What to expect at this year’s SXSW: Marketing, makers and shadow events

Let’s do a quick pre-flight check for the would-be SXSW Interactive visitor heading to Austin. Do you have your ID, your umbrella (we’re expecting some rain on the weekend), your extra phone battery and the snack bars necessary to sustain you through the long concession lines and nosh-free parties?

Great. Now how about those business cards? Unfortunately, you’re going to need them because I’m pretty sure that — assuming it hasn’t happened already — this will be the year the marketing mavens at SXSW finally overwhelm those who are here to party and play with technology. In other words, expect to meet a lot more hucksters than engineers.

I won’t make an official call until the event is over, but there are two trends apparent in the session programming decisions and the inbound pitches leading up to the event: 1) there is a ton of corporate money flowing into the official SXSWi that drowns out the exchange of ideas with incessant commercials for a product or app, and 2) there are still a few geeks holding onto the glory from the heydey of SXSWi with unofficial or additional parties in Austin.

It’s all about the money, honey

sxswFirst off, a little history for those who may think of SXSWi as some paradise of geekdom; it’s always been an event focused on the bottom line. SXSW Inc. has strictly enforced the use of the SXSW brand, so if you want to have a party at SXSW you have to pay. There are no true unofficial SXSW events, only events that might happen during spring break week in Austin with private guest lists.

But in the 11 years I’ve attended the show it has grown from a small event with a couple thousand “tech folk” — mostly from the hardware and gaming industries — to a creative festival where graphic designers, gamers and people who were trying to build web sites and online startups shared their hopes and fears about open identity, web fonts, privacy and media in small panels. After hours, they drank hard and modified Roombas to race in the streets. Companies like Twitter got their start here; not because they orchestrated huge splashy launches, but because a high concentration of geeks with a lot of free time were clustered in one place.

But as technology became an essential part of everyday life for everyone through mobile phones (as opposed to work-oriented PCs), the corporate presence grew larger and the partiers swankier (it’s still hard to find food, but not nearly as hard). The programming still had some fun and far-out topics, but geek panelists were replaced by marketers from big brands.

Last year I was demoralized when I realized that every other person I met happened to work in business development or marketing for a large corporation outside of the tech world. Yet, there were still pockets of the original SXSW spirit of technology explorers. Encountering a cluster of people trying to connect technology and food was probably the closest I got to those middle years of SXSW, a time when every person I met and every panel and party had me thinking about how tech can change the world — not just get us to buy more soda.

This year, among the pitches and programming, I don’t see any clusters that strike me as super fun. There are a few panels on toys and technology, several (although not as many as I would have thought) on 3D printing and hardware hacking. There is also a component of that ethos at the SXSWedu conference happening now. It may be that these geekier, more cohesive groups (there’s also a SXSWeco and the upcoming SXSWv2v in Las Vegas) are being pulled out into their own events.

Making a break for it

For the hardcore geeks who still want to congregate in one place to discuss their ideas, there is a growing shadow SXSW. It’s no secret that many attendees will never hit a SXSW speech, panel or programmed event. Instead they will attend events programmed by others outside the typical SXSW vote-for-your-favorite-panel method. Maybe it’s a happy hour shared amongst followers of a Facebook page, members of a meetup group, or just recipients of a group email.

SXSW PartyBut there are several events — including some that attendees pay for on top of their SXSW badge — that have created programming and content for people in town for SXSW. Mobile Saturday is one-day conference focused on all things mobile, while Dave McClure and Eric Reis have pulled together a Lean Startup event during the same day.

A bunch of groups from Germany are taking over Icenhauer’s for the entire conference and are running German Haus. It has panels, discussions, and parties. Big-name corporations have been doing this for the last few years, taking over lounge space and having presentations, but this year it seems more common and home to the most exciting programming.

There are also some events happening outside of the conference such as Doing Business in the U.S., Tech Career Expo and the Ideas Are Worthless conference. Some of these have licensed the SXSW name and some have not.

The point is that even as the core SXSWi event has become overrun with marketers, there are events within the event (or just outside of it) that still retain the spirit of the SXSW of six or seven years ago. Like the web itself, the good stuff is still here; you just have to wade through a lot of crap and marketing before you get there.