Yahoo, Yodel, Yodel House

What’s the ROI on SXSW investment?

Yahoo, Yodel, Yodel House
The Yahoo Yodel House at SXSW 2015

The amount of money spent by companies trying to capture the attention of the tens of thousands of people visiting SXSW this year will run in to many millions of dollars.  The return they are likely to get on it is questionable.  Part of the problem is that most will have set no clear goals; part is that even those that did will not have any way to measure whether or not they have been achieved, let alone quantify the value delivered as a result of their investment.

Let’s take Yahoo! as an example.  I use it because it is one of the bigger names and it had a huge presence at the event, taking over one of Austin’s premier event and live music venues [according to its website], Brazos Hall.  Other similar examples include GE, IBM and VISA.

I visited the Yahoo ‘Yodel’ House a couple of times during my trip to SXSW and they had spared no expense.  There were the standard free drinks, lavish decoration in brand colours [which was changed on a regular basis], an AV set up that most local television stations would be envious of, venue managers, security, bar staff… you get the idea.  On both occasions it was buzzing.

My question is what was the point?  What did Yahoo! get out of it?  The lounge was busy.  People had a good time. They were able to recharge their devices.  They had a few [more] free drinks. My question to them is, SO WHAT?  What’s the tangible benefit?  The return on investment?

My peers would claim that visitors were engaging with the brand. They’ll say the Yodel House created buzz; pictures were shared on Instagram; people were Meerkat-ing [sic]; tweeting; hashtagging… This is often called ’brand awareness’ or brand marketing [it might be awareness, but it’s not marketing] and that’s great, but it is also unquantifiable! It has no tangible value.

I use this not to single out Yahoo! but to illustrate a growing trend.  Companies through huge amounts of money at making on awareness but without considering whether it makes financial sense to do so.  Often there is little thought about what the long-term return will be, let alone the short-term one.

It’s a dangerous trend. Sure, companies like Yahoo! and their ilk can afford it. They have deep pockets.  Some smaller companies have VC money they can “invest”, but the majority don’t.  And, if there is no tangible value then surely the money could be better invested in other things?  Things that are likely to deliver a return. Things that are likely to support the growth of the business – not just brand awareness for its own sake.

How many people that visited the Yahoo! lounge at SXSW will have gone home and changed their default search engine from Google to Yahoo!?  I think you know the answer to that.

Startup and SmallBiz Marketing tip: understand what action you want people to take and focus your time, energy and money on achieving it.  Successful marketing begins with strong relationships built via public relations.

Meerkat has created a monster!

SXSW 2015 will be remembered as the year a monster was created. Make that many monsters.

In the week prior to the annual geek-fest in Austin two words entered common usage amongst twitter users.  The two words that should strike fear in to the heart of every social media professional, [LIVE NOW], followed by the short URL mrk.tv and the hashtag #meerkat

Meerkat, if you missed it, is a tool that allows video to be live-streamed directly in to a twitter feed.  It briefly enabled account holders to notify twitter followers when they were live streaming using the 140-character app’s social graph so that users didn’t need to create a new audience.  That changed shortly after the firm arrived at SXSW, the annual digital and interactive equivalent of spring break held in Austin, TX.

Meerkat is the perfect app for the self-publicist to broadcast every mundane moment of their uninteresting lives to the world.  People streamed everything and anything but, largely, nothing of any note.  Some have streamed pre-stream warm ups where the ‘main event’ was uninteresting and the pre-show stream was a nadir!

I’ve read, and heard, people saying that Meerkat is a game-changer for social and content marketers by allowing ‘brands’ to live stream video in their twitter feed.  But, for all the hype around Meerkat it is just another content creation and syndication tool that requires quality content and an engaged audience.  For all the hype around Meerkat these the two things that most companies struggle with most and until they fix it the app has more potential to annoy and alienate people than it has to engage them.

It’s a bit like giving a jetpack to everybody and telling them it will allow them to travel from anywhere to everywhere – unless you know how to use it it is far more of a danger than it is beneficial.

