Is it Worth Investing in Going to SXSW?

Late this morning, I met an American client for a drink when the event I was trying to attend was oversubscribed. (Yes, that’s the way things roll sometimes here – you triage opportunity in half-hour slices). We’ve worked together in her various incarnations over the past half dozen years, but given that we live in different countries, we rarely get a chance to spend time face-to-face. Part of SXSW is definitely the networking, but she surprised me with a rare insight: her company won’t be sending people down next year because the staff use the event to network themselves into new jobs – often with competitors.

Business does get done, here – there are Canadian trade missions, hookups, meet-ups, advertising, product demos, (in)formal introductions, etc. There’s also an amazing wealth of unique knowledge – the best and brightest of the world converging to speak on the things that they have dedicated their lives to. There’s such a intense saturation that SXSWers are constantly fighting through the paradox of choice. Which of the twenty lectures or panels going on right now should I be attending? Or what about all the workshops? Enjoy corporately sponsored booze/tacos or free drinks at Canada House while networking? Late night sponsored parties, film premieres, or intimate one-on-ones? There’s a tension in people’s eyes like they don’t want to miss anything, but have the nagging realization that 99% of what’s going on at that very moment is beyond their reach.

That’s the lay of the land. Now, can you navigate the “acquisition greed”, keep on-point, and fulfill your business objectives? Is it worth it for Canadian businesses to invest in? Or to send contingents down? The trick here is to *know* what you want out of the event and how you’ll measure that success.

I spend my days acquiring knowledge that’s split between my professional requirements and personal interests (conveniently, similar in nature). The evenings are there to consolidate relationships by clocking face time with our American clients and contacts. Or prospectively initiate the first steps in a relationship with one of the many people who pushed a card in my hands. And when all the objectives are checked, are there colleagues or professional acquaintances I know and can rekindle relationships with? It nets out to 16 hour days (often longer). Of course, I hope to win business for our creative agency, but that’s not a given.

Thus our core value equation is: fundamental cost (hard cash, opportunity cost from being away from the business) vs. industry insight that can help actualize new revenue or strengthen existing market offerings + business relationship management + contact/lead acquisition. X-factors are exposure (writing), winning new business, and personal fulfillment.

I meet numerous people who say “my company’s paying for me to come here” and they don’t have a clear objective on what their end of the value proposition is. (“You know, network?”) The streets are lined with first-timers who’re already staggering from drink early in the evening and too hung over to make the morning’s lectures – increasingly prominent deeper into the conference.

Canadian businesses should acknowledge you’re up against big players who’re spending big $ to buy attention. By means of example, last year, Samsung had a fixed installation inside the conference centre, but this year, they’ve rented out a large space a couple minute’s walk away to offer free lunch and drinks to get people inside. Your product might be amazing, but you need to work very hard (or very cleverly) to get it seen/understood. Also, make sure your local talent (if you’re hiring them) know the product inside and out. (A Blackberry z10 rep in Canada House couldn’t answer most of the softball questions asked of him and shamed, admitted he’s just a hired gun – sorry!)

So for Canadian businesses, I offer this advice: set realistic objectives on your staff (+ yourselves) and have a plan to see them through. You may not achieve everything you want, but if you’re smart and disciplined about it, you’ll make it worth your while.

First published in TechVibes, Photo: Kolody Inc