SXSWi 2011: Save the Sessions

Over the last couple of years, we’ve sent one or two PerkettPR representatives to the infamous SXSWi conference, but I had never personally attended for various reasons. This year I decided to take the plunge, after a lot of my industry colleagues in Boston assured me that although they, too, were skeptical in the past, they thought 2010′s show was well worth it. (Ironically, most of those people didn’t go this year ….). Accompanying me was Lisa Dilg, one of our Directors who just celebrated ten years at the agency, and who had also never attended. Below are our rookie assessments of the experience.

The sessions

Christine: Attending conferences is a lot like attending church for me – I walk in hopeful, looking forward to inspiration, and often times walk away feeling empty. I was hoping SXSW would be different – but I have to admit I was disappointed in most of the sessions that I attended. Granted, I’m a newbie to SXSW and I didn’t arrive early enough to some of my first choice sessions, so I couldn’t get in and instead attended second or third choice sessions. But regardless, this is the social media conference – so any of these sessions, in my opinion, should have blown us away – especially with all the work that goes into choosing the speakers. Instead, a lot of them were flat, humorless and down right 101 – this is not the crowd for 101, right? I was really hoping for better. That being said, there were some great ones. For example, I very much enjoyed listening to Tim Ferriss talk and especially answer some very interesting health questions during his session, “The 4-hour Body: Hacking the Human Body.”

I also appreciated the many author book readings that were slated as sessions – but would find them more intriguing if they were more the style of Inside The Actor’s Studio. I’d love to hear more Q&A with the authors – how they created their ideas, what they learned during the writing process, etc. There are so many social media and marketing books out now that are all starting to sound the same – it would add flavor to these sessions to hear more of the thought process and analysis behind the authors and their work.

Lisa: Whether you have gone or not, you’ve heard it said of SxSW -  “everything really happens in the hallways…,” but from my first trip there, I think what is not being said is, “…because I’m getting nothing out of the sessions.”  I think it’s a case of no one wanting to be the one to tell the Emperor that he has no clothes – to say, there needs to be a way to better vet these sessions so that people want to get out of the halls and into the rooms. There were stories of entire sessions clearing out before they were done and people skipping out on sessions altogether.  If I were a SXSW organizer, I would want people to say, “WOW the sessions were fantastic,” not, “I stayed in the hallway and chatted all day.”

As people are more and more willing to state their disappointment publicly and not just whisper it in the halls, maybe it’s time to re-think the “popularity contest” voting for sessions. There has to be a way to ensure that the people giving a session about “humor on Twitter” aren’t speaking in monotone, or that the sessions about social media to an advanced social media crowd get past the basics. Sure, you can rate sessions at the end or tell organizers your thoughts, but people seem to not want to admit that they, too, aren’t seeing the emperor’s clothes – out of fear that they might be looked upon badly by the “in-crowd.”

If the popular voting for sessions remains, which I understand is only a part of the final decision, maybe next year there could be a video element incorporated – let us see a little bit of your presentation skills or a sneak peak of your actual session before deciding to vote on your talk or panel. A short paragraph on what you think you might say eight months from now isn’t enough to go on.

However, later this week, I will be blogging about the one session that almost single-handedly made the conference worth the cost: The 90-Minute Solution: Live Like a Sprinter! by Tony Schwartz, bestselling author of “Be Excellent at Anything: The Four Keys to Transforming the Way We Work and Live.”  It made me want to change the way I work immediately.

The networking

Christine: Before I left for Austin, I read a lot of assessments about the show and one of my favorites came from Geoff Livingston. In essence, he encouraged conference goers to be present – that is, to consider going “off the grid” and actually paying attention to your surroundings and not just your mobile device. Not to obsess about name-dropping about every single social media “celebrity” you meet or know or Tweet, but rather to engage with the person in front of you and just be normal. I found his take refreshing and I took it to heart at the conference. I checked in on various LBS apps but I didn’t spend a ton of timing updating my social media streams until after the show (gasp!). I met a lot of great new people as well as folks that I’d only met on Twitter, and had fun catching up with the Boston social media regulars.

Lisa: I had an absolutely fantastic time at SXSW spending time with my clients and excellent housemates who made it a time to remember, for sure. I also enjoyed meeting people that I have talked to for years on Twitter but had never met in person. That’s what makes social media and the real world such a great match.

