Field Guide to South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi)

Originally posted on December 7, 2010

Every year, I have a few new friends that ask me if I have any tips for them as they get ready for SXSW — an interactive, film and music extravaganza! Today, my friend Christine Perkett let me know that she was taking her maiden voyage to Austin next spring for this very event. My promise to her was an insider’s guide to “South-by” as it’s referred to by us geeks. I know I’ve missed a ton so I’m hoping that my fellow SXSW veterans and local Austinites will help fill in the blanks.

Lodging and Airfare
After buying your ticket to SXSW, this is the first thing you want to take care of. And by first thing, I mean now. Today. Not in two months. Trust me when I tell you that you will end up flying into San Antonio and staying somewhere halfway between San Antonio and Austin if you don’t take care of this soon. Here are several hotels that are close that you should consider.

Map of Downtown Austin

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&msid=114537014142502422139.000496da39e9d71cc66b4&ll=30.267481,-97.739825&spn=0.011712,0.013046&output=embed
View Map of Downtown Austin Hotels for SXSW in a larger map

HINT: I am not kidding about staying near San Antonio (which is an hour away from Austin) if you don’t plan ahead.


Scheduling
One of the first things you will realize as you start to prepare for SXSW is that there are A LOT of things happening at the same time. This includes keynotes, breakout sessions, happy hours, etc. Per my friend, Kyle Flaherty’s advice from a post he did about SXSW 2010, get focused on the 6-8 panels/sessions you really want to see. Make sure you’re not just going to see the latest social media rock star but look carefully at the session title and description. Is the speaker a seasoned speaker or is this their first rodeo? As a result, you may want to have a “plan B” session” lined up for any selections you make just in case you need to call an audible.

HINT: Have all of your your notes/schedules printed out. Wifi and cell coverage can be spotty at times at SXSW.

Parties/Networking
There are a lot of parties at SXSW. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. More than you will ever experience anywhere else in your lifetime. This is obviously a great time to network so go light on the drinking (or at least pace yourself — more on that in the next section). Also, just like the conference sessions, you will want to choose these wisely. Take note of the fact that for the signature parties (Mashable, DIGG, TechSet) there will be lines. Long lines. So get there early and move on to your next party before that party winds down. Also keep an eye on key people like Chris Brogan and Robert Scoble’s Twitter streams. These guys create flash parties everywhere they go. Sometimes, those are the best ones. Another smart idea is to make sure you are signed up for services like Plancast and a location-based provider or two like FoursquareGowalla and Whrrl so you can monitor the action a little more methodically.

Another important point to touch on here is that you will do some of the best networking you’ve ever done at SXSW. That’s at least 67% of the value of the conference. Some of that happens at parties. Other times, this can happen via coffee, breakfast or in the Blogger’s Lounge (this is one of the hidden gems of SXSW). I’ll put up a link to more details about the BL as we get closer to SXSW. However, because there are so many events going on simultaneously, be sure to reach out via e-mail or phone with anyone you want to connect with in advance and set a time and a place to meet.

HINT: For most parties, you will need a SXSW badge. If you attend the conference rogue (sans badge), there is usually a list of parties that don’t require badges (I will link to that when it’s up). What I will tell you is that unless you are 5′ 10″, blonde and drop dead gorgeous, there is a 99% chance you will NOT get into any party that requires a badge.

Pace Yourself
As I noted in the “Party/Networking” section of this post, there are a lot of parties that go on during SXSW. Combine that with the late nights and the fact that SXSW takes place over the course of several days, it is imperative to pace yourself. Trust me, I’m not scrooge when it comes to having fun but ensuring that you eat well, get sleep whenever you can (hint: take naps in the afternoon), drink plenty of water and try and not pull an all-nighter during the first day or two that you’re here.

HINT: The weather in March is usually mid-70s to high 80s during the day and low-60s at night. Shorts and t-shirts are de rigeur but you may also make sure you bring a fleece and a few pairs of jeans for the evening activities.

Content Creation
If you’re a blogger, podcaster or videographer, SXSW is a wonderful place to create content. There is usually space in the hallways of the Austin Convention Center to set up shop although they hallways can get noisy in between sessions. Weather permitting, you can also shoot/record outdoors. Just make sure you bring extra batteries and be sure to test your equipment before you come down. If you’re podcasting, you might even arrange with someone to be editing remotely so that you can post during SXSW. This means pre-recording your bumper music, creating a tag/hashtag in advance, etc.

HINT: As I mentioned in the “Networking” section, you will also want to try and schedule as many interviews ahead of time as possible. This includes putting together a schedule and finding a meeting place in advance e.g. outside the blogger lounge or near the Chevy pavilion near the entrance.

