At the end of February, a small number of people registered to attend the South By Southwest Interactive tradeshow received a white box stuffed with orange tissue paper and a mysterious object.
"I am intrigued by this thing. I don't know if it’s good or bad," Brooke Hammerling, the founder of the boutique tech marketing agency Brew PR, told The Verge. "I got a mini yam." She paused and called to one of her employees. "What was the company called?"
"YamTrader.com sent me a little mini baby yam," Hammerling continued, "which apparently, according to Twitter when I sent the picture, is not a yam. It is a sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are smaller, yams are bigger. But it is supposed to be a small yam that I am supposed to bring with me and show to their booth area and then get a $50 American Express gift card.
"Which, of course, if I'm going to get a $50 anything, I'm going to go and bring the fuckin’ yam."
YamTrader.com has not launched. Its website is under construction and the only clue is the tagline on its social media accounts: "The next generation of yam buying, selling and trading is here!! Check trending yam trades at www.yamtrader.com and increase your profits GangYam Style." Pictures of the yams have appeared on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as recipients were charmed by their odd little gifts.
A yam. This is what SXSW has come to. The digital portion of what started as a music festival has metastasized into a spectacle of peacocking internet startups and the people who surround them. Last year, Interactive had 24,569 attendees while the music portion of SXSW had 18,988 and the film portion just 16,490.
Interactive attendees are profiled as digital-savvy tastemakers, which means dollar signs to advertisers, and brands big and small are zealously dedicating more and more money and labor in order to have an impact at South By.
A yam. This is what SXSW has come to.
The ultimate goal is to imitate the success of Twitter in 2007, which, according to legend, "broke out" at SXSW after the early adopter crowd got hold of it. Foursquare supposedly repeated the feat in 2009, albeit with slightly less dramatic success.
However, the prospect of a single "breakout" app emerging is increasingly unlikely as the conference grows. There are now so many apps launching, often in duplicative batches, that a single attendee will collide with only a small percentage, unaware of the vast majority of options.
GroupMe, a group messaging service and Brew PR client, will be giving out grilled cheese and beer for the third year in a row. However, Hammerling tells most of her clients not to market themselves at SXSW. "You're going to get lost in the shuffle," she tells them.
Still, companies try. Twitter is putting on an interactive art display, Foursquare is throwing a party, the makers behind the carpooling app Lyft are sponsoring piggyback rides, and hundreds of small startups are staging similar stunts and spectacles. Payments startup Dwolla is putting "golden tickets" inside chocolate "Dwolla bars" and hiding them around Austin. Taxi and limousine hailing app Uber will be giving rides in an exotic Rolls Royce Ghost. In past years, startups have pretended to boot people’s cars and staged fights in squirrel costumes. A promoter for Microsoft’s Zune actually got arrested in 2007.
"It's this hilarious tradition that has organically bubbled up, where startup people and marketing people think that they have to go do some kind of noisy stunt at South By and that's how you’re going to launch your brand," said comedian Alex Blagg, who will be filming shorts for IFC at the festival this year. "Which is crazy, because you're shouting at the top of your lungs while everyone else is shouting at the top of their lungs, which is pretty shrill."
How to win SXSW
In 2011, Anne Ahola Ward remembers a roving pack of young men who were literally shouting at the top of their lungs, yelling Charlie Sheen’s catch phrase, "winning!"
"It was a search engine that I can't remember the name of," she said. "It failed."
Ward now lives in San Francisco but used to live in Austin. SXSW Interactive has changed a lot since she started going in the late 90s. "SXSW used to be a meeting of the minds, where people went and got ideas and created ideas, and companies would form from it," she said. "Now it's more showcasing these ideas that have already formed."
"SXSW used to be... where people went and got ideas and created ideas... Now it's more showcasing these ideas that have already formed."
