4 Lessons for Software Marketers from SXSW Interactive

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It’s true: Everything is bigger in Texas.

And if you’re a software company looking for an event at which to make a name for yourself, nothing’s bigger than SXSW Interactive.

sxsw b2b

SXSW Interactive, which drew nearly 34,000 official registrants in 2015, bills itself as “the place to discover the technology of tomorrow, today” and “ an incubator of cutting-edge technologies and digital creativity.” It certainly lives up to the hype, having been the catalyst for the widespread adoption of Twitter in 2007, and the launching ground for Foursquare in 2008 and live-streaming app Meerkat in 2015.

Today, the conference celebrates global technology advancement and development, drawing keynote speakers such as President Barack Obama.

While there’s so much to do at SXSW that every single person will have a different experience, here are four lessons for software marketers from SXSW, culled from my experiences at the 2016 event.

1. Investing in your brand requires guts, trust, and realistic expectations.

How do small brands go from only spending money on smaller, direct marketing channels to–say–deciding to buy commercial airtime during the Super Bowl?

“I don’t know if you’ll ever have complete clarity on when you should take the risk, when you should make the leap on big brand moments,” said David Lee, Chief Creative Officer of SquareSpace, at a panel on Building Influential Tech Brands. SquareSpace made the leap from podcast and live-stream music service ads to a Super Bowl commercial in 2016.

In other words, it’s a gut-feeling.

“It takes bravery, serendipity, and putting yourself out there just to see what happens,” Lee continued.

Invest in brand

For marketers of younger tech brands, like myself, that can seem disheartening: Smaller brands don’t often have the “cushion,” so to speak, of taking larger financial risks on advertising that might not have a direct ROI. Finding there’s no ‘magic metric,’ or easy way to convince executives that it’s time to make a big leap on brand marketing is like finding out your odds of winning the lottery: life’s going to be a lot harder than you thought and you probably didn’t have a backup plan.

But what Lee said is actually fairly illuminating. Larger tech brands operate similarly to smaller tech brands. They don’t always have the answers either. And at some point, the marketers for those large brands are having the same conversation you’re having, the “we need to do this because it’s what we should do, but it might not have an immediate ROI,” conversation.

But Lee also offered some advice to marketers looking to build those cases for their executives: set realistic expectations.

“We don’t believe that someone will watch a Super Bowl ad and immediately go sign up for a free trial of SquareSpace,” he said. “Becoming a customer is a much more considered decision than that.”

But the Super Bowl commercial was an important touch point to tell the SquareSpace story and develop a relationship with the customer in the decision process.

2. If you have a strong sense of mission, your brand will develop naturally.

One of the major challenges most small tech and software companies face is developing a brand.

“Good products often die with a lack of great brand and marketing,” Chet Gulland, Head of Strategy at digital and creative agency Droga5 remarked.

Countless software marketers can relate to the impact of a weak brand on the bottom line. “If only we were a bigger brand name,” they think, “customers would use our product/features/widgets.”

But how do smaller companies build a bigger brand name? Marcela Sapone, Co-Founder and CEO of Hello Alfred (winner of 2014’s TechCrunch Disrupt), speaking on the same panel, nailed this one on the head.

“Brand,” she said, “is a relationship.”

Strong mission

Brand is a measure of the relationship your customer has with your products and services. And relationships are built on trust. If consumers trusted your brand more, they would use your product/features/widgets.

How do you build that level of trust, that relationship with your customers and prospects? Well, it helps to know that–as Marcela described–your brand is a manifestation of your mission. When you believe in and carry out your mission, day-in and day-out, your brand develops naturally.

But that takes time: you won’t get it right on day one.

That’s important to remember, because the product you have today is just a product, not your brand at its whole. Equating the two limits your possibilities for growth.

By listening to your customers, and finding out the true impact your product/service has on their lives, you’ll be able to understand the meaning your brand has for consumers. Translating that meaning into future product and services offerings will help you develop a clear vision: knowing not just what your company does, but what it could do in the future. Understanding your vision and brand impact are crucial to developing a strong brand with a clear sense of purpose.

3. Know your elevator pitch like the back of your hand.

When you’ve developed your brand–if you’ve developed a strong one–everyone at your company should be able to articulate it very clearly. It should permeate all you do, the way you talk about your company, and all of the materials you provide potential customers.

Know your elevator pitch

While walking through the exhibition hall at SXSW, I came across a booth for a small software company with ‘Email’ in the name.

After a cursory scan of the materials on display, I approached the booth.

“Oh cool–email marketing software?”


Both booth attendants stared at me blankly. So I guessed again.

“Email analytics?”


I guessed the company’s product at least twice more before the employees finally gave me a several-minute explanation of what the software does. And honestly, I still couldn’t tell you.

We already discussed that big brand moments require trust to pull off, and they take some convincing to make a case that they’re worth the investment. Exhibiting at SXSW can be a big brand moment for a small tech brand–as it was for Twitter in 2007. So why not give your investment every chance to succeed?

Don’t blow your big moments, or even your small interactions with prospects, by being unable to articulate your products and services.

4. Prepare for the VR revolution.

“People always say ‘Seeing is believing.’ But now, more and more, experiencing is believing,” said Tara Kriese, Head of VR Content and Marketing for Samsung, at a panel on the future of marketing and virtual reality hosted by MSLGroup.

Virtual reality was everywhere at SXSW, with everyone from Gillette to McDonald’s to NASA showcasing the tech. And software marketers need to start thinking now about how they can take advantage of the technology as it becomes ubiquitous over the next few years.

virtual reality

Virtual reality is immersive, participatory storytelling. It’s an experience, rather than a visual. And experiences build trust. For marketers, tapping into that level of trust–the level of trust only accessible through experience–is going to be the key strategy of the future.

Everyone involved with virtual reality admits there’s a high barrier of entry to widespread adoption: you need to put on a headset for it to work. But the possibilities are astronomical, especially when it comes to engagement. For example, Absolut Vodka ran a virtual reality ad recently where the average watch time was nineteen minutes. NINETEEN. That’s practically a full-length sitcom, but it was an advertisement.

You may laugh, but software marketers who prepare for virtual reality now will earn more trust and be ahead of the curve in a few years time. Just you wait.

Did you attend SXSW Interactive this year? Do you have any additional takeaways for software marketers? Let me know in the comments!

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About the Author


Dylan Echter

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Dylan works on Public Relations, Social Media, and Brand Marketing at Capterra. He's a NJ native, DC resident, and graduate of the College of William and Mary. He enjoys live music and compelling stories, and has a casual interest in ekistics.


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