20 Things You Shouldn't Do at SXSWi (and 5 Things You Should)


SXSW is like Burning Man with clothes.


One of the few things I've done more often than go to SXSWi (9 times) is go to Burning Man (11 times). Politics and mission aside, they're both a celebration of individual creativity and spontaneous interaction. While Burning Man is (blissfully) free of commerce and professionalism, SXSWi celebrates it. But, please, don't waste anyone's time by confusing SXSW's celebration of all things interactive with some sort of right to force your wishes on anyone who's there.

Over the years I've seen endless companies try and launch at SXSW and I can firmly say that at this point unless you know EXACTLY what you're doing, I would avoid any temptation to do so. If you know exactly the attitude of the thousands of people that attend each year, if you understand the dynamic between events and social time, if you understand the mood of the Internet running up to SXSW and you know exactly who will be doing the promoting for you, then go for it and market your product at SXSW. If you do not know the above terms and do not like wasting money, do not try and market anything at SXSW.

There are 2 ways to connect with prospective fans at SXSW. Go big or go down-low indie. But if you get caught in the middle you're going to leave feeling pretty hollow.

Companies that are launching at SXSW want to go big, they just have no idea how big the scope gets. The scale of SXSW is so big that 5 people walking around handing out things are akin to 5 flies buzzing while you're at Disneyland. You don't even notice them.

Here's what else you shouldn't do:

Don't have a party at a venue that is far away.
Don't try and get people to your hotel room.
Don't present anything.
Don't give out non-awesome swag.
Don't not have booze.
Don't not have food.
Don't make people wait longer than 20 minutes to get into your party.
Don't put temps in a position to represent your brand.
Don't give away bad t-shirts - and don't just have guy size T-shirts.
Don't expect that free beer alone is a draw.
Don't not get a good DJ.
Don't have a party that requires temps telling complete strangers to come.
Don't not send the CEO or founders of your company.
Don't outsource your marketing effort to an outside creative team.
Don't ask temps and junior employees to act like they really care.
Don't have people handing out flyers to join an app they've never used.
Don't do anything that is going to get a lot of press for a stunt instead of your product.
Don't say anything to strangers unless you think you can really make their day.

If you do anything that isn't done really big and properly, do not try and do anything big at all - you're just not going to get noticed. So please, don't even try.

Unless your budgets are bottomless, I'd really recommend not even trying to fight shoulder-to-shoulder. Some of the best things I've seen done are low key. Exactly one year after FourSquare launched in 2009 at SXSW, Dennis Crowley and team drew a chalk four square in front the convention center and ran a pickup game. Scott Beale of LaughingSquid waits until there's a lull in places to go/be and announces a spontaneous drink-up just when people are looking for something to do. Other tactics I've seen work: Stand in front of the convention center in a costume and you'll be surprised how many people will approach you to ask what you have (people in costumes aren't expected to be a brand representative the way someone in a T-shirt is). Rent a cadillac convertible and just drive around and offer rides. Give away something funny but needed like Alka Seltzer, Emergen-C packets, or shots of espresso. And whatever you do, go to parties, network and expand your mind.

There are so many great ways to engage with people at SXSW. Don't choose one that isn't.

Ted Rheingold is the vice president of social at Say Media, the founder of Dogster and Catster - and a startup mentor at SXSW this year. Follow him on Twitter @tedr.


Since I don't do SXSW anymore, here's a few of the things we did in the past that worked well. On clever giveaways, we set up a recliner in our booth and gave away free oxygen from a tank. We'd give people 5 minutes of O2 in an easy chair with headphones and their choice of music. Great for hangovers or just a quick pick-me-up. Really drove booth traffic and created buzz. We also gave away vials of royal jelly and ginseng. It's cheap to buy in bulk at any large Asian market. We wrapped the vials in stickers with our corporate logo. You want people saying, "Hey, did you see those guys with the really cool...?"

One of the things that is common during the music week but less so during SXSWi is good after hours parties. The bars in Austin close at 2, but it's perfectly legal to give away booze at a private party after 2. One year we got a deal on kegs from a local brewery, bought 500 pounds of local barbecue, hired a cool laser light show and ran 15 bands live starting at 1 am and going well past 5. We had literally thousands attend. There were lines around the block.

Find a good location for your party. Restaurants and bars are expensive and usually booked well in advance. We'd look for unopened venues, warehouses, office building lobbies, even car dealerships can work well. Look for a big, open space that isn't usually a party venue. Be creative in your thinking and you can find a cool venue close in to the heart of the conference. Plan early and make sure you have a local Austin source to track down potential venues and advise on location.

BTW, make sure you don't infringe on SXSW events or intellectual property. They police related events pretty closely. Also, make sure you clear your event with the fire marshals or they will shut you down. Check with the city to see if you'll need a permit and plan accordingly. Nothing is worse than putting blood, sweat and money into an event and getting a great turn-out, only to be shut down mid party.


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