many endeavors are smaller—“focused,” as their PR reps would tell you in any article you can find on it—with an emphasis on immersive, experiential campaigns whose impacts are easier to measure. Clearly, these smaller, more targeted campaigns are easier to justify than the ridiculous large flashing signs that just didn’t have much quantifiable ROI in the past.

But hey—it almost helps give the festival a bit of its old feel; keeping the headliners out of the headlines harkens back to the original, crowd-sourced ingenuity that made SXSW so jazzy in the first place (pun absolutely intended).

Worried the passion is fading? Throw in loads of politics, that always solves things…

SXSW battled rumors of reduced interest and waning relevance in the months leading up to the festival, and responded in the way most things have been these days: by tying in references to the political climate. Some of it was low-hanging fruit: it writes itself when, for instance, some of the artists in the travel ban protest show “ContraBanned” face difficulty entering the country for their performance.

They went beyond such directly relevant issues, though—they added 2 days’ worth of panels and events specifically related to the Trump Administration. Molly Wood of APM’s Marketplace described the programming, which was included in the Interactive section of SXSW, as “a way to keep juicing interest in the interact part because, as you know, it’s been a long time since SXSW made any news.”

In a way, she’s right; SXSW hasn’t had a dramatic product or app announcement since Oculus Rift in 2014, and many of the most-covered app launches happened nearly a decade ago (FourSquare in 2009, Twitter in 2007). But throwing Trump into a discussion about VR for the sake of relevance does not a newsworthy breakthrough make.

Leanna Bornkamp

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