Ward just launched MobileFOMO, a blog about mobile marketing. By coincidence, she booted out the people who were renting the house she still owns in Austin, the week before SXSW. So she came up with a guerrilla marketing tactic of her own and made a website: pitchmyhouse.com. She offered free housing to whoever came up with the best way to promote MobileFOMO during SXSW.
Submissions flooded in. "A lot of people said Facebook ads," she said. "About half a dozen people said, 'well I know Robert Scoble.'" She laughed. "I've met him myself. I don’t really see that as a really ticket to fame."
The best proposals came from The StartupBus, a three-day hackathon that takes place on a bus to Austin, and Funny or Die, the comedy website. While the StartupBus offered to get MobileFOMO in front of some top investors and entrepreneurs who could give Ward feedback on the product, she ultimately went with Funny or Die, which proposed a creative Twitter campaign that it declined to reveal before the festival.
"We have a pretty big social media presence," said Funny or Die’s Dashiell Driscoll, who works on social media for the site. "We’re going to throw her into the coverage. The fun thing about SXSW is that everyone is constantly holding a cell phone" — he stopped and corrected himself — "or maybe that’s not the fun thing? The thing about SXSW is that everyone is constantly holding a cell phone. So if you’re down there, it will be hard to ignore our coverage, and therefore hard to ignore our coverage of Anne’s house."
And why is Funny or Die going to a festival for startups, by the way? "It's just, everyone is there," he said.
The rise of Interactive
The demand for marketing has ticked up with the growth of the festival, said Katie King, a sales rep for SXSW. Just look at the program guide, which has gotten fatter and fatter with ads. (This year, SXSW also sold advertising in airport security trays, the ones you put through the metal detector.) The festival is in such high demand that it can afford to be picky about who advertises. There’s a preference for techie, forward-looking, creative, "social" companies, and not everyone gets to play. "There is a bit of vetting that goes on," King admitted.
The festival is in such high demand that it can be picky about who advertises
If you need assistance launching yourself or trying to make your mark at SXSW, the festival’s organizers are there to help. Official SXSW Interactive campaigns run from $1,500 to $250,000, according to the organizers, who will help brands come up with a creative gag. A lot of those are now megabrands like Ford and Dell, who pour money into open bars and A-list concerts. The largest footprints in the trade show this year are The New York Times, UK Trade and Investments, Mophie, Marvell, Post-It, Amazon, and VegasTech.
As a result, small startups with small budgets have to go guerrilla if they hope to get noticed. Meanwhile, attendees are now so inebriated and distracted that it’s hard to think of SXSW as anything more serious than "spring break for nerds," as Foursquare’s Dennis Crowley put it.
Of media and messages
And after all that investment, standing out can actually backfire. Last year, the New York creative agency BBH took a lot of heat for arming Austin’s homeless with Wi-Fi devices and outfitting them with shirts that said, "I’m Clarence, a 4G hotspot."
BBH succeeded in winning the most attention out of any marketing stunts during the week, but the agency decided it was bad publicity due to the backlash of outrage and horror. People bristled at the implication that a homeless person must be bundled with a free internet connection in order to be noticed. Despite scoring a feature in almost every major media outlet, BBH will not be doing any stunts at SXSW this year, said creative director Tim Nolan. He demurred when asked to be interviewed.
The startup with the cutest ground game often has the lamest app
Few SXSW stunts are as interesting (or as tasteless) as BBH’s Homeless Hotspot snafu. The big brand parties typically turn out to have long lines, overcrowding, and tiny flimsy cups with watered-down booze — after which the performer plays an abbreviated 20 or 30 minute set. The startup with the cutest ground game often has the lamest app. That’s not to say you won’t find some diamonds in the rough streets of Austin; but these days, it’s best not to go to SXSW expecting to fill your phone with gems.
As for YamTrader, the "yam trading" bit turned out to be fake — a shtick to promote TriNet, a company that provides human resources services, by pointing out that "sometimes startups need a little help." Sadly, the YamTrader bait-and-switch is typical of SXSW marketing. In other words, be skeptical of strangers bearing candy. Or yams.