6 South by Southwest tips for PR pros

It’s not too early to start thinking about how to take advantage of the event’s great publicity opportunities.


Soon, much of the digital/tech/social media world will turn its attention to South by Southwest (SXSW). But launching a product—or even just trying to get an audience of potential users—at SXSW is a challenge. In the past four years, the event has grown 235 percent. There are more people, sponsors and parties; and more services, apps and founders vying for attention.

Last year my firm helped launch two startups there. One client, Zaarly, launched Zaarly 2.0, and the other client was an app, but we’re not allowed to disclose its name. (It was named one of the breakout apps at SXSW by multiple media.)

Together, those two experiences provided many lessons, some of which I want to share to help those of you in the process of putting your plans in place.

1. Say hello to major media opportunities.

It feels like all the tech press is at SXSW. Though they’re inundated with pitches, they’re also looking for interesting, new things to cover. Bonus points if you can give them a story everyone else at the event isn’t already covering.

We organized an on-site media tour for the Zaarly CEO and secured meetings, which led to valuable coverage, with outlets including AllThingsD, Inc., and Mashable. We had a timely news hook because Zaarly 2.0 was just going live, but you can arrange similar meetings even if you don’t have a launch. Just make sure you have a pitch or story opportunity that really is newsworthy.

In addition to a media tour, identify and plan for all media opportunities surrounding the event. That includes pre-, during and post-event stories. At the most basic level, we know there will be pre-SXSW stories about the potential breakouts or must-have apps. During the event, media will write stories about the sessions, announcements and general trends. If you have data to share about what you’re seeing or experiencing at the event, this is a good time to do so. Then, after you have a successful time at SXSW, have a plan in place to continue the momentum and extend your reach beyond Austin.

2. Go big or go home.

You can’t just show up at SXSW, host a small get together, and hope to leave with thousands of new users or major media coverage. Sponsors and startups go overboard at SXSW, which means if you want to be noticed, you have to do something noticeable.

Last year, the car service Uber used pedi-cab drivers to deliver BBQ to attendees throughout Austin. Brilliant, right?

What’s your big breakout idea? One of our clients hosted a series of events on a roving bus, some of which included guest appearances from bands performing at SXSW Music. Free alcohol, food, music and transportation are always winning ingredients.

3. Stay close to the convention.

With an estimated 30,000 people expected to descend on Austin for SXSW this year, getting around town can be challenging. With Zaarly, we secured a house for the week that served as command central. It wasn’t a nice house by any stretch of the imagination—we half-joked that it looked like a crack house—but it was just blocks away from the convention center, which made our jobs much easier. (Thankfully Zaarly secured another, much nicer, house a bit further away where we all slept.)

If you’re attending SXSW this year, you should have already secured your lodging. If you aren’t staying in a hotel or house near downtown, you won’t want to waste time trekking back to where you’re sleeping if you need extra supplies. Instead, come up with a backup plan to give your team a centrally-located operations center that’s fully stocked with supplies, food, snacks and whatever else you’ll need for a successful event.

4. Manage the party’s invite list.

Are you hosting a party at SXSW? Get ready to hear from your long-lost cousin who, like everyone else, will inevitably want to be on the VIP list. As you invite people, make sure you reserve enough slots for media, investors, analysts and other high-profile people who have to get in-and shouldn’t have to wait in the long line.

Also, determine the criteria for the VIP list. Who can get on it? Who can’t? Knowing this information ahead of time will make it easier for you to respond to requests as the event nears.

When Zaarly and Startup Weekend partnered for a party last year, the location could only accommodate so many people at a time. We knew we’d have to manage the list and line pretty carefully. Determine those processes ahead of time, and keep someone who will recognize media, investors and other high-level VIPs who are automatically allowed in near the door.

5. Position yourself to be lucky.

It doesn’t rain in Austin very often, but it rained for multiple days during SXSW last year. At the time, Zaarly was following an “ask for anything” model, which meant people could post what they wanted or needed, when they needed it, and how much they were willing to pay. Because rain is such a rarity in Austin, attendees didn’t think to pack umbrellas. Yet, people needed to figure out how to get around Austin without getting soaked.

All of a sudden we started seeing requests for umbrellas. Zaarly’s operations jumped at the opportunity to show new people just how helpful the service could be. They stocked up on umbrellas and responded to as many requests as possible. We couldn’t have planned the rain, but we were flexible enough to be able to take advantage of the opportunity. We had people who could wait in line on behalf of attendees and provide umbrellas. This also turned into a bit of a media story.

6. Embrace the crazy.

Last but not least, know that things in Austin are going to be weird. After all, that is the city’s slogan!

Everything won’t go exactly as planned, and that’s OK. Instead of stressing about it, just embrace the crazy and seize the opportunity. SXSW offers an incredible opportunity for your brand. Plan ahead, but remain open to opportunities that emerge once the event begins.

What are your SXSW plans and survival tips?

Heather Whaling is president of Geben Communication, a firm that helps startups and established brands integrate traditional and digital PR to excel in today’s social world. Connect with her on Twitter (@prTini) or her public relations blog, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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Topics: PR

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