Matador Social Media coordinator Andy Hayes overviews SXSW interactive for travel writers and anyone else interested in thinking bigger about their careers.

Last year, I managed to scrape together the funds to attend South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, commonly known as “south by” by regular attendees. Hotels and flights fill up early, making it a pricey trip, unless you can manage to squeeze onto a couch or sofa somewhere in town.

SXSW is a behemoth of a conference – there’s SXSW Music, SXSW Film, and SXSW Interactive. The Interactive bit is the one I attend, and I think if you ask 1000 people what the interactive part means, you’d get 1000 different answers. It’s kind of a tech conference, kind of a software conference, and kind of a random-serendipity-all-things-business conference. I attend SXSW because it forces me to think bigger about where I want to go with my professional career, it helps me to see what people outside my circle are doing, and it gives me a lot of face time with people I want to connect with further.

There are hundreds of “how to attend SXSW” posts and videos published every year before the event, and even here at the event you can attend a “how to have sex at SXSW” or perhaps the “how to not be a SXSW douchebag” is more up your alley. But why come in the first place, especially if you’re a budget-strapped travel writer?

Education

SXSW has hundreds of keynotes and panels and sessions in a broad range of topics. Some panels are better than others, such as this accessibility panel where attendees were asked to try navigating their gadget/mobile device with just one thumb – a great usability test. There was also a “day of the nomad,” so plenty of opportunities to get your questions answered about working while traveling from people who do exactly that.

Networking

This year there were some travel and writing related meetups, more so than last year. “Books and beer” was a hot ticket to talk about the future of publishing and how to get your eBook published. Chris Guillebeau had his annual meetup, bringing travelers of all kinds together to talk about the Art of Non Conformity. There’s no shortage of choices for networking – the real limited resource is time, because you can’t go to everything, especially when your top three networking choices are all at the same time.

Fun: I won’t lie – the reason SXSW goes to the top of my list every time is because it’s a ton of fun. They call it “spring break for geeks,” for a good reason. Austin is great place to live and the city rolls out the hospitality for SXSW with events and things to do. Every night there are tons of parties, including free booze and free food. I prefer to arrange dinners and gatherings with smaller groups, but you certainly have plenty of choice – another opportunity to spend face time with those people who you normally can only just tweet.

One thing you might notice a lot of is sponsorships. These tend to come in two flavours:

  • Major corporate sponsor who hopes to remind you of how hip and tech-savvy their brand is.
  • Startup who is dropping part of its massive cash funding on getting their latest and greatest in front of online influencers.

Although at times it can feel a little ridiculous the lengths one has to go to in order to get attention at SXSW, I don’t think the sponsorship stuff is out of hand. One example that stuck in my mind (and is a powerful case study for writers looking for sponsors) was Adam Baker. Adam runs a site Man Vs Debt,dedicated to helping individuals break out of personal debt.

Note when choosing a sponsor for your site: if you’d be comfortable with them mingling in a room with all of your personal friends, then you’ve made the right choice.

Baker is currently on a road tour sponsored by software company Adaptu. What I loved seeing about this sponsorship is that Baker paired up with a company that made sense with his brand. Adaptu sponsored Baker’s SXSW meetup, and we met the founder, who had more interest in hearing about our businesses and how we knew Baker than about pitching us their software.

Note when choosing a sponsor for your site: if you’d be comfortable with them mingling in a room with all of your personal friends, then you’ve made the right choice.

Circling back to the original question, should you come to SXSW? Yes. It’s time to start thinking now about March 2012.

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