Restaurants
I’m in the process of adding more places to the map below (suggestions are welcome). [POST SCRIPT 2/29/2011: Our friends at Where.com just added a curated list of Austin/SXSW faves from a list of about 20 people — food bloggers, Austinites and people like @SchneiderMike and I that just like food).

http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?ie=UTF8&hl=en&msa=0&ll=30.261254,-97.740641&spn=0.019423,0.044932&msid=114537014142502422139.000496ea5d6282ef7d743&output=embed
View Good Restaurants to Visit During SXSW in a larger map

HINT: The Salt Lick is a MUST visit while you are here for anyone that likes BBQ. Because it is in Driftwood which is a good 30 minutes south of downtown, you’ll need to drive there. If you do decided to go, plan on it taking a good three hours out of your night. Also note that they are cash only and because Driftwood is in a dry county, you must bring your own beer and wine if you want to drink.
Other Useful Links
As we get closer to the event, more and more “how to do SXSW” posts will crop up. So that I don’t overwhelm you, I will try and keep a running list below. I promise that I will personally curate these posts so that I only provide the posts that I see offering additional value.
As I noted above, I’m sure I’ve missed all kinds of other good tips so please let me know via the comments below. Or you can send me a link via Twitter @aaronstrout.

Why I’m Giving My Content Away to Social Media Informer for Free

You don’t need me to tell you how valuable content is. After all, how many times have you heard the saying, “content is king?” So if content is so valuable, why on earth would someone give their content away for free? I’ll tell you who… me. And Chris Brogan. And Simon Mainwaring. And Dave Fleet (along with another 40+ bloggers), that’s who. We’re all doing it on the Social Media Informer (billed as the “best social media content for business”). The reason? For me it was twofold:

  1. Distribution – On average, I get somewhere around 4,000 unique visitors/month (plus another 4,000 or so that read my blog via RSS). While that’s not a bad number, why not add several thousand new eyeballs?
  2. Influence by association – Being included in the company of lots of other smart, well-respected people doesn’t hurt my (or my company’s) reputation. Quite frankly, I learned this lesson a few years back when I started podcasting and so far, it’s worked!
What I like is that this model ends up being a win-win all the way around. The Social Media Informer gets great content. This enables them to find sponsors to help pay the bills. The bloggers get distribution and additional legitimacy. The readers get curation in the form of hand-picked content creators and business practitioners that they may not have found on their own.
Is there a lesson here for small and big business? You betcha. It’s the concept of reaching out to their partners, customers and employees to create informative videos, podcasts, blog posts and tutorials. Yes, in some cases paying these folks wouldn’t hurt. But if your company can offer legitimacy and distribution to key stakeholders in exchange for great content, what’s not to like?

Hotel Nikko Asks: What Could We Do to Get You to Stay?

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Social Media Marketing 2010 Conference in San Francisco which happened to be held at the Hotel Nikko. If you haven’t visited/stayed at the Nikko before, it’s a nice hotel. Centrally located (just a few blocks off of Market), bright and clean with all the charm of a boutique hotel. The rooms are well-laid out with large flat panel televisions, wet bars and bathrooms that offer separate bathtubs and showers.

Of course I enjoyed my experience at the Hotel Nikko (in fact, this was my second time staying there) but my main criteria for choosing it had more to do with location (it’s where the conference was being held) and price (about $200/night all in) than anything else. While I was there, however, an interesting thing happened that led to the eventual writing of this blog post…

I was riding up in the elevator when a young woman who was interning at the hotel asked me if I was attending the conference. I said that I was which prompted her to ask me why I thought more of the attendees weren’t staying at the hotel. This was a fairly easy question to answer given the fact that I knew a lot of the speakers/attendees lived locally and thus didn’t need a hotel that night. It was her next question, though, that really piqued my interest. The intern asked, “what could we do to get you to stay here next time?”

At this point in the conversation, I started thinking to myself, either this is a very clever young lady who will go far some day OR Hotel Nikko may be taking an innovative approach to their customer research. Either way, I told her I had exactly the answer she was looking for… but she would need to do a little homework. I gave her three names that I told her to write down: The Roger Smith Hotel in NYC,  Brian Simpson aka @bsimi (their director of social hospitality) and Brian’s sidekick, Adam Wallace aka @adwal (new media director at the Roger Smith).

[NOTE: if you don't know the story of the Roger Smith and how unbelievably successful they've been through their customer-centric AND social media efforts, be sure to listen to my colleague, Joseph Jaffe's interview or read Chris Brogan's glowing post about their efforts]

Being as diligent as she was curious, the intern took out her notepad and wrote all this information down, obviously intrigued by what a hotel in NYC and two guys with hip hop sounding Twitter handles could have to do with getting me to stay at her hotel. At this point, she thanked me for the information and we parted ways. Upon our separating, I got thinking more about the question she had asked me and decided to write a prescriptive post about five things I liked about my experience at the Nikko along with five ways they could improve.

