SXSW: What Worked and What Didn’t, Pt 1

The Forrest Four-Cast: March 21, 2017

This year’s edition of March Magic has finally come to a close. Today begins what I anticipate will be the first of several recap posts analyzing what went right (as well as what needs improvement) from SXSW 2017. “Several” because we will gain a lot more insights about what really happened at this year’s event as we pour through registrant feedback:

Five things that worked at SXSW 2017:

  1. Cory Richards Keynote. The Friday, March 10 keynote speaker at SXSW, this adventurer and photographer helped set a tone of exploration and discovery for the 2017 event. Click here to watch the video of his presentation and click here to watch other free content from this year’s event (including Opening Remarks from another very well-received Cory, the junior senator from New Jersey who also spoke on Friday, March 10).
  2. Joe Biden Speech. A late addition to this year’s schedule, Vice President Biden came to Austin to talk about the Cancer Moonshot. His 70-minute speech was both information and inspirational — two of the traits what we treasure most in March in Austin. So much so, that Biden was named as “Speaker of the Event” at the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards on the evening of Tuesday, March 14. Watch the full video of his magnificent presentation by clicking here — and use your innovative thinking to get involved now in the fight to eliminate cancer. Biden’s presence in Austin in March also underscored the increased focus on Health at SXSW 2017.
  3. Augmented Intelligence: The Next-Gen AI. This talk from SapientRazorfish’s Melanie Cook (pictured above) was one of dozens of extremely well-attended SXSW sessions focused on artificial intelligence. Initially delivered on Sunday, March 12, her lecture enjoyed an encore presentation on Monday, March 13. Encore presentations from Cook and 20+ other top SXSW speakers proved to be one of the most popular aspects of this year’s Conference.
  4. The SXSW Community Service Awards. For 2017, this celebration moved to the Radisson Hotel on Monday evening, March 13. The result was a packed, emotionally-charged room in which grassroots do-gooders from around the world shared their stories of how they have used technology to help improve the lives of those around them. Poignant and heart-warming, this event reminds us of why bringing people together is such a powerful experience.
  5. The SXSW Trade Show. Version 2017 of this exhibit space on the first floor of the Austin Convention Center was probably our most successful edition yet. We enjoyed very strong foot traffic for all four days of the show. Most gratifying is that so many different countries were involved in this year’s Trade Show — the international participation in this space reaffirms that the innovation ecosystem is now a global movement.

Five things that need a lot of improvement for SXSW 2018:

  1. Line Policy in Smaller Rooms. We instituted a new line policy in 2017 in which smaller session rooms were closed when they reached capacity. This policy was a surprise to too many registrants — so we need to do a better job of messaging this change for next next. As below, we also need to do a better job of placing the more popular sessions in rooms that are big enough to meet the number of registrants who want to attend.
  2. Artificial Intelligence Sessions. Sessions focused on AI were extremely extremely popular in 2017. In fact, some of our most challenging line problems occurred at panels and presentations on this topic that were scheduled at the JW Marriott. For 2018, we need to find bigger rooms for these (and numerous other) sessions. The addition of the new Fairmont hotel should give us a little more flexibility to accommodate the AI buzz.
  3. Brands & Marketing Sessions. Also exceedingly popular were sessions at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in the Branding & Marketing track. Adding in encore presentations for some of the most popular sessions in this track helped mitigate some of this excess demand — but too many people didn’t get to attend all of the content that they wanted to attend. As with AI-focused content, we need to plant for larger rooms for 2018.
  4. Messaging on Later-in-the-Week Content. 2017 was the first year that we added more tech-focused content on Wednesday, March 15 and Thursday, March 16. Attendance at these sessions (including the two days of “Tech Under Trump” programming) was good but not great. For 2018 and beyond, we need to do a better job of letting more innovators know of the many ways that they can extend their SXSW experience.
  5. The Weather. Cold temperatures and rainy skies on the first three days of the event pushed more people indoors. SXSW is always more fun when it is warm and sunny such that registrants can more freely enjoy the many outside activities. Some years Mother Nature cooperates with this plan and some years she doesn’t. Austin always needs more rain, but here’s hoping that March 2018 will be a little bit dryer.

Stay tuned for more SXSW 2017 recaps via this space in the coming weeks and months. Also please mark your calendar for the first two weeks of July (when we accept speaking proposals for the next spring via the SXSW PanelPicker interface). Dates for SXSW 2018 are March 9–18; registration will open on Tuesday, August 1.

Hugh Forrest tries to write four paragraphs per day on Medium. These posts generally cover technology-related trends. When not attempting to wordsmith or meditating, he serves as Chief Programming Officer at SXSW in Austin.