SXSWi: Is All This Advertising Really Worth It?

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If you had the chance to experience South by Southwest Interactive, the first thing that hits you is the noise. It seems almost every person in the world with a tech startup is at the show hustling and trying to be the next big thing. Popular marketing tools at the show include stickers, posters, QR codes, and cute girls with pamphlets whom some of them can’t answer basic questions about the app. One company that was making a huge push was GroupedIn. The company went further than most, buying up mobile billboards and trying to stay above the noise by pouring marketing dollars into the show. But is it really worth it?

Some of the companies one can’t help but become aware of the show include:

GroupedIn
Wildfire
Uber
Where
SnapAppointments
Zaarly
GroupMe
Foursquare
Pepsi

The above companies had a big marketing presence that helped them get more exposure than every other company walking around but you can’t help but think that this is a ‘chicken and the egg’ situation. If you’re following the tech industry (or live on Planet Earth in the case of Pepsi), you’ve already read about these companies somewhere else and all of them have been getting attention regardless of their advertising dollars spent at South by. Sure, the show will likely garner them some additional exposure and users, but it’s the product itself that’s going to make it a success or not. Marketing executives will have you believe that SXSW is full of innovators, mavens and influencers, making it a crucial event to get exposure, and they’re probably right. But you your company can get plenty of exposure by modestly discussing it with all the people you’ll meet at the show. I asked SXSW veteran Eugene Hsu of the Cheezburger Network for some advice about making the show productive and he said “just have fun and meet the people around you.” Modest marketing can go a long way for getting word out. If you’re looking for even more buzz, just keep pounding the media with updates and give your users what they want in terms of features. That will get you further than a giant billboard.

Other than modest marketing, strong networking and just plain casual fun, a great way to be a success at South by is to actually have a killer product. I think the media gave Group Messaging apps a lot more attention than they actually deserved. A killer product at South by needs to get people laid, made or paid. I’m not sure if Group Messaging satisfies any of those. Perhaps you can find out what a cool venue is by getting in the right group, but people are pretty familiar with what’s going on and group messaging didn’t seem to change anything. The apps we were using last year were doing a great job of keeping the buzz going at the show, and if you knew someone in a group chat app, you probably had either their number, email or Twitter handle and had plenty of opportunity to chat with them.

As with any article about whether advertising works, one has to make the obvious statement that we’re writing about it so it’s not totally worthless. We’ll be keeping an eye on the companies we met at the show and it should be interesting to see the proportionate or disproportionate success that follows relative to the amount of dollars spent on marketing.