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SXSW offers lessons for virtual event hosts

I live for two conferences each year: CES and SXSW. I think of CES as the Golden Globes and SXSW as the Oscars. Both shows were virtual this year, a symptom of the global pandemic. Each handled their online experience in vastly different ways, and while CES engaged and excited me about the future, SXSW failed me on every level. 

Reflecting on past in-person SXSW conferences, I realized that the magic of the event is in the following elements: 

  • The guerrilla pop-up immersive experiences outside the venue that become the must-see content of the festival. 
  • Product announcements by media partners like Twitter, Facebook and others that drive our industry and what’s next. 
  • Conversations and socialization with other digital peers as we discuss sessions and topics affecting our industry. 

This year’s SXSW had none of the above. Without it, the event resembled every other garden variety marketing conference, not the “wow” experience SXSW had become. It wasn’t all bad – the SXSW Clubhouse group (introducing the new audio-chat app) was a nice touch, and there were a handful of content creation and social panels that were interesting. 

What did CES get right that SXSW did not? 

  1. Online conference platform: CES was easy to navigate, with a central hub and a news desk to watch daily conference highlights. SXSW had an overwhelming scheduling platform with limited search functionality, making it difficult to easily find relevant sessions.   
  2. Virtual presenting: CES prepared for the virtual presentations and had seamless integration of video content and live speakers. Panel sessions were well thought out and in sync with individuals who appeared to be well prepared to answer questions on each session’s theme. In some panels SXSW almost became a free for all, with panelists talking over each other and no one really addressing the theme of the session. In several sessions, no corresponding examples were shown to augment the panelist’s point. As the viewer, I am still unsure of some of the main points panelists were making.  
  3. Immersive experiences: CES did what they could to demonstrate new tech in the virtual format. For example, CES demonstrated the power of 5G by allowing the audience to experience watching a concert on their desktop, then watching a concert filmed with 5G capabilities on a mobile phone. SXSW lacked any immersive experiences, and the talking-head format became tedious to watch. 
  4. Programming content: Despite being virtual, CES still had the big product launches and other significant announcements. I have yet to hear of anything newsworthy being introduced at this year’s SXSW.  

As marketing professionals operating in a virtual world for the foreseeable future, we can learn from the success of CES and the failure of SXSW. For those of you who may be hosting virtual events for customers or other audiences, start by brainstorming what attendees valued most about your previous live gatherings. Then, make sure to build your content, platform and functionality with those features in mind. This ensures your event retains the special character of the in-person experience while continuing to build affinity among attendees. 

Do you know what your audience values most about your event, and how to reimagine it for the digital space?  


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