The selling

Christine: On the tradeshow floor I walked up to one company and said that their “social media marketing” sign was so compelling I just had to know what it meant. Okay, I was only half kidding but the sales guy in the booth didn’t really catch on. Instead, he went on to tell me almost nothing about what his software really did vs competitive offerings – throwing around vague and overused words that we’ve all heard: engage, connect, monitor, listen, value, channel, etc. These words were compelling 3-4 years ago but what’s next? What’s new? What are the innovators saying now and where are they going tomorrow? So much of the selling I heard seemed like corporate entities just catching up to this “whole social media thang” – and quite frankly, it was kind of awkward. At a ground-breaking show like SXSWi, I wanted to be struck by the next big thing. I did see a few intriguing products but nothing to write home about.

Someone asked me if I learned a lot by attending and the honest answer is yes and no. I learned a lot about people, online/offline interactions, and the collision of such. I learned that Geoff was right about a lot of things he said – the “seen and be seen” scene, the rumor mill and the power of 1-1 relationships cemented by quality face-to-face interactions. I was reminded that I much prefer networking when not at a crazy loud party with too many drinks flowing. I was reminded how small our industry is – it’s amazing how many times you run into people you know – and that you have to push yourself to get out and meet new folks. I learned that not only do we need to save SXSW – and the tech industry from “marketing douchbaggery” (not my words but an actual session), but also from “social media douchebaggery” itself. (Although I think I already knew this.) I’m hoping as the show continues to evolve, the popular voting for sessions can too – so that they cover a wider range of topics and unveil the next great, innovative minds and tech – not just the speakers who claim all the “Klout,” if you know what I mean.

Lisa: I was a disappointed that the tradeshow floor didn’t open until Monday, which is the day we left. I didn’t get to spend enough time there to give much of an assessment, but I did hear that it was much bigger than years past. There was a lot of chatter about how all the startups would get attention over the new presence of corporate giants – but I didn’t notice a default of attention going either way. Here’s an assessment of some of the “companies to watch from the tradeshow floor” that caught my attention – in particular, Evri, a “a sort of build-it-yourself iPad magazine,” on Tuaw.

What do you think? Did you attend and enjoy? What did you learn? What great sessions or products did we miss?

Here are a few other assessments of the show that we enjoyed:

USA Today

The Guardian

Digitaria

Our photos, here.

Help for those “Vote for my SXSWi Panel” headaches

If you’re in technology, business or entertainment (music, film), you’ve certainly been exposed by now to a steady stream of “Vote for my SXSW panel” messages, blog posts and Tweets. With thousands of entries, not only is the noise deafening from your social buddies, but the time it takes to truly read the panels and give them the “thumbs up” is nearly impossible. (Bless the panel – they are certainly going to be doing a lot of reading.)

Why is everyone asking for your vote? Well, because votes – the community’s opinions – account for about 30% of the decision of who gets the much-coveted speaking slots. The Advisory Board (40%) and Staff (30%) make up the other percentages. SXSW is held every March in Austin, TX and is THE place to be to create new relationships, learn and share with the social media, business, tech, and entertainment crowd. It lasts a week, with a divide between interactive, music and film. You can read all about it, here.

With the deluge of panels and all the posts about them, you’re likely just to vote for your pals and they’ll vote for you and once again, popularity – not necessarily quality – will prevail. But one thing we’ve noticed that’s missing from a lot of the recommendations is the WHY. Why vote for these panels other than a friend asks you to do so? Seems a lot of the promotion is leaving out that crucial detail. So, we’ve chosen a few of our favorites so far, below, and a reason why we believe each is worthy of you clicking that “thumbs up” button. We kept our focus on the interactive side, FYI.

We’ll try to add more as we find them but feel free to leave your favorites - don’t forget the why – in the comments. There are so many, we’d love to learn about more great ones that we haven’t yet heard of, and from people we might not yet know (isn’t that what’s great about social networks?!).

