My Open Advice to SXSW: Cater to the Makers
I just returned from my 5th SXSW. Relative to some folks, I'm still a SXSW n00b, and to others I'm a veteran. As a frame of reference, my first year was the year AFTER Twitter was the break-out hit there; admittedly, I was a part of the "change" at SXSW that people bemoan. What are people bemoaning and what can SXSW do to ensure their long-term brand stays strong?
People are bemoaning that SXSW's ratio of "makers" to "marketers" has shifted to an unhealthy proportions, making SXSW too much about noise and not enough about signal.
Now, when I say 'marketers' I'm not referring to folks who have that as a job title -- I don't care what your job title and description are and marketers by job title and description are no-doubt super important members of our ecosystem.
When I talk about marketers at SXSW and on other tech "platforms" I'm talking about folks who attend and participate explicitly to promote their wares -- the folks who see SXSW as a "marketing opportunity" rather than an education opportunity.
In my experience from running the NY Tech Meetup, there are two "laws of emerging technology communities" that work against SXSW and similar platforms, including ours.
The first law is that "people who work hardest to get noticed will, by default, get noticed." What's good about this is that it rewards hustle, but what's bad about it is it both rewards budget over quality and rarely makes for the best content (that you can afford someone to promote something says you may have an interesting business, but says little about how interesting your product is). Without fighting against this natural law, the message and feeling of your conference will be dictated by the loudest people.
The second, related law is that "non-makers promote more than makers." This law is true because makers spend their time making tangible things while non-makers spend their time making ephemeral things, like the very "buzz" they want at SXSW. As someone who has been a non-maker for most of his career, I don't believe that non-makers are bad or less smart or less important overall than makers. I do, however, think that you can cater content to non-makers by catering content to makers, and not visa-versa.
And in that I see a solution for SXSW. At NYTM we spend as much energy as possible finding and promoting the makers, developing content for the makers, and working to balance out these two "laws" I outlined above. Even if makers are in the minority (as they are in the NYTM-membership) the entire ecosystem rests on the products of their labor. It's awesome that so many marketing, PR, advertising, investing professionals and service providers come to the NYTM, but they are all there to see what the makers make and what the makers think is cool and exciting.
What's super cool about this dynamic, and what makes life a bit easier for the content curator (SXSW or NYTM) is that even when the content is a bit "too technical" for everyone else, it's still super enjoyable for them. We always encourage demoers to show code, talk about their stack in details, and not once has one of the 600 of our 850 attendees complained that something was over their head. In fact, the more over their head, the more they seem to love it.
And so, my advice to SXSW is to turn its programming next year on its head. Instead of having only a small handful of truly technical sessions, dedicate half your keynotes to technical leads talking about their respective stacks, scaling issues, and lessons learned.
Because makers are less self-selecting than non-makers, go more outside the PanelPicker for this technical content. Just like getting Mark Zuckerberg to do a keynote, you have to work to source it.
Next year, make one keynote from Kellan Elliott-McCrea. (They are doing incredible things at Etsy that every single company can learn from, even if the content is highly technical.) Make another keynote from the tech team at OMGPOP, who just heroically scaled Draw Something to the number 1 free and paid iPhone app globally in just a few short weeks. Make another keynote from Karen Teng, VP of Engineering of GetGlue.
Has anyone ever heard a talk about the tech that supports Wikipedia? I haven't, and I think that would be a fucking awesome keynote.
And it's not just about keynotes. Instead of more sessions about "mobile marketing" or "the future" of something that someone pitched you guys, reach out to Mike Hostetler of appendTo to do another technical session on jQuery, or Aaron Quint, CTO of PaperlessPost, to talk about their scaling.
The thing is, SXSW, none of these people are going raise their hands -- you have to find them -- but the good news for the folks at SXSW is that people are already demanding this:
I walked by and heard of plenty of half-empty conference rooms throughout the conference the year. How can you attend another session on branding and marketing if you're out on the streets marketing your own company?
Meanwhile, the session Vin Vacanti and I did on "Learning to Code" was shoved in a smaller room in the Hilton and still had a line of people outside who weren't not allowed in and waited to get in. Mind you, almost no one at the session had "heard" of either of us... they just wanted the content we were offering. Also note: Our session was at 9:30am on a Sunday -- the day Daylight Savings changed.
That's how bad people wanted "maker" content.
So, SXSW, I'm getting this out there because you still have time to make next year better and different. Re-embrace the maker community that made SXSW a destination in the first place. Keep your content highly focused on makers and issues around making. Get scarily technical in your most mainstream sessions. The SXSW brand is still amazing but if you don't fight the natural laws that favor promoters you'll enjoy the bubble for a few more years, but will ultimately end up with a bust on your hands soon enough.