The energy in Austin, Texas was vibrant this past spring, as crowds fueled by barbeque and whiskey enjoyed seeing smiling faces and experiencing all that South by Southwest (SXSW) had to offer. Celebrating innovations in technology, music and film, SXSW 2022 returned to an in-person format for the first time since 2019. Brand activations were back, offering extraordinary hospitality and embracing technology with in-real-life (IRL) and virtual experiences.
Penske Media Corp (PMC), who purchased a 50% stake in SXSW in April 2021, made its SXSW debut with a visibility boost for several of its music and entertainment brands and showcased some interesting collaborations between entertainment brands and tech powerhouses.
While attendance was down by 20-30%, attendees, artists and brands were undeniably excited to be back at SXSW with face-to-face interactions. But is that energy alone enough to maintain the festival’s edge moving forward? Doubtful. Our view is that savvy brands must resist applying “business as usual” practices to today’s IRL events and proactively take cues from 2022 successes.
CONTENT TAKES THE SPOTLIGHT
Content was the winner this year, with high-powered speakers keeping topics timely and relevant. SXSW had one of their most well-curated agendas yet: topics were interrelated, session rooms were full and discussions were tactical and smart. Many panel topics were crowdsourced to encourage engagement and attendance. Real-time discussion of cross-over topics, such as how the NFT culture can be more inclusive and why responsible metaverse behavior can have a positive effect on the environment, were among the most popular sessions.
Many brands seemed hesitant to try out new experiential approaches, relying on pre-pandemic activation tactics instead as they cautiously stepped into SXSW 2022. Activations with a more impactful presence created an integrated experience that extended beyond hospitality.
MAIN SXSW 2022 TRENDS:
NFTs, Blockchain and Metaverse: Much of the SXSW content focus was on how NFTs affect music, art, and technology ecosystems—even the Hollywood pitch. The question posed to brands about the NFT space is not simply, “Are you in it?” but rather, “What are you doing differently?”
Virtual and Hybrid Experiences: The past few years have shown that the event industry can adopt new technologies quickly. While we saw joy in the return to IRL, SXSW 2022 was a robust digital experience. As digital experiences become more immersive, brands should continue to develop virtual experiences that complement their IRL events. These new technologies give us an opportunity to reinvent and transform the event space.
Location or Geographic Experiences: Attendees had the opportunity to travel to the land down under in Australia House and experience life in Oklahoma at Tulsa House. Location activations, designed to immerse festival goers in a destination experience, were a nonstop push at SXSW 2022. Destinations used these opportunities to promote tourism and attract businesses with connected experiences, including panel discussions, speakers, local musicians, real estate agents, tourist boards and virtual tours.
HEADING INTO 2023
A brand’s SXSW success is more than glitzy tech displays and creative hospitality—it’s about being relevant and having something powerful to say. Planning for 2023? Consider the following:
1. What’s Your “Why”?
Understand the SXSW audience and how their engagement is relevant to your brand. Then, focus on why you are showing up and pair it with actionable KPIs to understand what the return is on such a large-scale investment.
2. What’s Your Story?
Have something meaningful to say or launch and make that the climax of your brand story. Weave your brand story across each touchpoint and leverage technology to amplify your message.
3. What’s Your CTA?
A huge miss at SXSW 2022 among most brands was the absence of a strong call to action. Tell your brand story in a unique way that engages festivalgoers and lets them know how you want them to interact with your brand!
4. Now Cross-Pollinate!
Broaden your universe with live and virtual brand experiences. Cross-pollinate your content with music, tech, gaming and innovation so that your activation delivers a broader, deeper relationship with your brand.
Brands can deepen their SXSW presence by staying true to a cohesive through line that links and supports every touchpoint. Creatively connecting the activation, content and social brand experience heightens relevance and engagement. This coalescence, complemented by message specificity, tells a consistent brand story.
SXSW is as relevant as ever, and 2022 proved that the effectiveness of in-person experiences and activations has not diminished. The mere excitement of “just showing up” was the driving force this year but won’t carry brands into a 2023 moment. The need for solid storytelling and creative strategy remains more important than ever—and it’s not too early to start planning.