SXSW Success: The Pros and Cons of South by Southwest for Economic Developers
April 7, 2016
With one of year’s largest tech conferences officially behind us, DCI asked a group of savvy economic development marketers to weigh in on the benefits – and disadvantages – of integrating South by Southwest into your annual marketing plan:
South by South-What?
Amid the panels, parties and big name speakers, South by Southwest Conference and Festival (SXSW) in Austin, TX has become a mecca of marketing and lead generation for economic developers. The price tag for the event can range from purchasing a single badge to a full-blown booth or party, providing a range of options for many budgets. Still, with the cost of a badge close to that of admission to other industry conferences, many economic development organizations find themselves questioning if SXSW is the most effective use for their increasingly limited budgets.
Adriana Cruz, president of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, which is located in the heart of the Austin-San Antonio corridor and has been ranked the fastest growing city in the country for the last three years, has been involved in SXSW as an economic developer for more than a decade. She says, “SXSW is a strategic conference for economic developers in a myriad of areas that help complete their missions. From talent attraction, prospect procurement, community promotion and innovation, the conference allows organizations to target a diverse audience.”
The competition to stand out, however, is high. Cruz added that the key to success for economic developers at the conference is to take full advantage of your investment, whether that’s a badge or a booth.
The Austin Chamber of Commerce is located immediately next to the Austin Convention Center where all the conference action is. Leveraging their strategic location and host city title, the Austin Chamber had their own session track with Interactive sessions held at their offices, including: “Austin’s new space economy;” “Smart City: the Austin opportunity for health;” “Can Austin take top talent from Silicon Valley?” and “Can Austin rule the AI world?”
The Washington DC Economic Partnership (WDCEP) also had a strong presence at the festival. Rather than participating on the trade show floor or in the talent recruitment trade show, they rented out a restaurant adjacent to the Austin Convention Center for three full days and nights. The chamber hosted catered breakfasts, lunches and evening parties with well-known DJs, and it was open to all SXSW badge holders. Companies from their region conducted rapid-fire pitches with investors, and the organization hosted events throughout all three days. They partnered with Events DC to highlight Washington DC’s creative economy, music and festivals. During the WeDC Startup Showcase, they worked with DC tech companies including Miles + Stockbridge, Drone Airspace Management and Venture.co to promote the city’s tech startup scene. Newseum and other organizations conducted live broadcasts on Periscope and elsewhere online. They utilized the #WEDC hashtag on all social platforms with great success with journalists and attendees sharing their information.
The city’s efforts at SXSW benefit from the planning that goes into conference participation throughout the year which also includes the International Council of Shopping Centers conference and the Washington DC Economic Partnership’s annual meeting in Washington DC.
Choose San Antonio had a large presence on the Interactive trade show floor with a unique setup. Bold graphic visuals in the booth with faux grass flooring, lawn chairs and a corn hole game were part of the engaging decor. They directed attendees to participate in one of their many after-hour events at a nearby bar tailored for cybersecurity professionals and start-ups, as well as sponsored several individual panel sessions. Additionally, in an effort to attract more San Antonio locals, the organization provided a free shuttle from San Antonio to Austin during the Interactive conference.
We’ve broken down the conference into a few specific areas of interest for economic developers, including the pros and cons of each.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Pro: Leaders in innovation flock to the conference.
Con: Showcases the high number of startups vying for capital, making creative ideas and (sometimes) money a must.
Tomorrow’s creators descend on SXSW in large numbers, attracting attention from those resources that can take them to the next level. San Marcos-based Texas State University, the fourth largest university in Texas with nearly 38,000 students, held the first ever Texas State University Innovation Lab event at SXSW. The strategic networking event and innovation showcase allowed for Texas State to demonstrate the creativity and innovation of the university’s talented students, as well as how the university is actively collaborating with industries to bring game-changing technologies to the world. The event was set up strategically outside of some Interactive panels that let out just as the Innovation Lab kicked off. It showcased 12 student startups that are actively working on products and services that can help propel an innovative economy for the future. The Texas State University Innovation Lab was a great opportunity to elevate the university’s brand, focus on disruptive research and deliver the message that they are open for business.
