Well, I survived the intellectual and physical journey that is SXSW Interactive. I came away very impressed and full of new knowledge, ideas, contacts and swag… my social media batteries recharged. My big take-aways from the event were not so much the headlines – like the buzz surrounding the “location-aware” apps like Foursquare and Gowalla or the launch of various new products and services – but valuable lessons about why the event works, and what organizations eager to leverage social media and/or foster real innovation can learn from it.

  • Silos are essentially wafer thin at SXSW – and intentionally so. Dynamic collaboration and cross-pollination are part of the DNA of the event. Yes, there are topics and categories (or “streams in SXSW parlance) used to help organize the hundreds of sessions and events, but the event is a fluid, productive mash-up of disciplines, subjects and formats. In fact, many of the sessions seemed to overlap several “streams” and topics. Participants included web designers, PR consultants, software geeks, marketing gurus, citizen journalists, celebrity bloggers, sociologists, small business owners, investors, not-for-profit advocates…you name it they were there.   All of these jobs, skills and experiences add to the richness of the experience, and the value of the discussions and outcomes. The lesson here for organizations – many still struggling with who “owns” social media and/or dismantling the historic walls between marketing and PR – is that social media overlaps many different disciplines, and requires a pragmatic, progressive approach that leverages and aligns myriad talents and skills.
  • Despite the emphasis on social media, SXSW is very much a multi-media event. Let’s look at all the “touch points” I ran into on an average day: sponsored parties, outdoor banners, iPhone apps (loved the “my.sxsw” app), display booths, digital signage, swag, “experiential” lounges, badges, branded volunteers and ambassadors, personalized event emails, T-shirts and hats, radio and news updates, brochures (including two versions of the gargantuan SXSW agenda), live TV and video feeds…you get the picture. So although online tools were clearly central to the experience, they were complemented by a wide range of communication and marketing vehicles and activities – including face-to-face interaction – that collectively made it convenient and easy  to navigate the event for maximum productivity and impact.
  • It should come as no surprise that most of the folks attending SXSW were fully wired – iPhones, Droids, notebooks, Bluetooth headsets and a dizzying variety of supporting gadgets were everywhere. And the festival folks did a great job of supporting this digital army with free Wi-Fi, tons of electrical outlets and free computer kiosks. Without these personal tools – and the supporting infrastructure – participants would miss out on critical portions of the event. The lesson for organizations is that if you are intent on engaging in social media, you need to give your staff the tools to join the conversation.  Trying to hold back the tide of technology – particularly outside corporate firewalls – is not only illogical, but counter-productive.
  • One of the most interesting aspects of SXSW is the emphasis on real-time communication – which carries back and forth across virtual, face-to-face and digital formats. The entire event (and supporting technology) is geared to facilitate and leverage a steady stream of live updates, introductions,  comments and suggestions – whether on specific events (through hash tags) or the festival as a whole. A good example of this was the real-time criticism of the keynote by Twitter CEO Evan Williams (which ironically many aired/saw on Twitter feeds.) Importantly, the digital chatter didn’t fall on deaf ears. In the case of SXSW staff, they often responded to the feedback and made quick adjustments where possible – in many cases the comment stream fed into the panel conversations. (Some sessions were shaped partly by input from various more formal crowd-sourcing activities before or during the event.) And hundreds of participants piggy-backed the various updates to start more intimate conversations with other attendees.
  • It didn’t go unnoticed to me – as a long-time communication professional – that the best presentations and material I witnessed at SXSW were smart, funny and original. More than one presentation featured some of George Carlin’s infamous “seven words.” In many cases the style and format of the presentations – even those featuring dreaded Powerpoint – was fresh and dynamic . The lesson for many of us PR folks, if we needed another reminder, is that presenting information in dense, serious or stale communication formats is a good recipe for being  ignored, and that fun and creativity are not dirty words.
  • One thing you notice immediately at SXSW – unlike many other conferences or industry panels – is an enthusiasm that is infectious. In fact, it’s telling they call it a “festival” and not a “conference.” People attending the event really want to be there, and most appeared excited to learn, share ideas, start new partnerships…and yes, have a good time. And in the midst of the bacchanal and networking, very productive work is apparently getting done and new ideas are being nurtured. The lesson for organizations – particularly companies with a more conservative bent – is to stop obsessing about what your staff dress like or like to do after midnight and start harnessing their creativity and passion.
  • The final big lesson for me – my “a-ha” moment if you will – was that most folks I talked to or heard in sessions acknowledged there are many unanswered questions surrounding social media. In fact, several folks focused on the sense of experimentation and discovery as a central element of  the Web 2.0 revolution. There simply aren’t perfect answers for many questions or issues – notably balancing privacy of individual information with the concept of public conversation and collaboration. And that’s ok. In fact, this uncertainty about the future is not new – who knows what the internet will look like in a few years – and is one of the most exciting aspects of social media. The future is undefined and unlimited.