New week, new guest, new host! #EventIcons is back with a very special episode! Recorded at Event Tech Live, Will had a great conversation about the evolution of SXSW with none other than their former Chief Innovation Officer, Scott Wilcox. Today, Scott has a new consulting venture, Here and Tomorrow.
We’ve talked about SXSW (South by Southwest) before in this podcast’s history. We’ve watched them do their first-ever 4K live stream, and included them on the list of our favorite events in 2018. Today, we’ll explore how they went from being a company without emails to thought leaders in innovation and technology.
The iconic guest takes us back to the year 1996 when business was still done via snail mail and CD ROMs ruled the world. Almost three decades later, SXSW is a household name among trade shows, conferences, and events. How did they do it? Tune in and find out, it’s an episode that you really shouldn’t miss!
The Evolution Of SXSW: It Started With Snail Mail
“I started at SXSW in 1996. It was a time where they had put this vision together. They had started as a music industry event and just two years earlier, they had started the film festival and a multimedia event, which was largely focused on CD ROMs.” Remember those?
When Scott first started, there was no technology in sight. “My first job was opening the mail and entering the data from the registration forms. I quickly realized that the aspirations of the company and the technology that was inside the company were really misaligned. We had this aspiration to create this worldwide event, but we didn’t really have the infrastructure to do it.”
Scott changed that. “I started small by creating a relational database system. I built out the website, started doing all the blogging, and started incorporating digital video in the year 2000. Event technology wasn’t even a thing back then. But because we had these aspirations, we decided to build it ourselves. I hired programmers, built a program around that. And as we floated through the years, we saw a lot of returns on our early adoption of technology, particularly as it aligned with the community. We were trying to cultivate this multimedia event turned into interactive. The web really made things take off. But at the end of the day, if you don’t have the environment and the technology for your audience, you’re not going to succeed,” he adds.
“The website, content, and building your brand were among your first steps,” summarizes Will. “What other technologies did you start implementing that had the biggest impact on your ROI?”
“We started doing online registration in the late nineties,” says Scott. “We weren’t living in an age of software as a service. There weren’t technology companies that I could go to, so we built it ourselves. Very quickly, I started pivoting towards audio and video and very much embracing content creation from the event.”
Event producers commonly think that putting out free content simply doesn’t pay off, but SXSW only grew larger for it. “It sounds almost counterintuitive and it did require a leap of faith,” says Scott. “An easy thing that people can start doing right away is capturing the video and audio, putting out podcasts. You’ve got this content moment, the shared experience, and that’s a way to build on the community.”
And then, there are social media platforms. “We were early adopters there, working with Twitter in 2007. It truly took off with our community.”
“There were risks we took along the way, but without those risks, you don’t see the return,” adds Scott “So I would encourage people to take those risks. And mistakes were made along the way, but what we found was if you correct those mistakes in a timely fashion, if you acknowledged them, if you engage the community, you can very much turn that into a win.”
The Road Was Paved With Failures & Successes
Speaking of risks, Will wants to know what is the best and biggest risk SXSW took. The kind that really demanded a lot of faith.
“When we first started incorporating RFID in 2004,” replies Scott. “When you’re innovating around the credential, you’re innovating around access itself. So, your attendees pay for access to that content. If we had messed that up, it would have impacted us in a huge way.”
But luckily, the rewards came fast. “We were able to understand the flows of our show so much better. We were very careful to make smart choices about data and the privacy of our attendees.”
But even SXSW had its failures. “Back in the early 2000s, we used QR codes for networking and we thought we had this really slick thing where people could scan the QR code on each other’s credential and automatically connect via a social system that we created.” But something went wrong. “It was an immediate showstopper. People were trying to connect and because they weren’t automatically logged in, the system wasn’t working correctly. That was a huge learning moment,” Scott recalls.
On to the next question! “Walk us through the evolution of your team,” says Will. “What were key hires that you made along the way that really helped SXSW stay innovative?”
“It started with just me and maybe one or two other people that had some technical ability. But what I found very early on was that if you’re doing something in the event, you can get other people to join you in that effort. And so, I hired programmers because they gave me an immediate return on functionality.”
