SXSW Interactive is heading into its 20th year. How did the world’s biggest digital media conference evolve out of a small-town music festival?
We started in 1994 and as context, music started in 1987. In 1994, the title of the event was Multimedia and it was actually part of the film festival.
Then in year two, 1995, we split that off into two events, SXSW film and SXSW multimedia. And then eventually the name transformed from multimedia to interactive in the late 90s.
Interactive was traditionally the smallest portion of the event and would not have survived some very lean years if not for music supporting us and paying the bills.
We started to notice some strong growth in 2003 and 2004. If you’re looking for a tipping point, it was probably 2007, which was when Twitter essentially launched here. That was a big milestone in terms of our overall growth.
Do you see that success story as the reason why startups keep coming back? As in, it gives them the hope that they may be the next Twitter?
That’s a tough question. We’re all looking for easy, understandable marketing bites and hooks, and that’s a pretty nice hook to rely on. The event was fortunate enough to be growing even without the Twitter launch. The growth probably wouldn’t have been as sharp as it has been in recent years, though.
One of the things that Twitter really helped us with is that it caused a lot more startups and entrepreneurs to be here, and because of that, it got a lot more VCs to come.
That startup stuff is so sexy at this point that it gets a lot of attention.
So how do you account for SXSW’s growth? There are a lot of tech conferences out there that are trying to be what you guys are.
I would love to say the reason why we grew is because we have superior management that knows exactly what we’re doing, period, exclamation point! But that is probably not true. We have made every mistake at least five or 10 or 15 times.
Ultimately, the secret – if there is a secret to our growth – is that we have this very strong, very passionate, very creative community that comes to the event, and as much as we do all kinds of brochures or websites or emails, they’re the ones whose word of mouth publicity has created so much interest in this event and they’re the reasons why more people want to come.
Do you ever worry that SXSW Interactive is becoming too big or too noisy and about so many different things that the value is going to be drowned out?
Sure, that’s always a concern. But as much as it’s grown, I think we’re still very dedicated to these ideals of creativity and innovation and inspiration, which we were dedicated to 15 years ago.
It may be a little bit harder to find the kind of people you want to meet at the event as it’s grown, but that said, there’s a lot more of those kinds of people.
Beyond that, I think SXSW is in many ways very much a reflection of Austin. Austin grows a whole lot and one of the things you always see is that people who moved here 10 years ago say, “Yeah, that’s great, but you should have been here ten years ago, it was even better then!”
So there’s that kind of mythology about SXSW, that thing of, “Yeah, it’s fun but it was even better five years ago when you didn’t know about it but I did!”
SXSW generates a huge amount of content over the days of the festival, but its online presence the rest of the year is pretty scant by comparison. Beyond your quarterly print magazine, have you thought of creating a platform for people to engage with the brand throughout the year?
I think that’s one of the areas where we have tremendous room for growth in. We haven’t even scratched our potential.
Certainly the gold standard for the high tech industry is what TED has done with their online content and how much that has expanded their brand. It’s absolutely amazing.
I would love to be able to get our content out in the same kind of way.
We do a lot of audio recording of SXSW sessions and release those as podcasts but, as much as some of us love audio, I just don’t think it has quite the same power as a video. So I think we have lots and lots of room to grow there.
So you see SXSW Interactive becoming not just an event brand, but a year- round media brand?
Yes, I think that’s an ongoing goal, and part of that refers back to the question you asked about the event: Is it getting too big?
As the physical space in Austin becomes more and more limited, if we’re able to showcase more of the content online, either during the event or year-round, then that allows us to get the content from SXSW to more people without them having to physically be here.
Is the new SXSW event taking place this summer in Las Vegas, V2V, a step toward branching outside of Austin?
A little bit. V2V will be a much smaller event to begin with. It has a lot of room to grow. Las Vegas has a lot of room to grow. We picture this as a very small event in year one and hopefully it can grow organically into the much larger event that SXSW has become.
But again, it took us 10 or 15 years to really understand what we were doing on the Interactive side.
I hope it doesn’t take us quite that long with V2V, but I imagine that in a couple years we’ll probably understand we were on the completely wrong model and will be doing something different, as these things pivot.
It always seems like there’s a few big ideas that permeate the event each year. Any expectations for 2013?
One of the strange, interesting memes that has emerged this year in terms of our programming is space. We’ve got 10 or 15 panels on either NASA’s continuing efforts in space or private exploration. Who would have thought that in 2013 space would be hot again?
Another big trend for this year’s event is 3D printing, on its own and as an extension of the ongoing DIY / Craft movement. The 3D printing trend is reflected in the fact that Bre Pettis is doing the opening remarks. And the DIY / Craft movement stuff is reflected in SXSW Create
Predicting what the big trends will be outside of SXSW is always a difficult game. If you think of Twitter, it was a cool thing at the event but I don’t think anyone would have thought that it would change the world. It takes two or three years for anything to make that kind of an impact.
There will be lots of things breaking out that will get buzz, some of which will never get buzz beyond March 15th, others of which won’t get a whole lot of buzz but may end up having a whole lot of long-term impact.
Note: We’ll be tweeting live from SXSW from March 8 to March 12. You can follow us here.