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Breaking Through at SXSW

Austin, TX isn’t just the place where SXSW happens, it’s also the secret sauce, the 11th spice, and the “x-factor,” that makes the festival the cultural phenomenon it is today. So how do brands stand out at SXSW? How do companies break through the noise and leave an impression on conference attendees? 

It’s simple: they give audiences the opportunity to try their product or innovation, they lean into trends, and they add to the overall festival experience. 

SXSW 2024 branding
SXSW 2024

But what do these strategies look like in practice? Let’s look at some examples from the festival’s history to show you what we mean. Read on to see what we can all learn from previous SXSW success. 

Get hands on

SXSW offers visitors the chance to watch creatives, C-suite executives, designers, developers, directors, comedians, and musicians collide, take off, and sometimes, even collaborate in real time. So, exhibiting companies should play into this eruption of thought. They should plan to execute experiences that deliver on the festival’s promise. People don’t want to simply hear about innovation, they want to try it on for themselves. Here’s an example from back in the earliest days of the festival that helped set the tone for all things to follow:

When SXSW first integrated digital media presentations into its line up in 1994, it was called SXSW Film & Multimedia and eventually became SXSW Interactive. One of the most popular events from the ‘90s SXSW was the “World Wide Web Theater.” Guests waited in line for hours to simply enter a room which housed several computers connected to the internet. Once inside, guests got to surf the web. It was so popular it even overshadowed some prominent entertainment events. 

While that story may read a bit dated today, it’s a prime example of what’s always made SXSW an exciting proposition to attendees. 

Because unlike other major tech and innovation conferences, SXSW isn’t a necktie and name tag affair — raucous garage blues band “The Black Keys” are keynote speakers this year. The excitement is baked in. Presenters should be prepared to engage this excitement. 

SXSW isn’t the place to sit consumers down and deliver a presentation on your latest offering. It’s the place to invite them to take it for a test drive. Take it from the guys behind the “World Wide Web Theater,” visitors want a hands-on experience. 

Add to the ecosystem

Our next example is probably one of the most notable displays ever to appear at SXSW: Twitter (now “X”). 

After launching in 2006 to little fanfare, Twitter decided to make a serious impression at SXSW ‘07. How’d they do it? They set up screens in convention center hallways and projected Tweets from users across the halls. They also created an SMS short code to expedite festival goer sign-ups. So, people could not only see the app being used in real time, but also sign up at the same speed of their piqued interest. 

Twitter SXSW 2007
Twitter SXSW 2007

It took off like wildfire. “Wired” magazine wrote, “When you’re down at SXSW zipping to and from different venues, what’s the best way to stay in touch with your friends? This year, it’s not phone, IM, or email, it’s Twitter.” By the end of the festival Twitter had tripled users' Tweets per day. 

So, what’s the lesson here? Simple, Twitter not only let its audience test drive its product, but also added to SXSW's ecosystem. With Twitter, folks could keep tabs on their friends, meet new people, and share which exhibits they felt were worthwhile in real time. It encouraged festival engagement and presented a perfect use case of Twitter’s capabilities. 

But most importantly: it didn’t just give attendees a new toy to play with, it improved and expanded their overall SXSW experience. 

Lean into trends: online or otherwise 

For our final example, let’s look at last year. In 2023, Roku, the TV streaming company, found major success with “Roku City.

Roku City SXSW 2023
Roku City SXSW 2023

The idea behind the pop-up was a simple one: recreate the fictional purple city-scape that scrolls across the service’s screen whenever content isn’t playing. Their exhibit came complete with an indoor park, a retail store, an entertainment room, and even a diner. What compelled a streaming company to erect a cityscape based on their screen saver you ask? Their audience. 

In the years leading up to SXSW 2023, the “Roku City” sparked cultural interest. It frequently appeared in Twitter (or “X”) conversations, was ironically mentioned and “memed” online, and eventually landed a 1,000 word profile in “The New York Times.” Given SXSW's younger audience, it was a safe bet conference-goers were well-aware of “Roku City.” 

Roku Diner at SXSW 2023
Roku Diner at SXSW 2023

The takeaway here is simple: lean into trends, online or otherwise. Maybe the way consumers discuss your brand online doesn’t exactly line-up with your company’s official messaging, but presenters should acknowledge these conversations anyway. SXSW isn’t the place for the cookie cutter promo, it’s an opportunity to meet consumers in their court and deliver something truly memorable. Like say, a smart TV app serving purple-hued food from a pop-up diner.

Get emotional

What do these three examples have in common? They all made an emotional impact on their audience. Whether it was the oh-so-’90s thrill of getting to use the internet before it was everywhere, or the humorous buzz of walking through a meme made real, or the fun of getting to connect with other festival goers on Twitter — all three examples elicited emotion. And while people may not remember exactly what your brand says or does, they will always remember how it makes them feel. 

Obviously, none of the above examples or their underlying strategies can be replicated on a whim. However, marketing teams who do consider these examples when drafting up their big idea for SXSW are more likely to make a splash then those who don’t. 

So before bringing your pop-up or presentation to Austin ask yourself: does it deliver a hands-on experience, does it lean into a trend, or does it add to the festival experience itself? And of course, most importantly, does it create an emotional response? If the answer is yes, you’ve likely got a real shot at standing out among the crowd. 

See you in Austin!

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