Learning From The Best: The SXSW Playbook

Learning From The Best: The SXSW Playbook
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In this guest post, GPJ Australia’s Felippe Diaz (pictured below) recaps one of the standout sessions from the Meetings & Event Association’s recent conference in Adelaide.

Felippe Diaz

Last month, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the annual Meetings & Event Association’s (MEA) Conference in Adelaide. As great as it was to be able to share my experiences with a room full of my peers, the real win for me was being able to spend a couple of days hearing from some of the brightest and best in our industry.

For anyone working in the experiential space, South by Southwest (SXSW) is the benchmark by which all other events are measured. It is essentially Christmas for those involved in music, film and technology. Over a 30-year history, SXSW has developed a cult following, and despite the amount of change the world has seen in this time, it has managed to stay relevant and true to its purpose and audience, with the event taking over the city of Austin Texas for a week, as 80,000 creative folk descend on the city hungry to learn about the direction their industries are heading.

MEA conference attendees were treated to hearing from SXSW’s chief programming officer, Hugh Forrest. He’s been there since the very first SXSW in 1987 and shared his insight around the challenges he faced in growing the SXSW brand over the last 30 years, and how he and his team have managed to keep the event at the forefront of today’s culture.

Here are Hugh’s top seven tips for keeping your event relevant:

  1. Focus on the future – try to predict what your audience will be interested in hearing about in two to three years’ time. You won’t always get it right, but when you do, the audience sits up and takes notice. The focus for SXSW right now is wearables and the Internet of Things – it is betting that this technology will hit mainstream in the next 18 to 24 months, and wants to be the forum where people hear about it first.
  2. Mix younger and older speakers – it’s hard to market an event as the place where you can come to listen to presenters who will be famous in the next five years, so this needs to be balanced with well-established speakers who act as a drawcard.
  3. Energy trumps expertise – no matter how much of a subject matter expert someone might be, a boring presenting style means a boring presentation. Someone not as polished or well-known, but with charisma and energy, will always get a great response from the audience, with Hugh singling out Gary Vaynerchuk as a great example of someone who can have the audience in the palm of his hand just due to his enthusiasm and presence on stage.
  4. Sell your stories – make sure you promote all the great things that have happened at past events. This will continue to build a groundswell of anticipation (i.e. Twitter launching at SXSW in 2007 – although 11 years ago, is still one of the most talked about pieces of content for SXSW).
  5. Listen, listen, listen – make sure you have a robust method of being able to collect delegate feedback and act on it. Nine full months before their next event, SXSW launches its ‘Panel Picker’ platform that gives the public the opportunity to provide ideas for future content.
  6. Build new platforms – ensure you are pushing the envelope with regards to emerging technologies. Exploring the use of apps, VR, AR, AI, and other similar technologies ensures that SXSW is seen as a supporter and advocate of future progress.
  7. Creativity is king – don’t be afraid to take creative risks. Even if an idea is only 80 per cent baked, being first is far more important than being perfect.

Hugh was the first to admit that he didn’t have all the answers and that SXSW doesn’t always get it right. However, in terms of an event that has grown to transcend business, culture and technology, it remains at the top of the pack – something which we can all learn from and shoot towards.

 

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