While that might have worked back then, we now live in a completely different world. Will wants to know how would he go about building a team today. What advice does he have for those who are unsure how to do it themselves?
“You’ve got a surplus of event technology tools today. The real question is: what do I use? What’s right for me? How do I go about that? And this is something that Here in Tomorrow, my new company, is really keen to address. There is so much innovation that’s happened in the industry over the last 12 months. But there’s also a lot of noise, right? So, what do I pick? How do I choose it? The first thing you should consider doing in terms of an internal team is project management. And I say project management because a technical project manager knows enough technology to be able to work with your vendors in a smart way. They can take you through integrations and they have enough knowledge to communicate with vendors.”
The Evolution Of SXSW During The Pandemic
We’ve so far learned all about the evolution of SXSW; how it started and how it expanded. But how did they do when the events industry had to pivot to virtual events only?
Well, they were well prepared. While many event profs had just started learning the basics about livestreaming, SXSW has been doing it for years. “We were very comfortable with streaming technologies. And we’d also done a lot in terms of emerging technology, embracing mobile and Bluetooth. We had some great technology partners already in place and people that we’ve worked with. And at the same time, I think we were very well positioned in terms of making that leap,” he says. “The year was obviously very challenging, but at the same time, looking at the silver lining, such a moment for innovation.”
“The amazing thing about virtual events is the low barrier to entry,” Scott adds. “You don’t have to travel to an in-person venue or invest money in lodging. It’s perfect if you have a global audience or you want to have a global audience, there’s such a lower barrier to entry. You don’t have to travel there. You have access to this content and community from anywhere in the world. And that’s a phenomenal opportunity for expansion of the brand.”
When Making Decisions, Event Strategy Is Your Guide!
Early adoption was at the core of the evolution of SXSW. And it seems they’ve made all the right decisions! “How did you decide which technologies to implement? What did that decision-making process look like?” wonders Will.
Scott lays down some event strategy 101 knowledge. “It needs to flow from your event goals. So I would say you’ve got to take a step back. You can’t make technology decisions without revisiting the goals of your event and your brand. What is your mission? What are your goals and who is your audience? Without those key signals, you’re going to make the wrong choices. What are we at our essence? Why are we doing this? Answers to those questions will help guide you. If you’ve got a large event, stakes are high, you’ve got a big audience. What kind of other events has that technology company done on your scale? That would be a key signal I would look for. Also, their demonstrated scalability; who have they worked with successfully? Talk to those people. If you are positioning your technology in line with your brand identity, you’re going to be in good shape.”
When The Budget Feels Too Tight …
Time for real talk. “A lot of players right now are asking how can smaller events harness a new technology without a ton of resources,” says Will. “What do you do when you lack resources?”
Scott advises looking for a virtual platform with as many features as possible. “If you’re really pressed for resources in a budgetary sense, you should look at some of the all-in-one platform solutions. I think if you can align your technology choices with your revenue streams, then the management and the organization are going to feel even more comfortable about increasing the budgets to do that because they can see an immediate return on investment. So you have to draw the line between technology spending and the return on that investment. And you should set KPIs (key performance indicators) and align on that, and you can get budgets increased if the revenue increases.”
Ending On A High Note
Before Will and Scott log off, Will asks Scott to share his proudest technology-related achievement at SXSW. Scott is proud of the virtual event they just produced. “I’m talking about five channels on five connected TV apps, mobile, web, and XR. Creating that variety of platforms was really difficult, as was pulling together that volume of content. Just with a couple of weeks left in production, Texas got hit by this crazy winter storm that knocked out all the power. That robbed us up to six production days. It was a Herculean effort that made me incredibly proud that we were able to deliver such a high-quality experience for tens of thousands of people to engage.”
And as for the future, Scott thinks it’s bright and exciting. “It’s an enormous moment of innovation for the industry. We’ve got all this incredible investment that’s come into event technology and into shared experiences. Everyone talks about hybrid, but nobody really knows what hybrid is because it hasn’t been defined yet. So that’s a huge moment of opportunity.”