  • Because we’re “inspired women who want to inspire other women,” we vote for Breaking Glass Ceiling(s) – Fearless Women Entrepreneur by Amita Paul, ObjectiveMarketer. We’re not crazy about the title but get past that and read the content – are there really only 13 women at the top?!
  • Turns out Carla Thompson of Sharp Skirts sees women everywhere – in startups, that is. We’re always interested in the gender gaps in business and again, empowering women. So we give a “thumbs up” to Where are the Women in Startups? Um, everywhere! and hope you will, too.
  • Noticing a theme here? Yes, we are all about supporting the ladies. But, this one is truly unique – focused on African American women and their use of the Internet for activism. Cybercrusading for Women by Gina McCauley, Blogging While Brown.
  • Speaking of powerful young women on the Internet, we’ve got to give a shout out to our industry colleagues at Sevans Strategy. They’ve got a PR panel – and as big proponents of ensuring a brighter, smarter PR industry – we highly recommend it for any PR executive. Spin Doctors: PR Best Practices for Social Media includes founder Sarah Evans, Jason Kintzler of Pitch Engine and Ryan Osborn of NBC News.
  • Sarah is also a part of this panel – which intrigued us as we continue to research the impact of social media globally ourselves. The Global Online Community – Improving Cross-Cultural Relations also includes Andrew Kneale, of the British Council.
  • Another woman we’re proud to know is Alicia Staley of The Staley Foundation. Alicia’s got an amazing story to share and we love her panel because it combines her personal experiences with cancer and the timely topic of crowd sourcing. Crowd Sourcing Cancer deserves a thumbs up because it’s got a higher purpose and can truly help many people above and beyond this event.
  • As PR executives, our daily work revolves around story telling – and story shaping. So we were interested when we read Storytelling in an Age of Industrialized Content by Upendra Shardanand of Daylife. We’re all story tellers now – do you know how to keep ‘em human?
  • And finally, we wouldn’t be very good PR professionals if we didn’t also ask you to give our panels a thumbs up. In The Networking Conundrum, I’ll analyze how people and businesses are building communities online and off – and whether or not both are important. Are they inclusive of one another? Why or why not? What if you live in a rural area – can you still build influence online as successfully as your city-dwelling competitors? And what behaviors are most effective in each? We think this is an important topic as social networks continue to grow and thus the world seems to simultaneously get smaller.
  • Our EVP Heather Mosley will take a look at who’s already done well in this vein – and what you can learn from them – in Dissecting What Really Works in Social Marketing Campaigns. What companies are doing it right and what have the results been? Is it possible to take elements of their successes to build your own – why or why not? She’ll help you understand what’s worked, why, if it can work for you – and maybe more importantly, what doesn’t.

We’ll continue reading through the panels and let you know what else catches our eye. What have been your faves so far?

See you in Austin!

 

You say Potat-o, I say Potat-a. Social Media, Marketing & Perspectives

AdAge ran an article yesterday that reminded me of perspectives. Perspectives have been on my mind as we continue to help businesses and institutions of all types more directly communicate with their key audiences – from customers, patients and prospects to partners, VCs, media and more. Perspectives have also been on my mind as many social media fans questioned the value of attending the recent South by South West (SxSW) festival in Austin – many folks said it’s the “must attend” show for anyone in social media. Others claim the festival has gone by the wayside and many debated whether or not it was worth attending at all.

Well, I guess that depends on your perspective.

For example, the AdAge article was about Justin Bieber. I don’t know who Justin Bieber is – but thanks to Simon Dumenco, I know now that he’s a Twitter and marketing machine, and quite possibly “the biggest legit pop star ever created by YouTube.” Now, none of this really matters to me (other than my interest in the marketing impact and approach) because I don’t have, as Simon puts it, a “young teen or tween.” My perspective is, “Justin who?” because I have no connection to this phenom and thus, while impressed with his impact, don’t really have a reason to care.

Likewise, people not in the business of social media or marketing don’t really care that the social media crowd gathers in Austin for a week, while a social media manager would “just die” if she weren’t at the “see and be seen” event. Someone ready to retire doesn’t think much about the job market, an ice skater likely doesn’t much care about the NCAA championships, and a fashion maven would do anything to get into New York Fashion Week, while her neighbor Bob, who owns a bait and tackle store, doesn’t even know that entire weeks are dedicated to watching skinny models walk down elaborate runways in outrageous clothing.

