Every year, it’s the same story – “It’s too big! It’s going downhill!” And every year I leave more inspired and more connected than the previous year. Perhaps it’s because at year 4, I’m now a SXSW “vet.” I know what I’m here for. I know who I want to see…and I can’t seem to walk down the road without bumping into an old friend.
I bugged the crap out of my coworkers who attended with me this year. It’s the first time I’ve ever come with coworkers, and every dive and restaurant in downtown has a memory – “This is where I met our current business partners,” or “This is where I met Marla!”
And that’s how SXSW goes. Many come for the first time expecting to be able to “prove” the value of the expense of attending by the number of business cards you leave with. By assessing potential partners on a professional level. Or by finding some new breakout service or app you can use in business. That’s simply not how it works. Go to CES is you’re looking for a breakout product.
A successful SXSW trip just happens. It’s in the atmosphere… in the friends you make. Old friends introduce you to new ones, and before you know it, you’ve found some cool new thing to look at that you’d never see on the expo floor.
I was grilled several times by fine people at my company about what I was “learning.” My response: “I don’t know yet.” There are tons of interesting sessions. I went to 3 all week. I didn’t attend a single one relating to analytics (my current profession). Some developers at our company went to 4 hour workshops to learn something, and left disappointed. You don’t learn anything here, at least not in the sense of “I’m going to leave with new knowledge of web design tips and tricks that will make my workflow more efficient.” I’m in analytics – I didn’t leave with new advanced knowledge of processing social inputs in order to deliver better ROI numbers.
I did leave incredibly inspired. Our developers did the same – they talked about some way of doing a layout on a site that will make the design process easier. It just didn’t FEEL like we were learning anything. Inspiration is way more powerful, and yet way more subtle than learning.
I found news ways of thinking about old problems. I revisited topics like geospatial data from Foursquare in light of their new direction as a company. Do I have a 4 step plan to implementation in our current projects, with an ROI number, and client deliverable attached? NO. But in thinking about it, I’m becoming a lot better at my job, and I’m going down pathways that will create better intelligence in our campaigns. And yes, ultimately, will enhance our analytics with geospatial data. But that’s entirely not the the point.
The point is that inspiration, especially the very unique SXSW version of inspiration, is what causes you to create new things that no one has ever done, or do old things in ways no one else has. And you make the world of social, in whatever your niche or capacity, a better place for everyone else there.
Simply put – SXSW creates long-tail value that changes the world… slowly. iteratively… But in amazing ways you can’t predict. I’ll know in about 6 months what I learned here this year.
Ted Rubin coined the phrase Return on Relationship. SXSW illustrates the concept perfectly. I was taking around a young guy in my department one night and introducing him to people I know. He asked, “What does she do?” My response, “I don’t know what ALL she does… she makes videos, has a startup, and does generally amazing stuff.”
Him: “Do we want to work with her?”
Me: “No no no… that’s not the point. It’s just great to know her.”
I was talking about the unparalleled Melissa Pierce. It’s good to know people. Especially people at SXSW. I met a really cool guy last year, from some agency in Florida I had never heard of. Now he’s managing Social Strategy for Livefyre, my favorite commenting system on the web. (You should use it, by the way, if you don’t already) Everyone at SXSW is someone. And they’re people who know other interesting people at SXSW, or major brands, or crazy startups, or any number of other people you need to meet, around the world. There’s no one at SXSW that’s NOT worth meeting. Besides maybe that creepy cupid guy on Aisle 1300 in the expo.
But probably even he’s worth knowing.
Measuring your trip by the card-collecting of potential business partners is a sure-fire way to leave disappointed. Share. Share freely. Don’t look for conversations with people who have immediate value to you.
My dear friend Marla Schulman and I met at SXSW a few years ago after she stuck a camera in my face and grilled me about price gouging at gas stations (I ran digital marketing for one at the time). The connection didn’t appear incredibly valuable to either of us at the time. I followed my typical habit of emailing everyone I met with a business card at SXSW. And days later, we were partnering on one of the most amazing and exciting things I’ve ever done in my career, along with GM, and Mark Horvath, in working with Invisible People.
Every person at SXSW is amazing and innovative in their own ways. And a lot of the time, it’s those random connections with no immediately visible value that allow you to connect with someone to do something truly amazing that neither of you could’ve done alone.
SXSW is about serendipity. Serendipity rainbows with giant pots of gold at the end.
SXSW has evolved. It’s very different than last year. But I still maintain that it’s simply a place that you can’t afford to miss. There is immeasurable value here, if you look beyond easy business connections or simple learning in your field.