How to stand out at SXSW: Marketing gimmicks

Come to South by Southwest Interactive to see Malcolm Gladwell on stage. Stay for the free frozen yogurt and grilled cheese, virtual reality demos and happy hours on wheels.

What was once a big tech conference chock-full of panels, keynotes and networking sessions is still that. But talk to many of the tens of thousands of out-of-towners navigating downtown Austin, Texas, and you'll hear various forms of: "I haven't even set foot in the the convention center" and "I don't know why anyone would buy a badge for this thing."

Recognizing that the five-day festival, March 13-17 this year, is actually one giant party overwhelming the Texas capital, companies big and small from across the globe have responded with every marketing trick imaginable. The goal is to get their brand in front of anyone who may tweet, blog, pin or, yes, even Meerkat about them.

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Guerrilla marketing? Sure, but it had better be clever.

ROIKOI, a tiny Austin start-up whose software helps companies hire the right people, signed up college kids to hang out on the street wearing custom built helmets with disco lights. "They thought it would be a great way to get people to talk to us," said one of the interns, while nailing the company's elevator pitch.

Christian Voss traveled from Germany to rent out a food truck to promote the 150-person company Sedo. He's serving up free frozen yogurt with lots of delicious toppings. Only if you want caramel syrup, you have to ask for .Bar, and if it's sprinkles you prefer, well those are .Deals.

Why? Voss is so glad you asked. Sedo is a marketplace, connecting buyers and sellers of domain names. It's a suddenly interesting business now that all sorts of new suffixes have opened up to the public, giving institutions options beyond .com, .org and .edu.

"It's the show to be at to create some kind of awareness," said Voss, Sedo's head of marketing.

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Giving away cold yogurt on a steamy afternoon in Austin is one way to accomplish that.

More than 30,000 people swarm Austin for the interactive conference, which is part of the bigger 10-day SXSW event that includes a music and film festival. In past years, companies like Twitter, Foursquare and Airbnb have broken out at SXSW, giving the conference its must-attend status.

Nothing in the last few years has reached that level of success, leaving SXSW with a bit of an uncertain identity. Still, everyone keeps going, especially the big brands.

The Samsung Studio downtown is a rented-out building full of phones, tablets and Gear VR headsets. Companies like Philips and 3M set up large tents to show off goodies. General Electric is cooking up smoked sausage at its BBQ Research Center and Visa hosted a private party at a bar, with special guest John Legend on piano.

Google, which has an office in Austin for its fiber project, is using the space to promote its Cardboard VR technology as well as to demo VR technology called Birdly that creates the feeling of a bird flying over San Francisco.

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Smaller companies do what they can with what they've got. Hootsuite, a provider of social media software, is hosting 15-minute rolling pub crawls, with 12 to 15 people at a time sitting around a bar that they pedal through the Austin streets.

On Rainey Street, a half mile from the convention center, companies take over houses and bars to host lavish events. Localytics, a Boston-based mobile app analytics company, is spending about $60,000 on its SXSW extravaganza, including renting a house for a day for a 200-person party.

A large orange balloon sculpture outside the Localytics house would capture anyone's eye, as would the Ariel Atom car, a dune buggy-looking vehicle that happens to be one of the fastest cars in the world. It's owned by one of the co-founders, who shipped it from Boston.

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"It gets a lot of attention" said Raj Aggarwal, chief executive officer of Localytics, which has about 15 of its 170 employees in Austin for the festival. Aggarwal said he's been coming to SXSW for six years or so, and sees it as a great place to "give people exposure to who we are."

Few companies know how to navigate the festival as well as RetailMeNot. Headquartered right downtown, the provider of online and mobile deals has about 400 of its 500-plus employees in Austin and tasks its marketing team with creating buzzy campaigns.

This year, RetailMeNot representatives went around to local restaurants like Kebabalicious and Home Slice Pizza and randomly dropped canvas wallets with $20 inside. Open up the wallet and, in addition to the cash, consumers find a note telling them that by downloading the RetailMeNot app, they can regularly save $20 on purchases.

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Brian Hoyt, RetailMeNot's vice president of communications, said the company is giving away a couple thousand dollars in cash over the course of the festival. The company also hosted a happy hour at its office for partners and had lots of swag at the annual Austin Ventures party, dubbed the Hometown Hangover Cure (because it starts on Sunday at 11 a.m.).

"We get to draw an association between our national brand, which is a virtual Internet business, and our hometown of Austin, Texas," Hoyt said. "For the marketing department every year, between the start of Interactive and the end of music, it's like Mardi Gras." (Tweet This)