I Don't Do SXSWi

The past week, I've had a ton of people assume I'm going to SXSWi. Note that I'm using i, not SXSW - for people that haven't a clue, the conference has been around as film and music for about 20 years. And, sadly, that seems to be a ton of the SM people going.

Now, the usual joke is assume makes an ass out of you and me. Well, it's more an ass out of you, as I cannot justify going to SXSWi and you thinking that I am going because I am in public relations and social media and "have to go" is just bad logic all around.

I am a big believer in conferences. I am a big believer in exhibitions and tradeshows. There are many business cases - business cases - to go to these events and exhibit and have conversations.

There's a reason I go to BlogHer every year: I go to the panels, I've represented clients and sponsored, I see a true business reason that extends beyond meeting other social media people. I get to engage with real people that are not social media gurus, but blog on what they love. There's more value there than someone whose audience is just other marketing or PR or social media people and wanna-be's.

I just don't see that for SXSWi for the majority of the people going to the event. For the past few years, I keep hearing the same thing about SXSWi:
  • It's spring break for social media
  • It's a week long party
  • It's one night after the other of bars and alcohol
  • It's great networking
  • I go every year, and make my agency pay for it no matter what because it's a great party (this said to me by a former boss when I asked what the value is there - notice nothing about actual work, though).
I rarely hear "it's a great event for my company/agency to reach the right people for product A, B or C". It's always about the drinking.

The fact is that social media consultants and gurus are (thankfully) killing social media because of this thinking. This past CES, I ran into enough social media people at CES and asked what client they were there representing.

Too often the response was "I'm here for the parties."

Um, fuck you. CES is not a party event (yes, the companies hold parties to reach the retailers to sell product), but it's a tradeshow where people work. And work hard and a lot of hours. CES is a semi-serious event (it used to be more serious before the booth babes and the mainstreaming of the event ... which will likely kill it, like it killed COMDEX and, to a point, E3) that involves consumer electronics companies trying to show off its wares to purchasers, as well as press. Social media? Yes, it's a TOOL to reach audiences, but not a party thing. If you're at CES to party, seriously, don't come next year.

The best advice I ever got on trade shows and conferences was from a former boss: don't drink - and if you drink, don't drink excessively. You are there for work, and you are representing both your client and the agency. Um, I don't get the sense that any of the SXSWi social media attendees understand that simple mantra.

This year, I see a ton of PR students (I now follow more than 400+ students) tweeting out at SXSWi. This is a very bad precedent, as this is what they will think social media entails. No, it's just a part of public relations, and one tool, and while relationships and face-to-face communications are important, drunken idiocy is best left at spring break.

But back to SXSWi. There are a ton of friends of mine that are attending this year, as they have in the past, that I would love to see. But, I had no business reason to be there.

You see how that works: no business reason. Pretty simple.

I did look at the event, and reached out to a few people about sponsoring parties or similar events because they are consumer electronic products or accessories that make sense for SXSWi as giveaways.

But I understand - better than PR firms and PR people that think throwing parties and buying drinks is social media, and that this is how they get to be the top social media people in PR - that it is about relationships and dialogue. Throwing a party is the shit that publicists do, stunt PR that has short-term value and very little ROI if it's not done right. And throwing a party to throw a party to attract SM people is not doing it right. It's not moving the needle or engaging people if you don't move beyond the same audience. It's noise and it's wasting your client's and agency's money. That should go on the Social Media RFP - does your agency think that it's about parties? If so, run like hell because they didn't talk about engaging and conversations, just throw a party and people will talk about you! (Um, no, they likely won't - or won't long-term).

And, if I was in the music or film business as a publicist, I'd be all over the event. And Austin City Limits. But, I'm not.

But take a step back and think of this: can you justify missing Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday to your boss or client? And, well, the rest of the week is a wash also if you're hungover.

And, as a sage executive said to me about CES: there's going to be a bad day of reckoning for social media. Corporations are going to ask for ROI, and going to party is not ROI.

