I attended SXSW for the first time last week, and it was exactly what everyone warned me it would be: totally overwhelming in the best of ways. But I came with specific goals about what types of people I wanted to meet, so I experimented with some different ways of reaching them. Here is the advice I’d give to first-timers:
- Have an agenda.
There is so much to do at SXSW that it’s easy to be occupied from the minute you wake up until well after bed time. That’s not necessarily good; now that SX is so large, you might leave feeling like you had a good time and heard some interesting talks, but didn’t actually accomplish your goals. Know why you’re going, whom you want to meet, and what you want to learn.
The list of panels and events is truly daunting. Before you go, set aside a few hours (at least) to go through the list for each day and make yourself a schedule. Look at who is running the panel so you can meet those people — they’re almost certainly at SX to network too. If you make a schedule before you go, you won’t have to worry about doing it while you’re there — and you can always change your mind. It’s better to have two or three options for each time slot than 100.
- Meet people. Introduce yourself to everyone. Ask about their hat or how long they’ve been in line or anything, just start a conversation. I was in line to get a cup of coffee at 9am (at SX, 9am is considered ungodly early even to early birds) and instead of shuffling along like my brain wanted to after the long, long previous few days, I mentioned the line and the great smelling coffee to the guy in front of me. We got into a conversation and he ended up inviting me to pitch to investors at Turner Broadcasting’s exclusive (or at least not widely advertised) pitch session. And the free food there was great!
- Targeted networking.
Many people suggest skipping panels, but I totally disagree. Where will the people you want to meet be? More importantly, where will they be in high concentrations? Panels are great for that, because the topic defines the audience. Attend panels that the people you want to meet might attend.
- Get the most out of panels.
There are a variety of ways you can network at a panel. Most panels have Q&A at the end — always have a question to ask, and introduce yourself and what you do. This lets anyone interested in you come to you (inbound marketing). (Note: at one panel I was actually swarmed by a mob of people asking for my card!) I also brought fliers, and in some of the smaller panels I arrived early and stood in the aisle asking people what they did, chatting, and handing out fliers to those that might be interested. It’s more of a tiny sales pitch, but it does work…and not a lot of people were doing it. And of course, always meet the people sitting near you.
If you bring fliers, don’t leave them lying around on random tables at the venues. No one picks them up, and they get swept up by the cleaning crew multiple times per hour. It’s like throwing them in the trash. Instead, have some that are no larger than a post-card that you can hand to people with your business card. It’s a great thing to do with a line of people, too — and there are plenty of lines. Looking back I would have done that for the registration line (it was over an hour long). Have at least a 30-second conversation with each person, or they’ll probably forget why they have the flier. And don’t just talk about what you do — ask them what they do. Get them engaged so that when they come across that flier 6 days later when they are unpacking they’ll remember you.
- Business cards.
If you give out any fliers or business cards, get the other person’s card. You want to be in control of whether you can follow up with them or not. And at the end of each day, you should vet all your cards. Some percentage of those people will be people you want to follow up with, but if you wait until the end of the conference and you have 100 cards and have been to dozens of events, you won’t remember the specifics of what you wanted to say (unless your memory is better than mine).
- Choose parties selectively.
Parties are fun. If you want to go to a party because you want to have a drink and burn off some steam, great — do it. But if you want to network, choose carefully. A couple of the parties I went to that seemed like they would have the kind of people I was looking for were too loud, so I left right away. It wasn’t worth the free drink if I knew it would be impossible to start a conversation. And there are so many parties, you really can be picky — just head to the next one!
- Host an amazing, targeted get-together.
SX is known for having fantastic unofficial events. One of the parties I went to was so memorable I can’t resist recommending a party like that as a strategy. The Daily Dot hosted an incredible dinner at a high-end restaurant and booked a “VIP room” for invitation-only guests. Not only were the people invited really amazing, but the waitstaff kept bringing course after course of some of the best food I’ve ever tasted. Most of the other parties I went to had free but forgettable food & drink, loud music, and ridiculous amounts of random people. This one was truly special food and drink and a small group of choice people. As you can see, it’s the one event I’m still thinking about a week later.