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6 Steal-Worthy Event Strategies From SXSW's First Virtual Edition

The online edition of South by Southwest featured a complex lineup of keynotes, music showcases, film screenings, networking opportunities and virtual brand activations. Here are some key things organizers got right.

SXSW Online XR, SXSW's Virtual Rendition of Austin
One highlight of SXSW Online was a VR rendition of downtown Austin, explorable via desktop PCs or VR headsets. The experience recreated classic SXSW venues like River Red Street and The Paramount; attendees could walk around, listen to live music, view film screenings and more.
Screenshot: SXSW

When BizBash caught up with Swapcard CEO Baptise Boulard last week, he teased that the first-ever virtual edition of South by Southwest was “more than an event.” Boulard’s AI-powered event and matchmaking platform Swapcard served as the official virtual partner for the gathering, which took place March 16-20 and featured a complex mix of keynotes, panels, music showcases, film screenings, networking opportunities and virtual brand activations. 

Turning the massive Austin festival—which has previously drawn 280,000 in-person attendees for a 10-day, multifaceted gathering—into an online event was certainly no easy feat. But organizers took several steps to make it intuitive and easily accessible for the viewers, while still bringing its usual mix of cutting-edge technology, world-class speakers and a robust lineup of activities. 

Here are six steal-worthy strategies that helped make SXSW Online 2021 a success. SXSW Online XR, SXSW's Virtual Rendition of AustinSXSW Online XR also featured what Mashable called “game-like surprises for attendees to happily stumble upon as they teleport between worlds.” There was ax-throwing, go-karts, arcades and even virtual beer pong.Screenshot: SXSW

1. They used all the latest technology.
One of the most buzzed-about portions of this year’s SXSW is, surprisingly, one that wasn’t even accessible for every attendee. Participants with compatible desktop PCs, Oculus Quest or PCVR headsets were invited to explore SXSW Online XR, a virtual-reality re-creation of the Austin streets that typically host the festival. Powered by VRChat and designed by VRrOOm, the space allowed attendees to “walk” the streets and visit various venues for events and panels.

SXSW Online XR, SXSW's Virtual Rendition of AustinAt one point, the XR participants could enjoy a motion-captured jazz performance by tuba player Theon Cross.Screenshot: SXSWThe SXSW team recently told Mashable that a community of XR professionals came together to formulate the idea, and VRrOOm built out the streetscapes and venues in just two-and-a-half months. "We had to redesign the Austin main venues that all the festivalgoers actually know well," explained Louis Cacciuttolo, founder of VRrOOm, in the interview. "But in a nice way … in an artistic way and in a gamified way because that's what makes the experience in social VR—the interaction. The fact that you can actually interact with objects, interact with the environment and of course, with the people.”

For the festival itself, Swapcard created a single sign-on, allowing users to easily view and filter the schedule, tune into various programming, network with each other, view sponsor info and more. There was even a new SXSW club added to the wildly popular social network Clubhouse, where the team hosted daily rooms with special guests. 

SXSW Online 2021 Home PageSwapcard's intuitive, single-sign-on platform made it easy for attendees to navigate the complex festival.Screenshot: BizBash
2. They made it accessible and user-friendly.

Boulard told BizBash that a major focus for the team was to “reduce all barriers to discovery for an individual attendee. With all of the distractions that exist in our world and at home, it was important to allow the attendee to be as efficient with their time as possible.”

SXSW Online 2021 Schedule FiltersThe schedule could be filtered by event type, theme, format or even accessibility features.Screenshot: BizBashThe team achieved this by building a main landing page where attendees could easily access all different aspects of the event. There were five “channels” to watch live conversations; those videos were reduced to picture-in-picture mode so people could keep watching while clicking to other tabs. On the full schedule tab, it was easy to search by event type, theme or format. There was also an accessibility filter, where attendees could search for events that featured American Sign Language, closed captioning, English subtitles or even a strobe warning.

What’s more, viewers could tune in through laptops, tablets, smartphones or smart TVs. And conference content, along with select music festival showcases and film festival events, will be available on-demand through April 18.

3. They made it easy to network.
Allowing attendees to connect with one another is a key component to SXSW—and one the team was determined to recreate digitally, explained the festival's chief programming officer, Hugh Forrest, in a recent interview with Texas Monthly. “You’re not going to have that traditional SXSW moment where the person you always wanted to meet is in line in front of you at the Iron Works [BBQ],” he said, adding that in the virtual edition, those moments require a bit more planning. “I think what we lose in serendipity, we potentially gain in the strategic ability to connect using the app platform.”

Each attendee was encouraged to fill out a thorough profile with a picture, short biography, links to their social handles and information about their companies; they could also select their availability to chat each day. Guests could then search a full list of attendees and request meetings, or use a dedicated Networking & Special Events tab to find virtual meetups with like-minded people. One bonus? Before jumping into a networking event, people could see the profiles of who else was already there. There was also a text-based discussion section for each track of the event, where attendees could have a free-flowing conversation throughout the five days. 

SXSW Online 2021 Performance by Yung Baby TateRapper and singer Yung Baby Tate was one of many performers during the festival's music track, which focused on lesser-known artists this year.Screenshot: SXSW4. They rethought their programming.
The format wasn’t the only thing different about this year’s event—organizers completely rethought the content strategy, too. For the film festival component, for example, the team purposely curated a smaller lineup than in years past, while the music lineup went from thousands of artists to just a couple hundred. 

“We’re approaching things by saying, ‘Let’s not even pretend that we’re trying to replace the live club experience,’” said SXSW Music head James Minor in the Texas Monthly interview, where he acknowledged that attendees' attention spans are shorter online and something like a six-hour showcase no longer works. Instead of big-name musical headliners, the team focused on supporting the careers of lesser-known artists. “We’ll be showcasing artists that have been on the cusp, but haven’t really been able to do much because of COVID,” Minor said. “It’s supposed to be the coming-out party for what happens next in music.

On the flip side, due to the lack of travel requirements, the speaker lineup boasted bigger names than ever—including Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson, Stacey Abrams, Willie Nelson, President George W. Bush, Ava Duvernay and other A-listers.SXSW Online 2021 Keynote with Pete Buttigieg and Jonathan CapehartIn one session, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was interviewed by journalist Jonathan Capehart. It was one of several keynotes that featured a live American Sign Language interpreter.Screenshot: SXSW

5. They got creative with sponsors.
There were also a number of sponsor showcases, one through a digital “swag bag.” Through a dedicated tab on the platform, attendees could access a variety of deals and discounts, like a 30-day Audible trial or a discount for White Claw delivery. Some companies hosted contests through the feature, while others offered swag for certain actions—for example, attendees who scheduled a meeting with during the festival were given a free T-shirt. 

There was another dedicated tab for sponsors, where attendees could click through to find more information and see what panels the company was involved in, as well as a Products & Services tab to buy merch. Also new this year was the Creative Services Exhibition, a digital expo highlighting creative organizations and small businesses.SXSW Online 2021 Digital Swag BagThe digital "swag bag" offered a variety of deals and discounts.Screenshot: BizBash

6. They made their staff easily accessible for questions.
No matter how user-friendly a virtual event is, there are bound to be attendees with tech issues and questions. To help, the SXSW staffed a help desk for 12 hours each day and offered thorough FAQ documents for various festival components. There was also a separate, dedicated help desk for the SXSW Online XR component. What’s more, the SXSW team hosted AMAs (shorthand for “ask me anything”) sessions daily.

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