Today I land in Austin, Texas for the Interactive and social media world’s annual Woodstock. South by Southwest is the one conference I would keep on the schedule if my travel budget was cut back to one event simply because of the sheer number of people, parties, learning and opportunity that happens there. Frankly, if I were in the market for a job, I’d just go to SXSW and network like a mad man. (And I’m sure some folks go there not looking for a job and come away with one.)
But, “South by,” as folks call it, can be overwhelming if you aren’t prepared for it. There’s simply too much to do, too many great sessions to attend, too many people to meet or see again and too many fun parties. So, for those of you going, or those of you planning to next year, here are some tools I’ll be using this year to navigate the insanity.
A Smart Phone
Actually, the only real requirement is to have a phone and a data plan that enables you to access Twitter at all times. While many of the festival’s parties are planned, there are inevitable long lines and overcrowded conditions. The non-lemming folks you want to hang with will migrate and disperse to more manageable locations that are often not on the official schedule. When they do, they Tweet it. So follow those you want to network with on Twitter and know where they’re going when you’re looking for the right party.
The more I use Evernote, the more I’m in love with it. This year, instead of sitting in the crowd taking notes in a Word document that winds up being a stream of consciousness mess, I’ll pop open Evernote, have a window up for notes on the session, a different one up for random blog post ideas that pop into my head and a third for schedule changes and notes I need to jot down quickly.
Because you can tag entries, I’ll be able to take more organized notes about 3-4 different things at once and be able to easily find and organize my thoughts into meaningful action later. I literally poured through one Word document to siphon out three or four blog posts last year. Now I can capture thoughts in a more organized fashion thanks to Evernote.
And if someone from Evernote is at SXSW, I’m going to interview you for SME-TV. I may even kiss you, so be sure to brush.
Knowing Where The Bloggers Hang
Last year it was called “Bloghaus.” It appears this year it’s the Pepsi Connection Center, which makes me happy because I’m a Diet Pepsi-a-holic. I’m expecting them to have my favorite beverage there for me, either on tap or in 20-ounce bottles, which for some reason taste a bit better than DP in the can. (Just throwing that out there in case Steve or Bonin are watching.)
Being in this general vicinity during your off times or between sessions is smart because you’ll get to meet most of the bloggers and social media personalities you read, friend or follow but have never met. In the span of about an hour last year, I met Liz Strauss, Beth Kanter, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, all for the first time. It’s just where the bloggers hang to hit the WiFi, grab a soda and catch up with folks they’ve not seen in a while. If the Pepsi Connection Center turns out to not be the place for this year’s gathering, just refer to tool No. 1 and see where folks say they are.
You’re literally going to meet hundreds of people. Take the whole box. Or two. And plan on spending some time updating your contacts or emailing to ask for vCards when you get back.
A Calendar With Your Must-See Sessions
Everyone does calendars their own way, so whatever works for you is fine, but prioritize the sessions you simply must attend. My assumption is you’re going there for learning and professional reasons first, so don’t get blinded by the informal networking in the halls and miss the session on web design that might change the way you approach your job. Put the must-sees in your calendar and try to your schedule, keeping in mind the last point below. You should probably use Sched.org for this. It’s a nice little tool with a SXSW customization. My schedule is seen here. The tool also allows you to export it to an iCal/Outlook/etc., file. Very handy.
A Calendar With Your Must-Attend Parties
There are a dozen parties each night or more, some of them official and some not. My calendar seen here doesn’t include an unofficial party I’m hoping my social media friends will join me for on Saturday night. The ATX Emerge event is supposed to be a blowout good time. And I hear they’re pouring a pretty tasty spirit. (Wink.)
You’re more likely to just migrate to and from various events with the gang of friends you’re hanging with. But there are some parties you’ll want to attend, either to be sure to be seen by your client or an important prospect, or because you want to meet the host and so on. Put those in your calendar as well. Know when they start and when they are supposed to end. Aim for showing up somewhere in the middle and you’ll probably be okay, but keep in mind the official parties normally have 2-3 block long lines to get in and line hijacks will happen.
My favorite story from last year’s event was the evening Shawn Morton, Eric Marcoullier, Nick Huhn, Scott Monty, Richard McInnis, me and some others told folks standing in line for some party we were starting our own. (Pictures here.) We found a little tucked away bar with no wait and a live band and Twittered our location. Within a half hour a fair crowd arrived including Jim Long, Chris Heuer, Kristie Wells, Steve Hall, Krista Neher and others. This kind of thing will happen, so be ready for it, which leads us to the final tool.
The worst thing you can do in Austin is try to stick to a hard schedule. Yes, you want to attend certain sessions, but if you get 15 minutes with someone cool and miss a panel discussion, don’t sweat it. I interviewed Maggie Fox and Colin Douma from Social Media Group last year because we just had some time to chat. I didn’t worry that I was missing something and carved out some new friends and contacts in the meantime.
SXSW offers an unbelievable opportunity to learn, network and have fun. But in order to ensure all of it is, in fact, fun, you have to let down your OCD for a few days and go with the flow. That’s not easy for some folks, especially those there on a mission to find funding, a job or land clients. But I’m sure you’ll find that once you’re in Austin and hanging with the crowd, your anal retentiveness can wear off pretty quickly.
In fact, if you’ll excuse me. I just saw someone I need to meet.