“The SXSW Interactive Festival has become the world’s most important technology showcase due to its focus on connecting and inspiring talented tech industry executives, entrepreneurs, investors, municipal government planners and university researchers,” said Jose Beceiro, director of strategic corporate partnerships, university advancement, Texas State University. “The focus on creativity and innovation is what sets SXSW apart from other major technology conferences. This dynamic combination is what is giving rise to the new innovation economy, and setting the Austin/San Marcos region apart from other major growth corridors around the world.”
Workforce and Talent Attraction
Pro: Provides an avenue to position communities as ideal places to live among millennials and young professionals.
Con: Large number of events and marketing campaigns make it important to “go big or go home”.
With its demographic of millennials and young professionals, Austin is an opportunity to position your community as an ideal location to work and live. The Greater Des Moines Partnership hosted the Des Moines Embassy with programming and music for attendees from March 11-19, 2016. The Partnership set up its Embassy in a hotspot of foot traffic in close proximity to the convention center. The event’s objective was to highlight Greater Des Moines as a great place to build a life and career to a potential audience of more than 50,000 people.
Through the Des Moines Embassy, the Greater Des Moines Partnership reached a young professionals crowd of 25-34-year-olds, which is a rapidly growing age demographic in the region, and one specifically targeted to through their programming. Goals were measured by counting the number of people in attendance at The Embassy and by cultivating relationships.
“Having a presence in Austin allowed us to share our region’s story with a unique national audience,” Mary Bontrager, executive vice president, workforce development/education at the Greater Des Moines Partnership. “It helps us capitalize on the buzz happening in Greater Des Moines, and share that buzz with people who might not have discovered us yet, but could see themselves living in a vibrant, growing region like ours.”
Marketing and Promotion
Pro: The world’s media and savviest thinkers have their eyes on SXSW, creating opportunities in the public relations, social media and advertising space.
Con: Competition for interest and meetings with journalists is high due to the large number of events and programming. A flood of advertising and social media make it critical for design and engagement to grab visitor’s attention.
The Orlando Economic Development Commission purchased a full-page print ad in the Interactive Festival guide directing attendees to their website. In addition, the EDC also purchased a paid blog post on the SXSW.com website and a related Tweet from the @sxsw Twitter account, which directed people to their dedicated website landing page where visitors could watch a tech video and review materials on the region’s tech industry.
In their owned media platforms, Orlando had scheduled Tweets continually throughout the conference directing people to the website. According to Jennifer Wakefield, vice president of marketing & communications, Orlando EDC, their tweets were shared many times from both Orlando businesses as well as SXSW attendees.
While there’s stiff competition for visibility throughout SXSW, the abundance of programming and events can make media appointments and placements a more challenging endeavor. Wakefield stated that she met with several high-profile tech reporters to establish relationships, but didn’t focus on securing stories this year.
Corporate Relocations and Expansions
Pro: Large corporate presence from brand name companies.
Con: Limited decision maker attendance and availability.
While corporate recruitment may be a harder sell at the innovation, film and music driven SXSW conference, the efforts put into those nine days can payoff big for EDOs down the line. Ultimately, the local successes through capital investment in startups, population growth and perception changes for today’s workforce, media hits and impressions can all lead to creating more awareness of your community.
“SXSW is a great avenue to market other assets in your community, generating awareness of what you have available and truly getting your name out there, which could lead to project generation down the road,” said Mike Kamerlander, vice president of economic development, Greater San Marcos Partnership. “What it all comes down to is marketing. The more wins your community has in areas like talent development, positive press and fostering entrepreneurship, the longer your reach becomes.”
Has your organization ever considered attending? If so, please leave us a comment below about your decision or tweet us @aboutdci.
Thank you to our guest contributors: Ashley Gossen, director of marketing & Communications, Greater San Marcos Partnership; Jennifer Wakefield, vice president of marketing & communications, Orlando EDC and Tiffany Tauscheck, chief communications officer, Greater Des Moines Partnership