How to win SXSW friends and influence people

SXSW Signage
Michael Newberg | CNBC
SXSW Signage

For companies looking to make their mark on industry leaders, there's no better stage than the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. With more than 80,000 attendees, the festival, which kicks off Friday, is where getting your product in front of the right people can help skyrocket your business.

But, it can be hard to stand out when every company has the same goal of being the most buzzed about, most tweeted, Instagrammed brand. Here's what SXSW attendees say you should do to win the festival.

Do your research and perfect your pitch

Chris Valentine, who runs SXSW Accelerator and Startup Village, points out that with so many parties, dinners and happy hours, it can be hard to find the real people you need to talk to to take your company to the next level. Instead of trying to attend every event, he suggested looking at who is attending, and finding what panels they will be attending. It may be easier to talk to them right after a session than trying to nab time with them at a loud event.

However, this also means that your company will have a few minutes to make your impression. Valentine suggested practicing your pitch so it is focused on how your product is different from the rest of the market.

"Leveraging this mass audience in a short period of time means trying to find ways to connect with and take advantage of opportunities," he said.

Brett Martin, the co-founder of Sonar Media, raised about $1 million within a month or two after attending SXSW in 2011. He entered a pitch competition, which allowed him to meet venture capitalists.

"My advice is don't get obsessed with by the launch because there's so much noise and so many people trying to launch," he said. "Go to SXSW to make connections that are going to help you build your real business in the long term."

Make sure your product can handle increased traffic

Unfortunately, despite raising a total of $2 million in funding and getting more than 300 press clips, Sonar — which used location-based technology to connect people — ultimately failed. While SXSW wasn't the main reason, Martin pointed out the difference why his company's 2011 experience was successful, and 2012 wasn't so good.

"When I went to SXSW in 2011, I went with no expectations," he recalled. "I was working on a new product, had a little demo, and I found the right people that were interested. I wasn't even looking to raise money. (In 2012), the media for months had been hyping us to be the next big thing. All of a sudden we get tens of thousands of people trying to use your app. Even if you happen to be the one lucky app that gets a bunch of hype and people use your technology, you have a high risk of getting crushed under the weight of your success."

Event management system Splash, too, experienced technical difficulties during its first SXSW in 2012 when a large event crashed its system. Splash execs have since learned from the experience, and do more system tests to ensure everything goes smoothly.

"By SXSW standards, if you are popular, you get screwed," said Ben Hindman, co-founder and CEO of Splash. "It's a pop-up little city of people who are early adopters. It can really stress-test your product."

Martin said things like having an app that takes up too much of your battery life, as one of its competitors did, to having a product that just wasn't ready to have that many people using it at once can lead to negative comments, which can lead to negative social media postings, and ultimately negative press. For start-ups, that can be deadly. He also pointed out that SXSW is an artificial situation where its mostly "technorati" attendees, meaning that just because they don't like your app doesn't mean the mainstream public won't love it.

"You did so well, you end up doing poorly," he said. "You can get crushed under the weight of your own success."


Get your brand name out there

Mobile marketing company Glispa is turning SXSW into its company retreat, which means sending 180 people from international offices to Austin. They'll be getting branded Glispa hoodies and shirts for the festival. Though it's not a requirement to wear the company gear, Glispa founder and CEO Gary Lin hopes they'll sport the clothing.

"We will have maybe more visability," he pointed out. "We're also sponsoring and hosting a party on Monday where, obviously, we'll be all together publically at the same place. It will be nice to have people to be able to notice us at once."

Glispa has been around since 2008, but it's trying to rebrand itself as a technology-focused company. It's seeing this year's SXSW as a way to learn about others in the space, as well as reintroduce itself to the community.

"We have developed a culture of innovation but also get a lot of inspiration out of breaking out of our daily circles and looking at the world of mobile advertising to see what others are doing," Lin pointed out.

Splash's Hindman said that when it comes to creating an event or a marketing stunt, to stand out it's important to think of ways to practically showcase what your product can do in a way that SXSW attendees can use. For Splash, it was easy. Recording party attendee lists and making sure everyone can check in seamlessly was what it does on a daily basis — and they just amped up the level for SXSW.

"Step one is recognizing if your product use case is interesting to people at the moment in the moment," he said. "They are there to learn. They are there to enjoy. They are there to connect with each other. … Your product needs to add value to those people."


For lasting effect, make sure your content is shareable

Mophie dog at the 2015 SXSW.
Source: Mophie
Mophie dog at the 2015 SXSW.

Smartphone battery company Mophie had an easy way to show what they do at SXSW, seeing that the perennial problem was that phones tend to die quickly due to overusage at the festival. For a few years, they created a booth just to recharge people's phones. As the event grew, the lines went out the door.

In 2015, the company decided to leverage its idea of rescuing people to bring its marketing stunt to the next level. Realizing the viral power of puppies, it teamed up with a Saint Bernard rescue shelter to deliver Mophie chargers to anyone with a low battery. People tweeted the company with a screenshot of their low battery, and the company unleashed the hounds to their location. (Well, with a dog walker in tow).

"You can't do what everybody else is doing at SXSW," said Ross Howe, Mophie's vice president of marketing. "It is probably one of the noisiest places for a brand to try and break through. It's important that you do something on site that is both unexpected and is extremely authentic to what you stand for and represent."

Howe said you need a hook to get the right audience, and they don't necessarily need to all be at SXSW. And what's more easily posted about online than Saint Bernards walking along the streets of Austin? Due to last year's success, the dogs will be returning this year.

"If you really want to amplify the experience past just the people on-site, ideally it should be a shareable experience," he said.