How to market your startup at SXSW


SXSW Interactive is a super-sized festival for technology enthusiasts, early adopters, influencers, visionaries and web innovators, or ‘spring break for geeks’ in other words. Among other things it’s an ideal platform for marketing for startups as a large part of their target audience is handily in one place. It is this Austin event where Twitter and Foursquare got serious wind in their sails. The challenge is that there are almost as many startups marketing as there are participants, so a bit of planning is in order. Here are my two cents on how to make the most of SXSW as a marketer after my first gig there.

In a nutshell, SXSW is a collection of panels, random or nor-so-random chats, and entertainment. So there’s your formula for a successful SXSW promotion – panels, parties and people.

Get on a panel

By far the best way to get the word out there is being on a panel. Thousands of people will look at the description and speakers, tens or hundreds will be there in person, you can invite your partners and followers (and hand them out some swag) and can get your community involved before the event – even if they’re not present at SXSW.

The good thing with SXSW is that you have a straightforward way of getting onto the schedule. Any- and everyone can submit their ideas, and the festival’s panel picker has a 30% influence in separating the wheat from the chaff (SXSW staff is 30% and experts decide the rest). This presentation has more background on which kinds of topics are submitted and picked. Hint: apparently the design topics are underserved.

I asked the good people doing the said presentation what were some of the common mistakes that people submitting their ideas make. Their advice was blindingly obvious:
– Specialise your content ie. don’t submit a generic or obviously self-promotional idea.
– Avoid a ‘funny’ headline for the submission, it’s substance over form at this stage.
– Take time to write well and make sure to avoid typos.

Throw a party

Of course, not everyone can get on a panel. Another good cornerstone for your SXSW marketing is throwing a party, or sponsoring one. Larry Chiang is the crowned king of throwing parties for the tech crowd, very much unlike yours truly, so take his words.

My educated guess is that parties work best if you’re well-networked and/or you your startup is already burning hot. If you don’t tick either of these boxes, it’s down to the third marketing cornerstone – the hustle.

Try Hustle A or Hustle B

There’s two kinds of hustling. One is when you know exactly who to talk to and make your way to these people via networking, rounds of drinks, clever use of social media and such. The more you prepare the more you’ll get out of SXSW. At the very minimum let everyone know about your SXSW plans and keep an eye on Plancast and Twitter updates of people you’d like to meet. Do that, follow Colette Ballou’s evergreen networking tips and you’ll do fine.

The only thing I would add is: don’t be a human logo. If you wear a colourful branded T-shirt, you kind of stand out but perhaps not in a good way. There’s a trade show at SXSW, you may come across as someone that has escaped from handing out pins in the booth, not the respected co-founder of the next Facebook.

The other kind of hustling is when you just want to get the word out there without spending an arm or a leg of your startup aka guerilla marketing. There’s a ton of it SXSW, some good and some really bad. My advice is straightforward

Keep your promotion related to the product. Example: Squarespace was giving out free meals a block from the convention centre with an enormous banner next to it. The banner didn’t talk much about creating websites, neither did the cardboard flyers they handed out to people in the queue. I know what Squarespace does but I’m sure the company doesn’t have a 100% awareness even with the SXSW crowd. For someone lured in just with the promise of free junk food it’s too easy to forget what the product behind it was.
Simply showing your logo is not enough. GroupedIn had plastered their logo all over Austin but I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one who just couldn’t bother to check out what the company actually does.
Random handing out swag like T-shirts is as effective as always. Not very effective, that is. The real influencers have their swag bags filled already, and only relatively random people will stop.
– A side-note on T-shirts – if you do decide to hand them out, for instance to people coming to hear your panel, then keep in mind it’s not the real America. I made the mistake of trying to be clever and ordering more XL T-shirts to be handed out, only to find out that the crowd is more European sized than the Europeans. Bring lots and lots of M-size shirts.
Stickers and posters get overstickered and overpostered (two new words!). Relying on impromptu poster, flyer and sticker distribution can work as a support whatever else you are doing, but doing this alone won’t get you too far as there is too much noise. Every available space gets more than three layers of posters and stickers on it every day.
No babes handing out swag. A couple of startups tried that on street corners, somehow felt very our of place at a festival about innovation.

There is also a fourth way promote yourself at SXSW, which is to rise at the level of creativity (and budgets) of AOL and Microsoft marketers and become an official sponsor, and/or have a booth at the trade show. I’ll not cover this here, there are much more reputable blogs and books for that.

Additional reading:
Quore: What have been the best and worst promotional investments for startups at SXSW 2011?
How to promote your startup for free at SXSW

Hope this was helpful, and happy to answer any questions regarding promoting at SXSW, just comment below or email.

Flattr at SXSW

I was at SXSW with Flattr, the social micropayments service. My brief, which I received a whole two weeks before the event was to think of ways to leverage Flattr’s panel presence at the festival. I recommended the classic “Educate, leave breadcrumbs, save the world, amuse — and then fix if it doesn’t work” – strategy.

I’m pleased to say this worked rather well.

The focus was on demonstrating the product through amusing. Flattr is sometimes described as the tip jar for the internet. And a couple of months ago the company launched Flattr Offline, which makes any real-live object flattrable. I wanted to put the two things together, so we hired a couple of street artists that did their thing and had Flattr posters instead of hats.

The results? Flattr accounts of artists kickstarted, hundreds of visits to their mobile Flattr pages, thousands of south-byers seeing the performers and banners and many more learning about Flattr at SXSW from blog posts and tweets:
Guardian’s Jemima Kiss
BBC News (scroll to 3.32)
Tweet example

Screen%20shot%202011-03-29%20at%2001.46.10.pngThe T-shirts we printed were not given out randomly but handed to people that came to listen to the Flattr panel. The shirts featured a QR-code which, if scanned with a smartphone (do not try this at home or at a non-geek conference, at least not for another 1-2 years), took people to mobile-optimised Flattr pages of known charities. Close to the product, yet not over-promotional, wouldn’t you agree?

The breadcrumbs bit ie. plastering stickers with mysterious charity QR codes was something we prepared for but didn’t end up doing too much, after we saw how fast they are covered with a new layer of fellow stickers. But owing mostly to luck, and in small part to the ingenious idea behind the stickers, Guardian used it as the main illustration for their long SXSW piece. A nice cherry on top.


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