Nerd is the new cool, and South by Southwest (SXSW) is on the cutting edge of blending nerd culture with pop culture.
The Texas-based event hosts tech giants like Elon Musk along with the hottest of the pop culture in-crowd, like comedy TV and film guru Judd Apatow. The success of SXSW shows the power of nerd culture combined with masterful event management.
It’s this combination that makes the event stand out from the crowd of other tech/pop culture gatherings, and by following some simple rules employed by SXSW you can see similar success.
Here are four things the event industry can learn from SXSW!
1. Take advantage of controversy if possible
Few things spark more discussion and notoriety than a mainstream controversy. This year at SXSW, the event seized on the Apple/FBI encryption dispute to start a discussion on the nuances of the privacy vs. law enforcement debate.
It worked wonders.
SXSW invited President Barack Obama to speak at the event and he addressed the Apple encryption issue by taking a middle-of-the-road stance during his speech.
This speech was controversial to say the least, which may or may not pan out well for the president, but for SXSW, it provided the kind of golden press coverage most event managers would kill for.
Additionally, SXSW has entertained both sides of this contentious debate, having privacy stalwart Senator Rand Paul attend last year’s conference to discuss the importance of government respecting the privacy rights of the people. This caught the attention of big outlets, including MTV.
This is another valuable lesson for event managers. If you are worried about addressing contentious issues at your event, rest assured you can mitigate most, if not all backlash by inviting commentators to represent both sides of the issue. This lets you, as the event, remain neutral. Earned media coverage from controversial issues means more popularity for your event and larger attendance numbers in the future.
Keep your event edgy and informative!
2. Adopt iBeacon technology and other tech innovations
But how has iBeacon technology actually benefitted SXSW?
Using the iBeacon and the bluetooth capabilities of your cellphone, the official SXSW GO mobile app can connect you to nearby guests with similar interests,show event information based on your location, and send personalized updates for what YOU want to discover at SXSW..
iBeacons also make event navigation, attendee check-in, and networking a much more simple and streamlined process by conducting all of it on the user’s smartphone, rather than through multiple devices or static systems.
In addition to iBeacon technology, SXSW has also explored other avenues of tech innovation in the event industry, such as virtual reality and 360 degree recording. Some of this tech may be too much for your event, but the importance of innovation is not.
3. Embrace your inner geek
The old days of jock superiority and nerdy underling culture are long gone. Though you may want to draw the line at jockstrap headgear.
SXSW has embraced the geek movement from panels on the futuristic devices we use, to sessions on the blockbuster comic book worlds of Marvel Studios. SXSW knows how to leverage pop culture to gain attendees and attention and geek culture is a huge part of the pop culture milieu these days. Look no further than bold claims about superhero movies saving Hollywood as proof.
Your event can use geek culture itself to gain whole new swaths of attendees. For example, if you are hosting a nonprofit event, try to establish a connection between your cause and that of a well-known superhero. The act of selfless giving for the benefit of others is one you can easily associate with the mentality of benevolent superheroes such as Superman, or Captain America.
Nerds are the main reason we have all the devices and social media websites we use on a day-to-day basis, so making nerds a part of your speaking lineup is also an important step to engaging with mainstream culture.
Nerd culture is pop culture!
4. Community and diversity
Just like being nerdy has now become a mainstream cultural phenomenon, diversity is also an important factor for today’s event attendees. SXSW has made community and diversity a massive cornerstone of their event, with significant effort on their part to be as inclusive as possible using the “GLOVE” principles.
The GLOVE principles are:
Gender – If more than three or more speakers are proposed, please ensure gender diversity. In other words, a panel of three or four speakers cannot be comprised of a single gender.
Location – Lots of amazingly talented professionals call New York, Texas and California home. But, there are scores of very qualified digital creatives in the US and around the world. Their voices also help contribute to the ongoing goal of diversity.
Opinion – If all the speakers on your panel proposal have the same opinion on the give topic, then the resulting conversation will likely be uninteresting. Whatever topic you are addressing, you are encouraged to include at least one person whose opinion differs sharply from yours.
Variety – The session selection process is very competitive so having a variety of new and interesting speakers is essential to having an effective presentation.
Ethnicity – Different ethnic backgrounds and different cultures take a different approach to different topics. And, different is usually a good thing.
SXSW claims that its event thrives because of its adherence to these principles and if you look at their vast lineups and topics, it isn’t hard to believe. SXSW caters to tech enthusiasts, music artists, filmmakers, privacy advocates, and innovators.
Broadening the themes and messages of your event works wonders on inclusivity, which leads to attention from groups you may not have appealed to before. You can accomplish this at your own event by inviting a whole range of different speakers (comedians, politicians, tech giants, social commentators) and hosting new types of breakout sessions each year which attract new attendees with new interests.
In order to be more successful, your event ought to feel more inviting to a broad range of potential attendees.
When it comes to event innovation, SXSW is a model to emulate. Focusing on controversy, technology, pop culture, and community means SXSW has almost limitless growth opportunities.
Do you feel we missed anything regarding SXSW? Can you think of other great lessons event managers can take from Austin’s “spring break for nerds?” Let us know in the comments below!