SXSW Kills the Magic?

I love SXSW. It is the one conference I’ll schedule everything else around so that I don’t ever miss it.

Every year that I go, I walk away having made new contacts that lead to friendships and business. Last year we sold out of copies of Content Rules in the bookstore and people still come up to me and talk about sessions I’ve talked in over the years.

Yesterday as they announced the first round of talks for 2012 (including mine), I noticed something that has me worried that a lot of magic of why I love SXSW might be killed as the conference has grown to the size it is today.

Now, I have to mention that I can’t imagine organizing a conference of any size, let alone one as huge as this. Hugh and his team do an amazing job running the show and the challenges they face as they continue to be extremely successful and grow to meet that success is something I can’t imagine dealing with. Don’t take this post as a slam to any of them. They are doing what they need to do and it makes complete sense from a logistical standpoint.

If you didn’t notice what I’m concerned about, they’ve set up different tracks of talks in different buildings. Some of them very far apart from each other.

Granted, this is awesome if you are interested in only one type of session. Interested in “the future of work” then you can hang at the Courtyard Marriott for the day. Want “journalism and online content” then you can chill at the Sheraton. Only interested in the featured talks and keynotes, then you don’t have to ever leave the Austin Convention Center.

What I have always loved is the diversity of sessions and being able to be in one about photography one second, then go next door to listen in on the new world of non-profits and finally swing by a third to hear a case study about a successful transmedia storytelling campaign. A little something for everyone.

The hallway magic of SXSW is what I’m worried about being lost.

The photo above tells a great story of when I got chatting with a world famous author, a leading online parenting expert, a well regarded analyst and the top buddhist podcaster in the world near the escalators of the Austin Convention Center. Where else in the world would this meeting happen but at SXSW?

With the rapid growth forcing talks to be held at hotels spread all over Austin it is going to naturally cut down on these random bits of magic to occur. Instead we’ll bump into other people interested in the same topics as we are since we’ll all be at the same hotel together. This will lead to other great meetings for sure, but don’t we have enough fishbowls already?

I love crossing paths and talking with people from different backgrounds and interests. We may bump into each other in a hallway and then later grab a drink or talk long after the event is done. I live for diversity in my relationships. SXSW has always been a great place to start these relationships for me.

I’m still wrapping my thoughts around all of this, but am curious what you think? I’d love to hear from SXSW veterans and newbies alike.

SXSW is still an amazing conference and I have zero doubts that it will rock this year as well.

You should attend because you’ll meet great people, eat great food and experience a truly magical event. I’m just worried maybe it won’t be as magical as years past. I’ll let you know in March.




  • C.C., 

    Thanks for the great tips you offered me last year since it was my first year attending. Similar to you I already planned my travel to SXSW next year. 

    One of the most unique aspects of SXSW was the fact that I got to engage with lots of people creating different things in the type of conversations you mentioned. In my case I try to make it to two sessions and then the rest of the day move around towards other things that where happening such as those very important Hallway meetings.

    • You are most welcome and cool to hear you are going again.

      What this will force is all of us to be extra strategic about planning our days around the sessions we most want to see and then hoping we can make it in time 🙂

      • I agree. I really think the best experiences I got last year where the unplanned ones. So not sure how to make a strategy out of that 🙂 

  • I don’t attend this conference but I’ve seen the phenomenon before — once conferences grow and have to spread across multiple buildings the benefits get lost. But something else will take its place.

    • Yeah it happens time and time again with conferences for sure. They are not the first to go through this.

  • Isn’t this what Podcamp tried to avoid?  If the conference starts to balloon, another entire event is formed so they can stay localized and tight-knit.  Not sure how that approach is working overall, but it seems to prevent Attendance Bloat.

    SXSW has already divided its interests into entirely different events- Music and New Media, maybe down the road you’re going to see the tracks spun off into their own events and you’ll have to pay separate registration fees for each of them or one mega-huge reg fee to go to all of them.  Like the different parks at Disney World.

    • Well they sort of already do that with the three festivals of Music, Film and Interactive, but I see what your saying.

      The establishment of these “campuses” around different topics probably had to happen due to size of it and I can’t fault them since the numbers are constantly going up and they are meeting that demand. Hard to turn away money when it is being offered right?

      I can’t imagine having to deal with a problem like this. Obviously this is probably the only way to do it and keep it going. Who knows.

  • C.C. I’ve actually made the decision not to go to next years. I’ve been for the past five years and each year I’ve come away feeling that it wasn’t as good as the previous year. It’s getting harder to find the good sessions among the “not so good”. Last year I heard more complaints about the content than I ever had. I think SXSWi is now being driven more by the brands than by the content. They have to make it bigger each year to attract more money and keep the impetus going. 
    I agree the hallways and the parties are where the real SXSW takes place but I’m not convinced that those conversations can’t be had at other events without the craziness of SXSW. Perhaps once I have skipped a year I’ll want to catch up on it in 2013…or perhaps I’ll have found a different conference to catch up with people at.

  • Anonymous

    I still believe it’s biggest flaw is picking the speakers and the subjects now.. half my job with digital is trying to keep up with and guess what will be new/effective. By March the way we do biz on Facebook could be completely changed form today..etc. I also find it has become a ‘preaching to the choir’ kind of event. It seems a majority of the people there already get it.. and although we can always learn more I think the future is business specific. The way a hotel utilizes digital will be different than the way Pepsi does.. I would like to see more people like you and other success stories speaking directly to the industries themselves. I am a generalist.. so to speak..truly a hotel/restaurant pro first – digital is new. People need to stop talking to each other and speak to those running the actual businesses that need and can benefit from the new digital tools!

    p.s. love ya man!

    • I LOVE speaking to specific industries. How can I talk to the hotels?

      If there is one area that needs to have social in their DNA it is the hospitality industry! I know you know that 🙂

      Love you too.

  • This trend has been accelerating lately and sadly, after 11 straight years of attending, it looks like I’m going to give SXSW a miss in 2012. I’ll be happy to come back when it returns to a manageable size. Otherwise, I’ll be looking for a different small conference where the same sort of cross-pollination is encouraged.

  • I’m excited to be attending again this year, after missing it last year for the first time in 5 years. 
    I know what you mean though. A big part of the value is the conversations in the halls.

    I agree with you that Hugh, Katie and the team do an incredible job each year. This thing is mammoth! 

    One flaw I’m seeing now, that I don’t think can be fixed, is the early panel pitching and voting. This works really well to create buzz online and get people talking about SXSW, but they no longer need it. The brilliant word-of-mouth strategy to grow the conference has done so well, that it is now back firing. 

    Still, I know we’re going to have fun reconnecting with friends and making new ones! 

  • Hi C.C. I have the same concerns. I went for the 1st time last year and loved being a speaker. However, I was a bit worried that it has gotten very corporate and I felt breaking up the venues did cause some issues. At first I found myself running around a lot and when I got tired of doing that I just stayed in one location and went to something on offer there. Sometimes for sheer logistical reasons, I just couldn’t get to some sessions based on something else I attended in a new location.

    Despite all this, I truly enjoyed my time there and was impressed by how flawlessly it all ran. Huge kudos to the SXSW team for pulling it off. I’ll be interested in see how it goes as I imagine 2012 will be even bigger than 2011.

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  • Age old problem. You start something at a grass roots level, want it to be successful, it becomes so successful that it loses the magic it held for previous attendees. Do you limit attendance to the first 1000 people signing up? Mmm, can’t do that. Bigger venue? Is there one? Is this a good problem to have? I’d love to hear your thoughts when you get back. BTW, met you at the Boston Wordcamp. Bought your book. Read it. Loved it.