Originally posted at Harvard Business Review blog
Less than a week has passed since the interactive portion of SXSW, a Mecca for the world's digerati, wrapped up. Some have written scathing reviews vowing never to return and others provided a more balanced look. From a sociological point of view, I'd argue that events like this serve up insights by the pound, if you are willing to look for them. Here are a few things I noticed and how you can apply these insights to the business world.
Give People The Tools To Organize: Reward Participation.
Each year SXSW spotlights a technology. This year it was the local/mobile platform Foursquare. The service let people within the local network sniff out which events and locations were "hot" by who and how many people were checking in. If you managed to find yourself at one of these trending locations you were rewarded with a "swarm" badge, a special limited badge that acts as a memento of the event. Foursquare allowed participants to manage the chaos to some degree and provided incentives to "check in." In the business world, these principals can be transferred to initiatives such as loyalty programs or internal collaboration networks.
Create Scarcity, Curate Lists.
SXSW hosted lots of parties. People complained about the lines and everyone wanted to be on a VIP list (who doesn't?). While exclusivity has a downside (people feel left out), it also reinforces that those who have social connections don't get left out and reap the benefits. This was reinforced even in the small but tech-saturated petri dish in Austin and ensured that the people who are considered "magnets" would attract others to the right venues. Organizations can leverage this dynamic as well and typically do, through "influencer outreach" programs or singling out the accomplished such as Microsoft's (disclaimer, Edelman client) MVP program.
Standout With A Service.
The SXSW convention center reminded me of Times Square. Hundreds of vendors, brands and companies vie for your attention. The toll this takes on the average attendee is visible after a few days as many of us sought refuge in quiet places. The sensory overload was substantial and resulted in everything blurring into each other which made it difficult to stand out. One company managed to stand out in an understated way. Chevrolet sponsored all of the power supply stations providing adapters for every mobile device conceivable and power strips at every turn (disclaimer, Edelman client). Chevy was ubiquitous without being obnoxious. If you really want your business to stand out amongst the noise, do something useful.
Make People Feel Unique.
SXSW is one of the most informal conferences, with the dress code to match. But it doesn't stop there--attendees looking to set themselves apart from the crowd wear unique t-shirts, bring props such as a garden gnome and hand out business cards that double for bottle openers. The venue supports a sociological truth that human beings want to feel they are one-of-a-kind. You only have to walk through the halls of a high school to see this in practice. This insight proves to be especially relevant in marketing. Provide an experience where you can help people get noticed and they will reward you for it.
Crowdsource With Caution.
The panels at SXSW are partially crowdsourced via user votes which also creates an expected sociological pattern. People get out and promote themselves and their ideas bringing even more attention to the event. In the case of SXSW, the number of panels combined with this approach have caused some to feel like quality of content isn't as strong as it could be. When going with the wisdom of crowds, be sure to balance what the people say they want vs. what you know they need. For further direction here, see Apple and Steve Jobs.
SXSW isn't perfect but it's a lot like a successful social platform. It's like a live manifestation of Facebook. With more cowboy hats and, arguably, fewer ads.
Image credit: jdlasica