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On SxSW (Interactive) 2010

(Alternative title: “No, tech companies won’t bankroll your vacation beer tab”)

What needs to be said has kinda already been said (promo content may be NSFW).

As my partner in crime, Violet Blue said in her post:

This is a fork in the road for the organizers of SXSW Interactive. They either need to decide if the success of their event hinges on the parties and social events of their conference, with the panels and hard content as a sideshow, or they need to reign in the quality and depth of the panels/talks to ensure future attendance. The keynote interview disaster I describe below is a great example: you just can’t pick a semi-random dude who has never been to SXSW to do an interview with the founder of Twitter based on the fact that he was the one to come up with the idea.

For me, this is the rub with SxSWi (note: interactive) these days.

The conference is suffering from an identity crisis and expectation management issues that go with that. One crowd is turning up to Austin expecting a premium-grade tech conference, with insight and provoking thought. Another crowd is expecting beer-fueled “Spring Break for Geeks” at parties sponsored by the tech scene.

Clearly, one group is going to leave disappointed.

For a tech conference, SxSWi suffers from generally average-to-poor panels – the net result of the “crowd sourced” approach SxSWi takes.

Anyone can propose a panel and all it takes to get it approved is to get your twitter/facebook army to vote on it. Concepts like meritocracy and proven qualification to be talking about the subject matter at hand are generally non existant. Even basic tenants like ability to chair a panel debate, or hold a successful keynote interview are sometimes lacking.

Your electrical outlet is sponsored by Chevy

As a tech conference SxSW is held back by the fact its just one leg in a three legged stool – Music and Film being the others. Music and Film are clearly entertainment orientated and have the trimmings that go with that. Pepsi sponsored lounges, in-your-face promotions at every electrical outlet for Chevy (kinda) go with Film and Music scene – but feel awkwardly out of place at a tech conference. A point which Lil’ Nicky draws upon in his criticism on his SF Weekly blog.

“yo geek, you ain’t getting your beer tab bankrolled”

As Spring Break for Geeks, SxSWi is suffering from the fact that it has reached over-capacity. Every night a significant percentage of the 14,000+ SxSWi attendees want to go party. But as witnessed by anyone attending this year’s event, the venues hosting parties reached their own capacity very quickly. Sometimes lines were so long that they were several times longer than the capacity of the venue itself. One in/one out with that kinda line is rough going when all you want to do is get in to get your chance to kiss Scobie’s ass.

But what is curious is that Austin has no shortage of venues, and could easily accomodate this scale of revelers.

The problem is that the amount of firms prepared to bankroll the geek’s Spring Break beer tab doesn’t supply enough booze over five nights to cover the number of SxSWi tickets sold. Not only are ticket sales up this year (ie more party goers) but there seemed to be less parties – with big names such as Facebook and Google failing to return to host parties like they did in 2009. Equally absent was the infamous, and until now anual, 32bit party hosted by Laughing Squid and friends (which would have been 64bit this year).

If more parties were thrown in venues other than just Speakeasy, Ginger Man, Buffalo Billiards and Stubbs, things would be fine. The problem is the level of self-entitlement amongst attendees. Geeks don’t seem interested in attending parties where the tab isn’t hosted, yet there are not enough companies out there with the budgets and/or inclination to pony up the cash.

The result is people line up for hours to get in somewhere because they want to avoid paying their own drinks – which in Austin are a snip compared to SF bar prices.

“Is my event for fans or for industry?”

For next year, SxSWi needs to clearly delineate what it is and what it isn’t.

In my opinion it needs to champion that it is a ‘festival of interactive’, in the same way its brethren are festivals of music and film. However, SxSW Interactive attendees need to understand that this makes it an event aimed as much at the keen amateur who doesn’t work in the industry, as much as does the pros. For what it’s worth, this seems to be how it is with SxSW Music. Most of the attendees appear to be keen music fans rather than industry players.

With that I would urge the sponsors of parties to be clear about who they want at their event. I’m not trying to be snobbish, but with limited budget and/or venue capacity, companies like Mashable, RackSpace, FourSquare and Twitter need to decide whether their events are aimed at industry players or end users – and co-ordinate their events as such. The current status quo of randomly admitting a limited quantity of both types of attendee mixed together can’t produce clear ROI.

The three companies that handled this well during SxSWi 2010 were Nokia, Digg and Gowalla. The Digg/DiggNation party was clearly for fanboys of Kevin Rose – with a large capacity event and no-host bar to enable the masses were able to attend (there was a small VIP balcony and some VIP’s got free drinks). Gowalla gave party tickets to users of the service who checked into certain SxSW locations – ensuring the most loyal fans attended over industry types who had otherwise little interest in the local location based service (to that end, I didn’t attend because I’m not a heavy Gowalla user).

Nokia, on the other hand, ensured that only industry people and entrepreneurs participated in its well-organized cocktail events.

Regardless of what happens – how SxSW position the Interactive conference, how the party sponsors decide to manage their guest lists – I know I will be back for more next year. For me, the conference was great networking and a welcomed mini-break away from the Bay Area (even if most of my friends came with me). See, if you only manage your expectation, things ain’t so bad!

At just over $1000* spent all in for 5 days of fun, networking and (some) learning, I believe SxSWi remains great value for money.

* = $300 hotel (I split a room with 4 people), $220 air fare, $350 conference pass, the rest for misc, food, taxis, etc.

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