If social media cannot get out of that mind-set - and it won't - then it will eat itself and become subsumed into another marketing discipline. Where it belongs anyway.

I don't do SXSWi. I just can't justify it. And most businesses - once they get over the shiny social media blindness - won't be able to justify partying for partying's sake either.

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21 comments

  1. I don't know if social media consultants actually have clients aside from *themselves*, but whatever works. 'Olden days' soon enough.

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  2. This type of behavior is what makes it difficult for serious marketers that include the social media channel in their clients' marketing mix (when appropriate).

    Spring Break for social media experts pretty much sums it up.

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  3. I'm subbing for a colleague on a panel with some pretty smart people, fortunately none of which are in the SM elite or in the "guru" crowd -- although one leads digital strategy for one of the world's largest companies. I know, I know -- Nuts to that! I want to hear from the "Top Twitterati"!

    The sad thing? The SM party throwers and no-client "gurus" will pack the house and I'm sure the panel I'm on won't be half as filled. I mean, who wants to learn how big companies are using SM and view influence when you can have free drinks courtesy of someone who talks about SM all the time but doesn't actually do it for clients?

    Personally, I don't get why people would pay to attend SXSW to listen to a personal branding session or just party. If that's why all of these college kids are going then as you pointed out social media will die and they just wasted their first bonus, paycheck or parents money to help kill it. I'm hopeful that it's more than parties and booze -- if not I won't be going back.

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  4. I almost went because a client asked me. With the exception of having to miss that purpose, it's nice to learn that I'm not missing much this time.

    Best,
    Rich

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  5. I love SXSW because it a great time to catch up with contacts from the East and West coast. It is often hard to find an event where so many people from both coasts are in attendance.

    I respect your decision NOT to attend, but I think the value to be derived from an event is really up to the participant. I get quite a bit of value from SXSW - recruiting talent, meeting customers, networking and of course having a great time.

    This year the event coincided with my eight year old's spring break so he is coming along. Our folks are speaking at three or four panels/talks and I couldn't afford to miss the event and Ethan is being a sport agreeing to attend. Of course we won't be staying out at the bars this year - he just isn't into the bar crawl. Of course at eight, Ethan is closer in age to most of the attendees than I am... :)

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  6. Despite actually being at SXSW for the first time I actually partially agree with you. I'm here for some very specific business reasons 1) To meet people I already 'know' (some only virtually) - it's good because there are east and west coast people in one place. I'm meeting them because I have specific things to talk about which is best done face-to-face. 2) I have an idea for a client next year, but share some of your concerns and wanted to check it out myself before recommending it. 3) I wanted to see if anything useful 'fell out' of the visit - and after day one something very useful already has 4) I'm part of a UK government trade mission so Wolfstar also gets to exhibit on the Digital Mission stand, hopefully helping us win business from companies wanting to expand into Europe. Note the last one is the least important, mainly because I think it's a bit of a longshot and I'm not sure how much business is done as opposed to parties of which they are a lot.

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  7. Have to agree with much of your post Jeremy. I was scheduled to go before I left TurboTax...and looking at it from the outside, not such a bad thing.

    If the purpose is a glorified networking session, perhaps that works. But to your point about the number of students and party-goers vs. real biz folks attending...well...you hit on something there.

    We can all sit back and watch the Tweet stream about what kind of drinks, how drunk or some other inside crazy baseball is going on.

    Meanwhile, I'll be working...

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  8. Bravo! Excellent post! I've always thought these events were just for self-proclaimed social media gurus to hang out with out self-proclaimed social media gurus to bolster their egos. And there's probably a good reason why they aren't there to represent any clients: They. Don't. Have. Any.

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  9. Oops. Meant to say "hang out with OTHER self-proclaimed.." I should never attempt typing until my sixth cup of coffee.

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  10. Jeremy, Well said. Like you, I'm sitting out the Social Media High School reunion.

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  11. Many of us come to do business and serious business. In two days I have done more meetings than I can do in a month of flying across the country.

