SXSWi - The Awesome and the Meh-some / by Dan Weingrod

I’ve been late in getting my initial thoughts from SXSWi out. It’s been a combination of overload at the office and a bad stomach bug that kept me grounded for a couple of days, (nothing to due with ribs and beer). So, slightly delayed, here’s my first quick, somewhat random and very much personal take on what worked and what didn’t.

The Awesome

Does the Future Include Synthetic Life? Utterly humbling. Craig Venter, the man who led the drive to map the human genome described how his team has been able to create synthetic life by essentially treating DNA as software, reprogramming it, introducing it into cells and creating the first synthetic life . What was particularly striking to me was that their process really had to combine very deep science with very high art. The science is in the massive computational power is needed to program the new DNA "software", but the art is in their ability to mix new and old DNA together in the cell in a sort of messy, controlled serendipity. Or at least that's how I understood it. That along with the fact that the DNA code they produces included a URL and quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynmann was simply a staggering and frankly uplifting display of technology. It made me feel very small, thrilled and a bit scared all at once.

The Lean Startup - This set of all day sessions was held in the clean, corporate ascetic confines of the AT&T Center nearly 2 miles away from the hubbub of the Convention Center, but were in many ways the most intensely relevant of my entire visit. The basic idea of Lean takes agile development processes and grafts onto them the concept of customer development, (or customer understanding), to create products that customers want in a highly efficient, creative and successful process. That’s a very thin explanation, but it’s something that anyone working in interactive media of any sort needs to be paying attention to. After all, wouldn’t we all like to know how to make a digital product faster, cheaper and most importantly, more delightful for our customers and us?

So where was the awesome? First of all in the presence of the all stars from the Lean movement: Eric Reis, Dave McClure and Steve Blank who all gave brilliant, inspirational presentations that went beyond what I had already seen on Slideshare and random videos. More importantly a solid supporting cast of panelists including startups, developers and UX experts went through real world results that covered not only how they succeeded, but also how and where they failed, pivoted, learned and moved on. This is what set these sessions apart from many others at SXSWi. Where many focused on positive demonstration and great results, not necessarily a bad thing, the Lean panels talked more about building the roots of success by moving quickly and positively past mistakes. Seeing real demonstrations of Lean in action from groups as varied as Pivotal Labs and startups like Food on the Table, (more on this soon), was downright inspiring and contagiously exciting.

The Last of the Launch and Leave 'ems

I learned last year to be careful about panels. When they work they can be great and when the don’t, (see below), they are an embarassement for all. I went to the launch ‘em and leave ‘em panel partially to finally meet @anjali28, the session’s moderator, but to also get a better sense of the thinking around sustainable Web products. Do we create Web sites or online products as short one-time campaigns? Do we sustain them through social media? and whose job is it to do that?

What worked here? Unlike others the panel really got to the heart of the matter quickly, through some well positioned intro slides by Mel Exon, (Update: you can find 'em here: bit.ly/gd7rVh), declaring that “agencies should show some respect and get out of the way” and Conrad Lisco maintaining that agencies have a role especially in amplifying the conversation between paid, owned and earned media.But the most refreshing part of the discussion came from, of all things, the client representative, Peter Parkes of Skype. Throughout the panel Parkes doled out equal, targeted praise and withering criticism at the agency side and client side alike. His candor with statements such as “Agencies say they can't sell in smart stuff, but why do we see so much crap online” and “Agencies have this bizarre fear of being the same” left many of us marketers in the room enlightened, but also wondering if we were on the wrong side of the table.

The Meh-Some

There’s always one panel that makes you swear you’ll never, ever go to a panel again. I should have known I was in trouble when the walk-in slide for this panel included the USA network logo and their tagline. The participants included a representative from Oxygen Network and a group from the USA show Psych, including the show’s star Dule Hill. The problem was, that all they really wanted to talk about was all the good things they were doing using social media to connect their fans to the show. Yes, there were a few of the expected nuggets about increased user engagement and recall, but overall this was just self congratulatory pablum. No real examples, no learning, no failures and pivots. The only bright spot was Dule Hill, who had only recently started tweeting. His newbie reflections on social media, “Now I know what you mean by the second screen”, were honest and on target. For the rest of us it was a waste of time that could have been better used elsewhere.

The other disappointment this year was the size and scale of the event. Last year, my first year at SXSWi, had 11,000 registrations and even then I was hearing complaints about how big things had gotten. This year the number was up to 20,000 and I was hearing the complaints from new and experienced visitors. The biggest impact of this new scale was the creation of 3 separate session tracks, (Journalism, Social Graph and Lean), located far enough away from the Austin Convention Center that it would be impossible to get from one location to another to see consecutive sessions. I wrote about this here and it pretty much came true. For me, this meant a lot more thinking, planning, tough decisions and ultimately missing out on panels I wanted to see as well as the serendipity of walking in on panels I knew nothing about.

Along with this change in scale, there seems to have been a change in participants. In one panel the audience was polled as to who was on their first visit. The vast majority of hands went up. When they were polled as to how many were in marketing the same vast majority of hands showed. An unscientific poll for sure, but it made me wonder if this year has really marked the triumph of marketers over the revenge of the nerds. It’s likely been coming for a long time, but if its true it does change the alignment of things. Its likely to be more and more about networking and more about networking within like minded industries. The promise I’ve always seen for SXSWi is that its one of the only places where people across multiple disciplines can really meet across common themes. The creation of the separate tracks and an overwhelming population of marketers could ruin that promise.