SXSW 13 – a summery, a comparison, a vacation.

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SXSW (South by Southwest) is conference/festival happening in Austin every year. It is split into three categories: Interactive, Music and Film. People and companies from everywhere in the world show up for this event and Austin goes nuts with happenings taking place day and night during that time. 

To understand what my second time was like, I have to start at SXSW 12.

I was impressed, no, my mind was blown by SXSW Interactive in 2012! As a student I had to pay the $700 ticket myself, just as the stay and the flight. And yes, it was the only vacation I took that year.

But it was so worth it!!

Tech during the day, party at night! The perfect conference, the perfect place to get great entertainment and meet new people – this is the perfect vacation!

Tech companies such as Google and Foursquare got really creative to attract the audience. Foursquare thought of their own ball game everybody was allowed to play with the staff and the founder Dennis Crowley, and they handed out “FOURSQUARE SXSW 2012” shirts to those who came up with an idea how to make the app better.

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Google was showing new devices, created 3D games in combination with Google Maps, let people create own cupcakes and had an open bar on two nights.

As they were promoting their at that time new software Icecream Sandwich, they were handing out free icecream sandwiches to the crowd. Now come on, that’s the easiest marketing thing you can think of, but to the fans it was also the best.

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Nokia had an impressive snow landscape, their own Nokia cocktail, rock bands, and showed their new devices –which as an iPhone owner I get probably killed for saying– I found impressive, sexy and cool right away.

And these are just three out of let’s say 10 companies that really impressed me last year.

Talks in 2012 were half/half. Some were really great, others really disappointing. But that’s just as it always is. After 3 days of trying to catch every interesting talk, I stepped down and spent more outside, getting to know people and enjoyed just being there.

So this year, I was more relaxed. I knew I wouldn’t be able to listen to every interesting talk, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to every party and I knew how to skip the line, if I really wanted to get it.

But this year was different with everything. I was looking forward to all the great acts again and well…

Foursquare threw a party, Google showed up for one day, Squarespace I didn’t see at all and FedEx neither. Nor did I find Nokia, and Samsung offering free charging for phones was a neat idea, but compared to what they showed off last week in Barcelona – nothing.

Though this SXSW felt bigger from the number of people, the size of the event felt smaller.

So what happened? Here are my options:

1. The companies are broke. About Foursquare I heard rumors, but Google… Really? Hm.

2. The companies don’t see any value and return of investment on “throwing everything at fans” anymore, which is sad, sad, sad, because I still tell people about foursquare’s ball game, the Google Village, and FedEx having people wearing batteries in their clothes to be able to charge your phone.

3. SXSW or Austin changed the conditions for companies and pissed them off.

4. SXSW is kinda dead, because it’s not just the geeks anymore, and the companies don’t feel they only reach their target group now.

5. (please feel free to add your idea in the comments)

How can one of the main spots (between the Hilton Hotel and the Convention Center) stay empty?

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But apart from that: SXSW is not just yay yay yay with your favourite tech companies, great food and fancy drinks, but also tech talks/a conference.

Though I don’t work in mobile or online education (yet), this field interests me a lot and I visited a lot of sessions last year. This year, unfortunately, they decided to exclude this topic and start SXSWEdu. I’ll have to visit that next year I guess because I really missed it.

There were a couple of great talks this year: I very much enjoyed the interview with foursquare’s founder Dennis Crowley again, got seriously inspired by Jonah Peretti from BuzzFeed (link gets you to a great summery done by Thomas Knüwer) and am lucky I made it to sneak into the mobile saturday session Re-imagine everything with people from Wallgreens, BET Black Entertainment Television, Atimi Software, and Urban Airship.

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Foursquare check-ins during Hurricane Sandy

Unfortunately wanderlust, the space where the cool mobile talks took place, was way to small and it felt it didn’t sit more than 100 people, while people were standing outside in lines for hours.

Everything else was pretty much not worth mentioning. Yes, it was nice to listen to Al Gore, but he pretty much summed up his book and well.

What else was missing this year?

The app! Where was the big launch of a new app? I read online about an event app, but it wasn’t available in the German iTunes Store (playing USA only is pretty stupid at an international conference btw), but never heard or read or saw ads anywhere.

So no app launch.

But Highlight (the big announcement last year) showed up again, presenting their new case (photo sharing with people close by) and promoted their idea by handing out free ice cream, taking pictures of the people and telling them to get the photo by downloading the app. Easy.

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Highlight Photo & Ice Cream

Summing it up: This year I was less impressed, but that is also because I had different and higher expectations than last year. I met a bunch of smart, fun and cool people which made this event wonderful, exciting, great. I did pick up a few good talks, but not as many as last year, because the education part was missing.
It was worth coming, but I have to overthink a badge for next year.

What I have to say though: I felt in love with Austin itself this year. Walking down South Congress and seeing all these nice little stores, the food trucks and a completely laid back atmosphere made me want to stay longer in Austin and not just rush in and out for a conference.

For next year I hope tech companies surprise me with their new stuff, new ways to make me spend time at their area and not just hand me free drinks one night. Because I believe neither me nor the companies want to invest in a one night stand with them, but a life long relationship. Put a little passion in your marketing, just as last year, and make me tell everybody about how innovative, creative and woooww! you are again. I appreciate your online service, but don’t disappoint me offline. We are more than users, we are fans. You get all my data, all my money, all my time – this is your opportunity to show a little love back.

Also: Show cases, numbers, fails in your talks. Not the usual PR bla bla, I read in every interview.

Looking forward to my next time in Austin, maybe even for SXSWEdu and SXSWMusic, because Interactive is not enough anymore.

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