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  12. Thought-provoking post, Jeremy. You've tarred everyone with the same brush, though. Like you, I have a lot of friends in Austin for this event. What I hear from about 90% of them is work-related stuff not parties. Seems to me that a vocal and very small minority are dirtying the water for everyone else.

    About par for the course in social media land.

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  13. I'm in Austin on my own dime... I've been independent for almost 4 years so I always fit the bill for these kinds of trips.

    I'm also not a social media consultant.

    Sure, it is spring break for geeks -- but there are loads of examples of trips which are part-vacation/party and part-business trip. The Lobby, Geeks on a Plane, Summit Series, those industry events in Palm Springs...

    Honestly I don't think there is anything new here. I pay my way, I get some business out of it, I get a few days vacation... I'm not sure what the big deal is?

    I can imagine there is some sour grapes around people who work for BigCo's getting the same deal off someone else's money. But then they have to work for BigCo's the rest of the year on a salary, which sucks.

    Honestly, I see nothning usual or bad about SxSW, it's just a lot more public and in your face because of the scale compared to the other party/vacation/business type events.

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  14. This is my first SXSW. I'd actually avoided it up to know because of the stereotype your blog post promotes.

    But this year, I'm here doing research for an upcoming book on B2B applications of social media.

    So far, I've heard five speakers who have delivered absolutely riveting, insightful perspectives that have expanded my knowledge base and consciousness and go way beyond anything I've ever heard at a conference. And as you know, I've been to a lot of them.

    In a talk about making sense of privacy and publicity, Danah Boyd gave what may have have been the best keynote I've ever seen at any conference about why Buzz failed at integrating a public facing system with one that has always been private and the why using efficiency as the primary compass by which social networks are designed is a flawed approach.

    Check out this artist's rendering, which was inspired by Danah's speech:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/ericschwartzman/4433147631/sizes/o/

    Chris Messina did a session on activity streams that was extremely compelling, suggesting where they may be headed, why and what that means for people and business. If we could accrue and integrate our activity streams, how would that data change they way we remember our past?

    Joi Ito spoke about why he's relocated to Dubai to lobby middle eastern governments to standardize cross border information sharing.

    Kaiser Kuo came in from Beijing to give a very revealing presentation about Google in China, which became a debate about the conflicts between open markets and freedom of expression.

    And Clay Shirky explained why abundance is actually more difficult for society to grapple with than scarcity and what that means for our future.

    For the book, I've interviewed with Chris Messina, Pete Cashmore and Marcus Nelson of Salesforce.com one-on-one. I'll release the recordings as podcasts.

    I've also gotten a chance to meet a number of people for the first time who I've interacted with for years online.

    I can't even begin to describe how valuable this trip has been for me professionally.

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  15. Social events are a powerful lubricant in the business world (golf, fundraisers, dinners, Xmas parties, award ceremonies). People who never go to these sorts of mixers aren't necessarily entirely out in the cold, but there are powerful social benefits from being one of the guys sometimes..

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  16. I don't see the benefit to business to attending SxSWi, nor can anyone I know personally validate their efforts in going in it resulting in any kind of business. Business Networking is one thing..sitting around with an iPhone and Laptop tweeting and posting on Facebook your every move is not business networking.

    So far the only information I can get out of anyone o0n the realities of the business done and its return is the overall cost for someone to attend the entire event is it cost well over $1500..so that amounts to a $1500 hangover is all I see #SXSWi is about. I would love to go, but it is not cost justified.

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  18. I like that you think. Thank you for share very much.

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  19. I actually had a positive benefit of going this year. For once.
    Jeremy Cushing

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  20. This is the exact reason I have been wary of attending SXSWi in the past. I am not a party person. I am going for the first time this year. As a product manager, I usually attend conferences for educational purposes, to keep up with industry developments. I plan to spend most of my time in sessions and meeting online friends in person to help cement relationships. I hope the quality of the panels makes this trip worthwhile.

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