The point is, perspectives matter – especially in marketing. It’s the marketer’s job to get out of their own heads and into that of the audience they’re trying to influence. Do you know what your potential customer’s perspective is? You know what you think it is, but do you really know? Have you asked? Do you include a feedback mechanism in your marketing in order to keep rapidly changing perspectives in mind as you devise your strategy?

Traditionally, marketers gathered such information through the likes of surveys, polls, or focus groups –often conducted via email, phone or formal gatherings. While these methods can still be fruitful, it’s often challenging to get a good response rate and can be a great undertaking of both time and expense.

Many companies often ask what the value is in dedicating time spent on social media sites as part of their marketing or PR efforts. If they can’t correlate a direct sale, it can be difficult to convince the C-suite of the value. However, marketers need to think of social networks not as a direct sales pipeline but more as an ongoing, live and constantly evolving focus group. Understanding your customers and prospects has always been a core focus in marketing, and social media allows you to gather such perspectives on a daily basis.

If you know how to navigate the networks, a good marketer can use social media for ongoing research – gathering oodles of useful data just by watching the conversations (note; understanding how to find the right conversations is key). When you can gather information about what your constituents are thinking, what they care about, where they see the “next hot thing,” etc., you can better understand their perspectives.

A better marketer understands how to participate in the networks to direct conversations toward useful topics – in order to get perspectives on the things that matter to your business.

A great marketer knows how to integrate an audience’s perspectives into social marketing campaigns. When customers feel that you understand them, they’re more likely to listen. When they see you participating in conversation with them – not just talking at them, but with them – they’re more likely to connect with and trust you (or your brand). When they feel an emotional connection to your brand – something easier to create when you understand perspectives – they’re more likely to become brand champions.

So listen up – and integrate social media into your marketing efforts to, at the very least, get your pulse on the perspectives that matter to your business.

 

The Anatomy of a Social Media Professional – and Why You Need One

I recently spoke at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce breakfast where I discussed the need for a dedicated social media manager to help strategize, launch and manage a social media program.

Since many of the attendees were from smaller companies, I stressed that any business – big or small – could benefit from implementing some form of social media strategy into their organization. An example I used to help make my point was to compare Starbucks with the Crème Brulee cart in San Francisco. Both businesses are using Twitter and seeing great results to drive business to their location, but one is a multi-national chain and the other is a small food cart roaming around San Francisco. They couldn’t be more different, yet they are using the same tools to connect and engage with their loyal fans.

If you don’t think you need help managing your social media efforts, you might want to take a closer look at the time investment required to ensure it’s done well. Sure, some of you may be able to manage it all while also running your business, but to do it right, it needs to be more than an afterthought – and most executives just don’t have the bandwidth to focus on doing both jobs effectively at the same time.

You also aren’t likely to have the time to “be everywhere” – listening, engaging, responding – but a dedicated social media professional can do this for you. Consistency is crucial to ensure results. A dedicated focus on social media efforts = a quicker time to value.

You also don’t want to have a “Nelson” moment by not paying attention to your brand online. Some examples I used during the Chamber Breakfast included Domino’s Pizza and United Airlines to show the difference between a brand listening and responding immediately (Domino’s) and another that chose to ignore for more than a year (United).

So, what should you look for in a social media professional? We asked David Meerman Scott this question while attending SXSW Interactive earlier this year. You can check out the video here, but I summed it up with this intricate graphic I call “The Anatomy of a Social Media Professional.”

As David also pointed out in his interview with us, when you are seeking help with your social media efforts, it’s important that you do your homework and make sure whoever you hire has the qualifications needed to get the job done. If they aren’t out there practicing what they preach, or if they can’t point to any ROI as a result of their efforts, than you might want to keep searching.

What do you think? Do you think a dedicated social media professional is necessary in business? What qualities do you think a social media professional should have – did we miss anything in our anatomy slide? We would love to get your thoughts in the comment section below.

Scott Porad at SXSWi 2009

While asking random people at SXSW what two words described their experience at the conference, I ran into Scott Porad, Cheezburger Technology Officer for I Can Has Cheezburger – a website well known for its cat pictures with hilarious captions that has been going strong since January 2007. I just had to speak with Scott about the site that is currently attracting five million page views a day and closing in on hitting two billion (BILLION) page views this year. See what Scott has to say about I Can Has Cheezburger.