I started writing this post on the plane coming home from the South by Southwest Interactive festival. If you've been on Twitter the past two weeks, you've probably seen the #sxsw or #sxswi hashtags, and if you weren't actually in Austin, you probably saw them a heck of a lot more than you wanted to.
It's quite an event. Depending on how you measure it's probably the largest social media event in the world. I read somewhere there were 11,000 attendees registered for the Interactive portion, surpassing the music and film tracks of the event.
There were dozens of posts about what to expect from “South by” (as it's spoken by the geekerati), and dozens of wrap-up posts already published, including great ones by Kyle Flaherty and Jay Baer. I don't just want to add to the noise; I want to talk about the value I got from the event as an enterprise social media practitioner.
In short, it was there, but you really needed to look for it, and that should concern the organizers of the event more than I suspect it does.
There was a business track in the schedule, and I tried to attend as many of those as physically possible. I say “tried” because they didn't make it easy. Panels I wanted to attend often conflicted with one another. More annoying by far, however, were the number of panels I attended where they had to shut the doors before the event started because the room was full. That happened to me at least four times, which is very frustrating when you've paid to go to an event.
So, SXSW organizers, please plan better, get bigger rooms or don't sell so many tickets. Telling us to “be sure to arrive early for popular panels” doesn't cut it if that means you have to get up and leave before your previous session is over, or forgo the opportunity to have a conversation with a presenter or fellow attendee.
A few of the panels I did attend were so unfocused as to be practically useless. I went to at least two where the panelists threw the floor open to audience questions from the start. The ensuing conversations may have been interesting to some people, but bore little relationship to the description in the program.
It takes hard work to be a good moderator, but that's what's needed. For an event of SXSW's size and renown, it's not acceptable to phone it in, to just trust your panelists will show up with something valuable and let them riff.
In my opinion, the best panel at SXSW was the Future15 Social Business panel, moderated by David Meerman Scott. It had highly knowledgeable panelists with real-world examples of how social media is changing business. Plus, it had David, who I'm sure did more to prepare his panelists than just email them the hashtag in advance.
(Another great moderator is Sean McDonald from Ants Eye View. He coordinated and ran a panel I was on at the MarketingProfs Digital Marketing Mixer in Chicago last year, and his preparation paid off. I was glad I got to see him at SXSW, as he lives in Austin.)
The paucity of practical business content is especially frustrating because I heard stories there from solid B2B and B2C social media practitioners who had their panel ideas rejected. It seems a sexy, controversial or profane title is necessary to get on the agenda.
SXSW may be able to survive just by appealing to designers and developers and cool kids and the people who sell to them. Maybe they don't want to cater to the business crowd. There are lots of social media conferences that do a great job of providing practical value for enterprise social media practitioners, like the Social Fresh series (run by my friend Jason Keath) and the MarketingProfs events, where I've spoken and will be speaking in May.
If SXSW wants to cede the business ground to those folks, they're on the right track.