The good:

  1. I arrived at the hotel at 8:30 AM and asked if I could check in. While many hotels are strict about their early checkin policy, the woman behind the desk was very polite and let me check in early without even batting an eyelash.
  2. This may not be a big deal for most people but as someone that travels a fair amount AND is married to his laptop, the fact that the electrical outlets were easily accessible and that they had reliable wifi was much appreciated.
  3. Anyone that follows me on Twitter will understand how happy I was that there was a Starbucks in the lobby.
  4. There was a bottle of water on my bedside stand.
  5. I’d like to think that the Nikko was the impetus behind their inquisitive interns line of questioning, even if they didn’t explicitly tell her to chat up guests in the elevator. If that wasn’t the case, they were still smart enough to hire a smart and motivated intern.
The “could use improvement”:
  1. When I arrived to checkin, I was as little surprised that they didn’t acknowledge the fact that I had stayed there before (level of difficulty from a CRM perspective is about a 2 on a scale of 1-10). This also required NO knowledge of social media whatsoever.
  2. The “reliable” in-room wifi was $15/night. And while it was provided by AT&T; (a network that usually allows roaming via my Boingo account), I wasn’t provided with a “roaming” option in spite of the fact that the FAQs on the site said that I could.
  3. Corollary to number four in the “good” column above… while there was in fact A bottle of water on my bedside table, the aforementioned bottle was not a FREE bottle of water. I am of the strong belief that every hotel should offer at least A free bottle of water, even if it’s the cheap, no name kind.
  4. While I don’t expect that many businesses will make an attempt to use or even experiment with location-based services like FourSquare, Gowalla and Whrrl, restaurants and hotels are foolish for not tapping into this capability now. To that end, I was disappointed that the Nikko did not acknowledge of my FourSquare checkin given the fact that I cross-posted it on Twitter for all to see.
  5. They weren’t the Roger Smith
All in all, you’ll notice that my “could use improvement” column isn’t too scathing. While I travel a lot, I have simple needs. And maybe I’ve been spoiled by my stays at the Roger Smith but I am really surprised that more hotels — boutiques AND chains — haven’t done a better job at embracing social media.
How about you? Have you had a good or bad experience at a hotel that you’d like to mention? Please include it in the comments below.

Pluralitas Non est Ponenda sine Necessitate

For those non-Latin speakers out there, you are asking yourself right now, what the hell does “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate” mean? Literally, it means “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” It’s a theory made popular by 14th century friar, William of Ockham, and is better known as Ockham or Occam’s Razor.

Why am I thinking about 14th century friars and Latin phrases about plurality and necessity on the day after Thanksgiving you ask? The short version of the story is that my friend, Kyle Flaherty, recently shared a great post with me by analytics wizard, Avinash Kaushik. Avinash writes a well known blog called — get this — Occam’s Razor. After reading his lengthy, but thought-provoking, post on social analytics, it got me wondering about the inspiration for the name of his Avinash’s blog.

Now I think it’s mandatory that we all learn about Occam’s Razor at some point in high school or college but of course that, along with billions of other pieces of knowledge that don’t fit into our everyday lives, somehow fell out of my head along the way. But after reacquainting myself with this concept of seeking the “simplest answer,” I’ve been thinking a lot about streamlining my work and personal life these days. In particular, slimming down my information sources and my day to day work flow.

I wrote about taking steps in this direction several weeks ago following my brief retirement from Twitter. But the place I’ve really fallen down is on keeping up with my Google Reader. I know some people like Bob Scoble have abandoned their readers altogether but I realized the other day that there are a dozen blogs, mostly written by friends, that I haven’t been keeping tabs on as closely as I would like. And the reason was because their quality content was getting drowned out by the 50 plus other blogs that I was keeping in my Google Reader, many of which contributed to my reader consistently registering 1,000 unread posts mark.

Maybe I’m unique in this fashion (although I doubt it) but thinking about 1,000 unread posts is just too daunting. Instead of going in and chipping away, I tend to ignore my Google Reader and thus miss out on dozens of great posts by people like Kyle, Peter Kim, Rachel HappeTim Walker, Greg Verdino and others. So in a fit of “pluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate” (which is really more about the concept of “the simplest solution is usually the correct one), but inspired me to “simplify” or slim down my reader to about 15 blogs.

The result is a much more manageable, 137 posts, all of which I was excited to read. The downside is that I will miss out on the good posts on ReadWriteWeb, ChrisBrogan.com and the HBS blog. But the way I look at it, it’s better that I read a few blogs all the time then have lots of great blogs that I never look at.

What about you? Are you able to keep up with it all? If so, how?