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.