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What you missed at SXSW this year

March 16, 2015, 5:42 PM UTC


Just kidding—you actually missed everything. This is the essential tension of the festival. Even if you were here, you likely missed everything. With more than 30,000 attendees, a 241-page book’s worth of panels, thousands of parties, dozens of pitch contests and too many “brand activations” to count, it is impossible, even for the most intrepid RSVP-er, to experience even 1% of SXSW Interactive. The festival is a buffet of FOMO—that’s “fear of missing out”—and everyone you talk to is looking over your shoulder or glancing at their phone, worried they’re missing something big. (They probably are.)

Every year one or two notable “happenings,” get everyone talking. At a party last year, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz and Ashton Kutcher jumped on stage to dance while Nas rapped. A few years ago, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Macguire showed up at a party thrown by Path.

People who travel to Austin for the scene must constantly ask themselves, “What if that moment is happening across town right now and I’m stuck at this lame shindig talking to a lousy Fortune writer?” Despite the warm sun and free-flowing margaritas, the SXSW vibe is more frenzied and anxious than relaxed and fun. Here’s what you missed:

Just about everyone in town is promoting a panel. Just about zero of the panels make any news, but just about everything that’s said is dutifully tweeted as if it was. Many startup founders don’t even purchase a badge, opting to attend dinners and parties instead.

There are lines for everything, everywhere. Registration lines. Keynote panel lines. Film festival lines. Party lines. Musical showcase lines.

Behind closed doors, expensive dinners co-mingle important moneymen and women with up-and-coming startup founders. Some people at SXSW bring the innovation, others hope to sponge off of it.

Serendipitous run-ins remind attendees that many of their important work contacts were met at SXSW. Late Saturday night at the Driskill Hotel lobby, a young woman implored a new friend, “Let’s be friends, if not IRL, then online. Let’s at least be fake friends.”

The "Britneys" at SXSW.
The “Britneys” at SXSW.


Guerilla marketing tactics range from clever and funny to base and desperate. Ninety percent of them involve either a zentai suit or a scantily-clad woman. At one point, a pack of five “Hit Me Baby One More Time”-era Britney Spearses broke into choreographed dance while other Britneys, from other Britney eras, held signs in the background. A Hootsuite beer bike blasted Lil Jon as its passengers emit spontaneous “WOOO!”s. As it pedaled by, a man from the Downtown Austin Alliance sighed, snapped on a pair of plastic gloves, and began scraping a “Legalize Marijuana” sticker from parking meter. Down the block, the founder of medical cannabis delivery service Flow Kana chatted with passersby in a milk maid costume.

Professional marketing campaigns, or rather, activations, are just as pervasive. Esurance offered an elaborate contest which amounted to little more than exchanging your email address for a chance to win an electronic of some sort. At the Mashable house, Windex cleaned smartphone screens. At GE’s BBQ Research Center, scientists measured attendees’ brain waves as they ate brisket. At the Capital One booth, the bank encouraged visitors to “Unexpect what a bank could be.” Even the U.S. Postal Service set up shop to spread the word about its innovative spirit. (“Dont be a dim weight,” the display quipped.)

The proliferation of brands is good for one kind of startup: marketing platforms. Noah Brier, founder of marketing startup Percolate, noted that SXSW is a great time to do client meetings, because it’s rare that so many decision makers at brands are all in one place. “All the stuff people complain about, we love,” he said. “We’re not here because we’re a startup, we’re here because it’s a good business opportunity.”

So what was new this year? Selfie sticks and Meerkat.

It’s common for concert-goers to hold up their phones to snap a photo of a performance. But selfie-sticks take the concert photo to a new level, literally. Combine a music-heavy festival with a crowd of techies, and you have what Business Insider called a selfie stick craze. I’m calling it Self by Self West.

Likewise, Meerkat was everywhere. Founder Ben Rubin delivered numerous interviews. Notable investors donned Meerkat shirts. Anywhere you turned, there seemed to be someone broadcasting their surroundings through the app. I can’t count how many times I heard the phrase “Are you Meerkatting this?” (I asked it plenty myself too. With Meerkat, one must be wary of any phone aimed in your direction. It has replaced Google Glass as the new thing to be paranoid about.)

In what was probably the most SXSW moment of SXSW, Mashable combined them both: Outside the convention center, I caught Pete Cashmore, the website’s founder, and its chief correspondent Lance Ulanoff, weaving through the crowd while talking into a screen perched atop a selfie stick. A line of followers, phones held up, trailed the social media Pied Pipers as more than 2,000 viewers watched along online.