In Austin, March has one focus. And I'm not talking about the Zilker Park Kite Festival.
The city comes alive thanks to a little event called SXSW.
South by Southwest is a company that plans and executes trade shows, conferences and other events. Their current lineup of events includes SXSW Music, SXSW Interactive, SXSW Film, SXSWedu and SXSWeco. All except SXSWeco occur in the spring.
The very first festival, held in 1987, focused on music at a time when Austin musicians were still relatively isolated from the rest of the world. For years, the eclectic music scene in Austin had stirred interest in businesses on both coasts, and SXSW gave them an excuse to visit.
The festival was an immediate success and as time passed, it gathered more and more attention. SXSW now has offices in Ireland, Germany, Australia and Japan who help bring international talent to Austin. In 1994, the company added a film and interactive component in response to growing industries in tech, film and web. Combined, SXSW Music, Film and Interactive now pull in more than 48,000 registrants each March.
At an event this big, how can you possibly hope to stand out? It takes a little creativity and a lot of planning.
In late January, Jamie began working with the Pappas Group to develop promotional materials for client .CO's 2012 SXSW presence. Using .CO as an example, let's discuss some important elements of trade show strategy.
1. Have a plan and clearly state your objectives. Participating in a trade show can be a substantial investment of time, money and labor. That's why it's so important to establish a plan and identify clear metrics of success. How else will you know if it's a worthwhile investment, year after year?
By the end of January, Pappas and .CO had a detailed plan with three clear objectives. 1) Develop a .CO branded experience that extends the idea of engaging starters and .CO owners to build understanding of and loyalty to the .CO brand. 2) Communicate what .CO is and who the .CO brand is. 3) Connect with the SWSWi audience, an audience that is packed with starters.
2. Know your audience. For those of you who read Reddit, I'll summarize this point with one sentence: Don't be a Woody Harrelson. You know what I mean.
Learn as much as you can about the kind of people who will be attending the show. What are their interests? Their needs? How do they receive and digest information, and how can you grab their attention?
At SXSW 2012, .CO will focus on interacting with startups and influencers. These individuals are "thirsty for knowledge, creative, intelligent, engaged and open to learning about new ideas and innovations. They want to be in on or at least know the next big thing."
3. Start interacting with your audience before the show even begins. Pre-show outreach is a critical step that many marketing professionals overlook when planning their trade show strategy. Trade shows are not necessarily a good environment for first impressions, especially ones that only last a day or two. Surrounded by noise and chatter, it can be difficult for you to make a lasting connection with your prospects.
Exhibitors can generally request a mailing list of registered attendees to help them prepare. Identify a few contacts with whom you really want to connect, and treat them like your VIPs. Invite them to join you for a meal, send them a prep kit or provide an incentive for visiting your booth.
Pre-show marketing was a big part of .CO's SXSW strategy. Knowing that many of their startups will be traveling to Austin by bus, .CO sent custom whiteboards, stencils and notebooks to various departure points for attendees to enjoy on the ride and all week long.
.CO has also been connecting with their community via social media for weeks now. Using the hashtag #startuplife, they've created a buzz around their presence at SXSW.
4. Make it meaningful. When selecting promotional materials for a trade show, focus on items that are practical and meaningful for your target audience.
Each and every promotional piece that .CO developed for SXSW serves a purpose and reinforces their overall strategy. In addition to the whiteboards, stencils and notebooks, .CO created stadium cups for their evening cocktail event, branded bandannas to be used as photo booth props, and chopsticks for a noodle bowl lunch (an upscale twist on the startup staple of Ramen noodles).
5. Think ahead and anticipate needs. Upon hearing that a few rain showers and thunderstorms are expected to hit Austin mid-week, .CO ordered a couple hundred bright orange umbrellas. If the sky opens up, .CO employees will stay warm and dry, while simultaneously drawing a ton of attention to their colorful brand. Austinites love orange.
If you'll be in Austin next week, for work or play, be sure to check out this SXsurvival guide from local ad agency GSD&M. You'll find helpful tips for everything from food to venues to parties.