5 Brilliant Marketing Lessons From SXSW to Stand Out in a Crowd

We reveal surprising marketing lessons from this year's SXSW, where everyone is wondering about or trying to be the next big thing.
CEO & Founder, The Non-Obvious Company
March 13, 2013

Every year, more than 25,000 people descend on Austin for the annual tech, music and film festival called SXSW. In previous years, the "Interactive" part of the festival has helped launch Twitter, Foursquare and other new apps and technologies. As a result, the event has the reputation of a "kingmaker" in the world of technology—which makes 2013 the year that everyone is asking what the next "big thing" will be.

Does the latest new app tech geeks are drooling over really matter for your small business? Perhaps not immediately. But none of these hot new technologies or companies are discovered by accident. The more interesting question from a marketing point of view is: HOW would YOU stand out in a crowded event like this?

Here are five techniques that real companies used at the show that might offer some ideas for you and your small business.

1. Find partners with deeper pockets. Chances are, you don't have a huge marketing budget. Neither did a startup called Hyperactivate that is best known for its interactive art installations created out of Twitter feeds (Hashtagart). This year, it powered an interactive Twitter wall at the huge new American Airlines booth in the middle of the Convention Center. It was high visiblity, fun and paid for by American Airlines. Then the company got a booth on the trade show floor and was able to talk about doing this installation for American. It was the perfect proof point to show what it could do, and smart to use a partner with a bigger budget to showcase it to a huge audience.

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2. Showcase your product to people who care. One truth about SXSW is that there are plenty of parties. The easy thing to think is that parties are just for people who want to drink and have fun. What 3M did this year at the annual Mashable MashBash party was offer to put screen filters on iPhones. Of course, a huge population of the geeks attending the party had iPhones, and there was a line of people to get the filters and tweet about it while they were still socializing in line. It was the perfect way to showcase a product in a crowded environment without resorting to desperate sales techniques or, worse, looking out of touch or irrelevant.

3. Pique people's curiosity. In multiple locations around SXSW, you saw cards and flyers with the tempting question, "Looking to Score at SXSW?" If you looked deeper and visited the booth the materials were pointing people towars for a company called Higi, you realized it was actually a cleverly written way to invite people to get various health vitals like blood pressure and weight analyzed by Higi branded kiosks. The company itself makes healthcare diagnostic machines and provides an ecosystem through apps and scores to better understand your personal level of healthiness. The tagline was a clever way to get people to pay attention, while still matching the tone of the brand and not resorting to bikini models or heavy discounting.

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4. Make people a part of your history. The New York Times might seem like a surprising exhibit booth sponsor at an Interactive show, but the longtime media leader is steadily moving subscribers and focus to digital. In an almost poetic way, the core idea at the booth was to allow anyone to get a digital photo, merge it with a word cloud from a relevant section of the Times and get an actual printout of your word cloud illustrated portrait. It was routinely one of the longest lines in the trade show, and a perfect way to remind every attendee of the potential power when you put a great digital experience together with something tangible that you can hold in your hands.

5. Create intimacy instead of scale. For longtime SXSW attendees, this year was a departure from previous years where the biggest parties were usually the best. Instead, many of us found ways to participate in smaller and more personal events like sponsored dinners, meetups and gatherings. I hosted a "17 Minute Meetup" after my talk to see people at my book signing. A new startup called Togather hosted a series of small intimate book discussions with authors. Samsung sponsored a Blogger Lounge that offered a consistent reprieve from the craziness of the Convention Center. Even Microsoft, one of the largest brands around, created a "Recharge Lounge" around its Bing search engine, and hosted influencers. The aim for most was to avoid the big shoulder-to-shoulder experience, and instead really facilitate connections in a better way.

Read more about SXSW.

Photo: Getty Images

Rohit Bhargava is author of the bestselling book Likeonomics. After spending the past 10 years leading marketing strategy for some of the largest brands in the world, he recently founded the Influential Marketing Group and has been invited as a speaker to the highly selective SXSW Conference six times.