My suspicion is that, despite the hype, the appeal for twitter users will wear off quickly as audiences tire of viewing the minutia of day-to-day life.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and Marketing tip: Understand what content your audience wants and give it to them.  Don’t invest time and money creating content on every platform – focus on quality.

SXSW, Social Media, IRL

SXSW Is Social Media – IRL

As an entrepreneur and a PR ‘guy’ SXSW is an interesting experience.  2015 was my second time in Austin and as I sit in a bar on my way to the airport I wanted to share a few observations and some recommendations for other entrepreneurs considering attending next year.

I was fortunate to be part of the Canadian trade delegation this year.  As an expat Brit living in Canada it was great to be allowed to represent my adopted home.  It was also great to see what some of my co-entrepreneurs are working on across the technology, film and music industries.  Canadians have a reputation for being not tooting their horn loudly enough.  We need to fix that – there is clearly plenty to ‘toot’ about!

So, what stood out this year?

The same old buzzwords;  continued lack of substance. 

If I had a dollar for every time I heard the word engagement I’d be a very rich man.  If I had a dollar for every time it was used correctly, I would probably not have enough to pay for a coffee at the airport.  The same is true for terms like brand, authenticity, “social”.

They have become mantras for the tech, PRublicity [my term for the army of ‘PR Pros’ that are actually publicists] and marketing industries but most within the industry – let alone their customers – understand either their meaning or their significance.

There’s no longer differentiation between PR, marketing and publicity

…but there should be.  My peers have lost sight of the value of each discipline.  The majority of events were public relations [despite the fact that most would not describe them as such.  The majority of what many would call marketing was, in fact, publicity.  SXSW has become a competition from companies to see who can make the most noise. and this leads to a lot of waste – wasted cash, wasted resources and wasted opportunities.

None of these are ever  long-term strategy for business success – but for many of the small businesses and startups attending it is the fastest path to running out of money.

This year, more than ever, the background noise was louder than ever.  Being heard was ever more difficult.  SXSW is a perfect illustration of how most companies are using social media platforms – as a tool for shouting messages in the hope they are heard, rather than a opportunity to better understand their customers, identify sales opportunities and complement customer service activities.

As a result, both social and SXSW are likely to become less attractive and less effective unless attendees change the way they use them.

The conference is about the speakers, not the attendees. 

I caveat this that I didn’t attend the conference but followed as many of the sessions that I could on twitter.  From what I saw it’s the same “celebrities” saying the same, hackneyed, vanilla stuff they’ve been saying for years!  There’s little practical value in the conference panels for the attendees paying thousands of dollars for the badge – it appears to be more a vehicle for people to promote themselves, rather than adding value to attendees.

[I also realize that my chances of speaking at the event are now zero!!]

The real value is in serendipity 

Everybody says that ‘south-by’ is about the people you meet in a bar or at a party.  And, it’s true.  It’s the random meetings; the conversations; the introductions to complete strangers, by complete strangers that will be the things that have lasting value in the weeks and months after we leave Austin.
Nobody can explain what it is they do – or why anybody should care

Part of what I do is helping customers figure out how they explain what they do and the value it provides for their customers.  I help them figure out why anybody – whether a prospect, investor, analyst or journalist – would care about their product or service.  At events I take time to ask people representing the exhibitors what they do – and I’m always surprised at how few are able to do it.  Most try; the majority use long-drawn out explanations that are full of meaningless words.  Almost none can do it in a sentence or two in words my parents would understand.

Having spent thousands of dollars to exhibit they fail to clear the first hurdle.

SXSW is social media – in real life.  

I was asked to sum up SXSW by a friend who has never been.  The best description I could come up with was that it’s like social media, only in real life.  Lots of noise, some interesting conversations and occasionally you meet somebody where there is mutual business benefit.

Startup and SmallBiz PR and marketing tip: focus on finding the people that matter most to your business and building and maintaining strong relationships with them.  Social media is fun, but real-life will always deliver more business value.

This is the first of a series of post-SXSW reflection pieces.  I’d love to hear your observations: the highs and lows, and the just plain weird.