Lots of people attending SXSW this year were newbies, including me. I came because I was invited to moderate a panel about the growth and impact of social marketing budgets. (more on that in a later post) The speaker packet that came with the job signaled some of the culture and inconsistencies of this event.

The first instruction was to go to the speakers’ “green room” at my venue and check-in an hour before my panel. It informed us that once we checked in, we would not be able to leave the green room until we were escorted to the presentation room, There, the captive speakers were to make final preparations. All of this was a bit laughable. First of all, the so-called “green room” was a hallway space behind a portable room screen. It was packed with SXSW volunteers who monopolized the three chairs and took up the remaining square footage in little cluster mobs. Secondly, my panel was all senior managers of big brands who were not going to be held prisoner for an hour that could otherwise be productively spent.

Here was the next piece of advice that we received: “Do not begin your presentation by telling the audience that you have not prepared for the session.” Really? In addition, the materials informed us if we were not good that the audience would simply leave and go to a different, better session. Being a frequent presenter who works hard at giving the audience something of value, I wondered about the civility of an audience that would simply up and leave.

Only later did I realize why this counsel was rendered. Our panel was SRO and thankfully, no one voted with their feet. The audience was engaged and interested to the end. Immediately following, I went to a “core conversation” session, which is a facilitated group discussion. It was supposed to delve into how to monetize UGC. It ended up being a tutorial about Gen Z and how best to engage them. The monetization was exchanging reputation points for merchandise. Not five minutes into the “discussion” an audience member asked when they were going to start dealing with the topic that was advertised. The presenters continued chatting about their Gen Z site. Pretty soon, others started asking direct Qs about the topic they came to discuss. Before too long, about a quarter of the group was gone.

Not as bad as the poor woman who was a “solo” presenter on the subject of “social shop”, obviously a hot topic since she filled a ballroom with well over 250 people. She started by fumbling around on the dias, trying to connect her computer and search frantically for her deck, She kept telling the audience that she would start as soon as she located her material, which she never did. In the process, she actually knocked a chair off the stage! Finally, she said, “Well, let’s just start. Everyone likes to shop. Where do they shop on-line? Hmm, let’s think. Oh, Amazon. And,where else?” Ouch! Within 10 minutes half the audience stood up en masse and left. 20 minutes in, only a few diehards remained.

This is the culture of SXSW. By and large, the sessions and speakers are chosen through a crowd-sourcing process. People submit ideas in several categories and then the public votes. The brief topic summaries are irreverent, creative and designed to appeal to the geek crowd that SXSW draws. Here’s the issue: is this the best method of getting the best content? The brief topic elevator speeches do not present enough information to really grasp what the submitter really wants to present. The funniest or goofiest descriptions go viral and people vote them in. Other submitters do the best job of socializing their submissions and garner the most votes. Now we have a bunch of potentially interesting content, but no idea of the experience and quality of the presenters. While I appreciate the authentic nature of this approach, my experience attending these sessions was so hit or miss, that it begins impacting the perception of the overall experience. It’s difficult for me to leave the office, even though it’s energizing to participate in a group knowledge soak. So many of the sessions did not do a good job of communicating the true topic, so I either left (Yes, I was uncivil in this way) or I learned something I didn’t set out to explore.

Ultimately what every newbie learns is that the value of the conversation is key; not in the quality of the panels and presentations. Yes, I had a different learning experience than what was billed, but ultimately the learning comes from stringing together unrelated nuggets and creating a new body of knowledge. As long as your brain is wired a bit differently when you leave, you’ve made a good investment of time and money, even if you didn’t learn what you thought you would.

While the same can be said for many conference experiences, as with everything at SXSW, it was just more apparent there and therefore, more revealing. Conferences should be a magical alchemy of content, connections and conversation. What conferences do you think do the best job of this?

Kathy Baughman
Kathy Baughman

Kathy’s forte is enterprise content strategy, content marketing and thought leadership. Over the past 40 years, she has worked with both emerging brands and large enterprises in developing content and thought leadership strategies. She has written several research reports, white papers and has been a key contributor to Forbes Publish or Perish Report.