What Marketers Can Learn From SXSW 2022

sxsw 2022 marketing

Last week, our CEO Shama Hyder traveled to Austin, Texas, to speak at South By Southwest. 

Locals call it “South By” (according to our Editorial Director and Austin resident, Megan Noorman), and everyone else calls it SXSW. 

But how we label things—a big part of branding—is a topic for another time. 

For any of you who aren’t familiar, SXSW is held every year in Austin, Texas, and it has become a premier event for creatives across the globe. People from every industry are involved, and the music scene there is second to none. Celebrities also tend to flock to the event—it’s really come into a league of its own.

When it first began in 1987, SXSW was primarily centered around music. But now (as with every industry), tech is increasingly involved. Which only opens up an exciting new realm of opportunities for creatives and marketers alike.

Shama shared her first-hand experience and what she learned with our team, and now we are sharing the love. Read on to hear some insights from the event, a few key points from Shama’s talk, and her thoughts on where marketing is headed as a whole. 

Where We’ve Come From…

The last time Shama spoke at SXSW was in 2018, before the pandemic. 

The interactive festival alone attracted over 20,000 attendees, and some of the lines were wrapping around the building, Shama’s session included. 

And she was asked to repeat the session in the afternoon for those too far down the line to get into the room. Think about how different this would be in COVID times!

It was a great year for Zen Media, and Shama talks about 2018’s SXSW as a milestone in her career as a speaker.

…And Where We’re Headed 

While this event remains of standalone importance to all things technology, film, culture, and music—this year, things felt different.

This year, by Shama’s approximation, there was a 60% reduction in attendees. The ballroom for Shama’s talk was pleasantly full, but without the need for the Fire Marshall to be involved or a second session later in the day, like in 2018. 

With the continuation of COVID and the Omnicron variant at the beginning of this year, the uncertainty of travel (international and overwise) put a damper on the excitement surrounding the event.

Shama’s talk touched on how the pandemic has permanently changed our behavior—not only in our personal lives but in the way we do virtually everything, including the way companies approach events. 

Related reading: 9 Best Practices for Hosting a Virtual Event in 2022

Many company leaders and marketers are left wondering how to include events in their business and marketing strategy. It’s a valid question. Events, in their heyday, were often the culmination of a company’s year. Companies pulled out all the stops. 

Now, this same concept must apply to every single touchpoint a company has with its customers. Every single chance to interact with your target audience should be treated with the intentionality of a booth at a tradeshow. 

Related reading: The Zendaya Method: How to Take Your Strategy to the Tipping Point – Zen Media

This doesn’t mean events are gone for good—quite the contrary. Now, events can be held anywhere, and attendees can participate from the comfort of their own homes. Virtual events are a great tool to meet your audience where they are. 

So What’s Changed?

For those opting to host in-person events, here are some quick takeaways from Shama’s 2022 SXSW experience:

  • Meeting planners will give preference to established and well-known speakers who will serve as a draw for audiences. This means newer speakers will have to work harder for stage time. But emerging speakers shouldn’t be disheartened. In fact, it should inspire them to find their brand and their message and stick to it.
  • Stick to Your Strategy. Many exhibitors managed to attract attention with photo booths and food, but were strategically lacking. It’s nice to have perks for attendees, but make sure you’re actually communicating who you are and what you do. Substance stays; style fades. 
  • NFT and Crypto took center stage this year. Unlike previous years, there was no “breakout star”. Instead, SXSW focused on concepts everyone was already talking about. This helped create a theme for the event and center the conversations that were already happening. 
  • The focus on Ukraine and the digital war being played out in real-time, right before our eyes, will continue to be strong. Ukraine did have two representatives at the conference, and one of them had driven 48 hours to get to Germany and then flown down to Austin. This is the very definition of commitment.
  • There were many first-time attendees and many newcomers to the world of marketing. This affirms LinkedIn’s research that 40% of their entire membership base changes job titles, seniority, and industry every four years. Read: your market today is not your market tomorrow. It also highlights the need for companies and professionals to focus on earned media and B2B PR more than ever before.

One thing is for certain: Marketing and our world at large have changed drastically over the last two years. 

And truth is, change is never going away—in fact, it may be the only real constant in the human race. Yes, the last two years have seen change at an accelerated rate, but strategic marketers and business leaders are those who see change as an exciting opportunity to experiment, learn, and transform.

Tomorrow’s changemakers aren’t going to be the ones who sit idly by and watch the changes unfold. They’re going to be the ones who adopt, adapt, and continually test over time. And isn’t that what good marketing is all about? 


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