South by Southwest is one part music and film festival, one part tech conference, and ten parts crazy carnival. Austin’s biggest annual event gives artists, entrepreneurs, and innovators opportunities to attend panels by industry leaders, head to tightly packed bars to see buzz bands, and race to networking events that promise free BBQ (often all in the course of a single day).
SXSW, which lasts for a week and a half, can be overwhelming, distracting, and exhausting—so how do people who are serious about networking get the most out of this large-scale conference? I spoke with six professionals who will be at SXSW this year in order to get their take.
Have a Game Plan
Because SXSW is so large and has events spread out all over the city, it’s almost impossible to go into it cold. David. J. Neff, a professional speaker, author, and founder of Lights, Camera, Help, recognizes the importance of finding order in the chaos. He notes that everyone attending is “trying to learn, network, pitch their crazy startup ideas, meet up with the one person in the world who’s into exactly what they’re into… [so] the best thing you can do ahead of time is sit down and plan.”
Josh Miles, Motion Director for the Seattle-based Killer Infographics, will be attending SXSW for the first time this year and has put a lot of thought into the sessions and events he’s going to attend. He says that he and KIG’s co-founder Amy Balliet are “booked solid” and that they’ve made a plan to split up to cover more ground, “focusing on different sessions so that [they] can bring back as much new knowledge as possible to share with [their] office.”
Leave Room for Spontaneity
A certain amount of planning is key, but it can also be valuable to leave time for chance meetings—after all, you never know who you might run into at SXSW. Luke Wallace, Market Research Associate at the software review company, Software Advice, says that he tries not to overschedule himself during the conference. He recommends that attendees “go to the meet-ups in addition to talks and be open to impromptu conversations with unlikely people in unlikely places.”
While Josh and Amy from Killer Infographics are attending a lot of sessions, they also plan to spend time at some of the SXSW lounges, such as the Mashable House and the Miller Lite Lounge, where they’ll likely encounter plenty of other conference-goers recovering from more structured events.
Don’t Get Distracted
For veteran SX-goer David Neff, avoiding unnecessary distractions is crucial. “Don’t get distracted by the 7,000 people giving out free keychains on the street,” he warns first-time attendees. While there are hundreds of official and unofficial events and giveaways that pop up during SXSW, he recommends that attendees focus on attending the events they’re truly interested in. That way, they’ll meet like-minded individuals who could become valuable professional connections.
Look for One-on-One Opportunities
Huge crowds are a common sight at SXSW, but almost everyone I spoke to attested to the value of having more personal, one-on-one conversations with the people you really want to talk to. Luke recommends reaching out to the people you want to talk to ahead of time over email. “You’re more likely to present yourself well if you (and they) aren’t caught off guard,” he says. “And they’re more likely to recognize you if you share, pre-event, your hopes to meet them.”
Matt Forcey, Senior Account Executive at Marin Software, takes a similar approach. He recommends scheduling meetings in advance, and adds, “Be patient and remember that those with whom you’d like to connect likely have competing priorities.”
If you aren’t able to have as in-depth a conversation as you like during SXSW, don’t let that dissuade you. David points out that it can be challenging to get time alone with people during SXSW, so it’s worth getting in touch after the conference and scheduling a follow-up meeting.
Even if you’re not someone who would normally strike up a conversation with a stranger, SXSW is a time to get out of your comfort zone. “Don’t be a wallflower at networking events,” Matt Forcey reminds us. “Everyone is there to meet people.”
Leverage Marketing’s Director of Client Services, Thy Ta Hooks, emphasizes starting real conversations with people and not just focusing on the hard sell for your products or services. She says that if you start out asking typical questions, like ‘What do you do?’ and ‘Are you visiting from out of town?, you’ll be able to have a much better conversation than you would if you open with a business pitch. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to avoid your elevator pitch altogether. Thy recommends practicing your positioning statement so that you don’t stumble when someone asks what you do.
Ideally, you’ll be able to have more than one or two conversations over the course of an event. Natalie Parra Novosad, Leverage’s Director of Content Strategy, says that sometimes when you’ve been talking to one person for a long time, it’s best to “think of a polite excuse to move on”. That way, you and the person you’ve been talking to with both have the opportunity to meet more people who share your interests.
If there’s a conversation that you’d really like to continue, you can always exchange business cards and make plans to follow up at a later date. “Bring your favorite networking apps (or paper and pencil),” Luke from Software Advice says, “to make sure that you are able to stay in contact with anyone you meet.”
The best networking often happens naturally, not in a stilted conference room environment, so take advantage of all that SXSW has to offer and enjoy yourself. “SXSW is an opportunity to deepen business relationships through a unique shared experience,” Matt Forcey points out. “Make sure you’re creating some stories to share throughout the rest of the year.”
Are you attending SXSW this year? Feel free to reach out to us in the comments—or come up and say hello if you see anyone from Leverage at a SXSW event!