The South by Southwest festival is eighteen years young, and more than 20,000 are expected to attend this week in Austin, where the SXSW Interactive and Film conferences kick off on Friday. The festival has grown from its alternative roots as a confab for a tightknit group of musicians and fans who flocked to Texas to catch the next Michelle Shocked to encompass corporate sponsors and corporate types. It's now a must-attend mainstream event and a hotbed of innovation, which makes it a must-attend for companies in the digital and tech space, especially startups.
"Some people tend to think of 'South By' as more of a [consumer-facing] event where the next big thing like Twitter gets launched. But you have a lot of B2B brands setting up booths next to B2Cs. You'll go to a panel and see the head of marketing for Adobe sitting next to Pepsi on stage. That's what makes it great," said Jesse Noyes of Eloqua. "Unlike other conferences, it's where you can get in front of both up-and-coming and established players. You want to be in that."
Twitter made an explosive debut at SXSW in 2007, followed by Gowalla and Foursquare in 2009. Last year Apple stole the spotlight with its pop-up iPad store, and this year’s star contenders include ‘people discovery’ applications Highlight and Glancee.
Highlight CEO Paul Davison describes his as “a mobile app that helps you learn more about the people around you. If you are standing near me and you also have Highlight installed, your profile will show up on my phone. I can see your name, profile photo, all of the friends we have in common, and all of the other things we have in common — like if we went to the same school or are from the same hometown. I can also see a history of the times we have crossed paths before. If I am walking down the street and Highlight sees someone particularly interesting crossing my path, it will notify me.”
A new feature, "Startup Village," will house "startups, entrepreneurs, investors, and cutting-edge digital tastemakers" under one tent. "It's like the parable about the elephant," commented SXSW Interactive director Hugh Forrest to CNET.
"You see what you want to. If you want it to be corporations and marketing, you can see that. But if you want to see it as an event for non-profits doing technology, we have 50 to 100 panels on that. We've always wanted it to be a big tent. It's just gotten to be a slightly bigger tent."
Google is sponsoring a "Google Village," where it will demonstrate (for example) multiscreen with MOVL, and a Live from the Lot series of rooftop concerts with YouTube.
Jay-Z will be returning to SXSW for a second year, this time to promote American Express and Twitter's new partnership, with an "Amex Sync Show" performance that will be live-streamed on AmEx's YouTube channel.
Sponsors such as PepsiCo will be vying for space, wtih partnerships the norm as brands dosey-do to attract attention. Foursquare and VH1 have teamed to promote the cable network's school music program philanthropic effort via various venues with check-in at follow VH1 on Foursquare with VH1 donating $1 to VH1 Save The Music Foundation for the first 35,000 users unlocking a badge. They’re betting that SXSW will be a fecund field.
Omnipresent social marketing software company Buddy Media will take to the streets in a "blinged-out" golf cart, dispensing free coffee and snacks and cash prizes via #CoffeeCashCart, inviting pedestrians to tweet the hash-tag, and check a Facebook tab for golf cart logistics.
There will be great food, parties and entertainment galore, with the adjacent SXSW film festival this year offering “132 feature films playing at 10 venues, 12 hours a day for nine days. There are 74 world premieres, 17 North American premieres and 11 U.S. premieres, with 58 films by first-time directors, all of which were selected from some 5,271 submissions, a 7 percent increase over last year,” notes MTV.