I refuse to do it. I refuse to be another SXSWi naysayer. While I can see that it might have been overwhelming for some, and the panels can be woefully disappointing to others, if you didn’t get anything out of SXSWi, you weren’t trying hard enough.
I have been to SXSWi for three years and I recognize that because it’s such a big conference with such a diverse group of attendees, you may need to work a little harder to find the right panels, get into the right parties and find where the folks you interact with are congregating, but, no matter what you’re looking for, it’s there.
There are lots of blog posts and tweets that provide advice on how to prepare for SXSWi. The best post I read on prepping for SXSWi was Kyle Flaherty’s post, Will SXSWi Rock for a B2B Marketer? My favorite piece of advice was, “If you leave SXSWi and say that the best conversations you had were in the hallway you did a poor job planning your schedule…” While I had many valuable hallway conversations, this year I focused on making sure I made a must-see list of panels, and I made most of them. (I made it to all of them but some were too full for me to attend.)
People generally say the panels at SXSWi are the least valuable part of SXSWi. While I agree that there are many useless panels, there are also many valuable panels. Some panelists mail it in because they don’t mind being one of many bad panels at SXSWi. I think as attendees, we need to hold panelists accountable.
One thing I learned at SXSWi my first year is that some of the panels were more 101, while others are more advanced learning. It was kind of a bummer to sit in panels where I knew more about the subject than the speaker. Then I learned that the title isn’t enough, spend just a minute or two reading the description and looking at who the speakers are. These provide a lot of information. While it was more difficult to do this year because many of the sessions were full before they started, panel hopping is always an option, as is walking out and starting the ever-so-valuable hallway conversation, but more on that below.
Despite what you may have heard about SXSWi, there were some really good panels, even for those of us who are considered long-timers in this space, who eat, sleep and breathe Community Management/Social Media. I went to some great, well thought out, well put together panels and I learned something from them. Here are just a few:
- Crime Scene: Digital Identity Theft – I have to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in attending this panel. I went to support my brother, Aaron Strout. It turned out to be an energetic informative conversation that made me realize that I am responsible for digital security both as an individual and as a community consultant and manager.
- Keynote: Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity – This seemed to be a bit of a theme at SXSWi. The message I came away with was that just because someone’s content is public, it does not mean they want it to be publicized.
- Lost In Translation: The Nuances of European Social Media – A great panel that was true to its name. It covered a large number of social media angles. It scratched the surface but was a great intro to what to think about regarding approaching a Social Media strategy in Europe
- Evan Williams Keynote Interview – I described this to a friend as an MBA case study, valuable but boring. That said, there were some great takeaways from the conversation. Read the interviewer, Umair Haque’s takeaways. It could have been better but I’m happy I went.
There were other great panels as well, like the best ever Sports Metaphor core conversation led by Tim Walker, who made sure we left SXSWi on a high note.
Lunches, dinners and other get-togethers
There were too many great ones to name here but conversations over dinner tend to be very different from those that happen at a party or in the hallways. Lunch or dinner conversations at SXSWi allow you to catch up with old friends and learn from new ones. They also allow a debrief and download of what you’ve learned at the conference with those who are just as involved in the conference as you are.
Meetups in the blogger lounge, hallways and other serendipity
The blogger lounge is probably one of the best things about SXSWi. SXSWi is huge, 12,000 people signed up to attend SXSWi and I believe there were closer to 15,000 attendees. As I’m focused on Social Media and Online Communities, it’s nice to have the blogger lounge to meet up with those focused on Social Media and Online Communities as well.
These same conversations start in line, in the halls and sitting next to folks in panels. People start talking about a great panel they just went to, a thought or conversation they just had, and you find yourself in the middle of a valuable, educational conversation.
And of course the parties
Lots of companies have private, SXSWi only and public parties and this year was no exception. Unlike in years past, I didn’t have to wait in nearly as many lines. Twitter and experience helped me know where to be to avoid most lines. In the past, it seemed the parties were largely all the same, free food and drink in the day, free drinks at night, but not significant variety. They all seemed to be at downtown bars. Don’t get me wrong, Austin bars are awesome, especially with the amazingly beautiful weather we had, we were able to take advantage of the roof decks. I also made it to the best party I’ve attended at SXSWi, the Powered Inc. party, where comedian Brian Posehn did some standup. I also got to see The Walkmen at the Digg party and saw some amazing Karaoke at the TechKaraoke party.
Of course, I also met great people and continued lots of conversations with people I had met at the blogger lounge and other locations throughout the day.
No jerks allowed
There’s another term I’d prefer not to publish that we use a lot when talking about folks at SXSWi. It’s a term reserved for those who have big blog and/or twitter followings and act like superstars and those who only feel complete when they namedrop.
While I can say I did witness these personalities, I overwhelmingly witnessed lots of smiles, lots of handshakes, many business card exchanges, and an overwhelming warmth that the Social Media industry is known for. Even those like Chris Brogan and Jeremiah Owyang, who can’t move without someone telling them how great they are, manage, somehow, to stay humble and open through what I’m sure is five incredibly overwhelmingly busy days for them.
I realize this blog post is particularly long and I don’t feel like I even scratched the surface on the value I got out of SXSWi this year. I learned so much and met so many great people. Even more valuable to me, I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends and I look forward to doing it all again next year.
Special thanks to Kyle Flaherty for reminding me that SXSWi has value and that preparation is key and for writing a great follow-up post on this same subject. I also want to thank Aaron Strout for being a great brother and the über-connector who makes sure everyone is introduced to everyone, and to Jim Storer for letting me show him some of the best of Austin. Thanks also to Farland Group, my company, for sending me and allowing me to be a representative of a team I’m honored to represent.
It was great seeing and meeting everyone, if I tried to name you all here, this post would stretch way beyond its already extra-long length.