Next Year's SXSW Interactive Conference to Focus on Quality Over Quantity With Reduced Number of Sessions

By Mitra Sorrells October 29, 2012, 3:13 PM EDT

Comedian and author Baratunde Thurston delivered the keynote address at SXSW Interactive 2012 in March.

Photo: Bobby Longoria

After years of steady growth, South by Southwest Interactive Festival is reducing the number of sessions in its program next spring by about 35 percent. The event, scheduled for March 8-12 in Austin, Texas, will mark its 20th year as part of the overall SXSW festival that also includes gatherings focused on music and film. This year’s Interactive program included about 850 sessions focused on emerging technology; for 2013 that number will drop to about 550.

“There was a small portion of sessions [this year] that were not quite up to snuff, and we felt a lot of that was our inability to manage those sessions before the event because there was so much to manage,“ said director of SXSW Interactive Hugh Forrest. “There was too much falling through the cracks and not meeting the level of quality we would like to see at the event. So we are hoping with fewer panels we will have slightly more bandwidth and slightly more managerial time and be able to improve the overall product.”

SXSW Interactive is a five-day event with networking opportunities and presentations on emerging media, wireless applications, digital projects, video games, and startup ideas. The 2013 program will be a mix of about 60 percent panel discussions and 40 percent solo presentations, which is a shift from a few years ago when it was about 80 percent panels.

“We’ve found our audience likes the solo presentations more because they offer more depth. The dynamic I’ve seen both as an organizer and a speaker on a panel is that if you are on a panel there are three other people and you think, 'I don’t need to prepare that much because those other three will prepare.' And I think sometimes everyone on the panel thinks that and no one prepares and then the session suffers,” Forrest said.

The majority of the session topics were chosen from the festival’s PanelPicker online platform, which allows anyone to submit an idea. The system garnered more than 3,300 submissions during a four-week period this summer, which were then displayed online for public vote using a thumbs-up-thumbs-down interface. About 400 of the top-voted proposals have been selected to be part of the festival.

“At its most basic level, PanelPicker is a great way to engage with our audience. It’s a great way to build buzz about South by Southwest in July and August when we typically didn’t have buzz. It’s turned out to be a great viral marketing tool in the sense people who submit ideas [then] email or tweet or Facebook their friends to vote about their ideas,” said Forrest. “Our goal with what we do is to keep the content fresh. Being able to leverage or tap into the expertise of the community is a very effective way to keep it fresh. They are the experts. They are on the ground in terms of knowing new trends and thinking of exciting new ideas.”

About 25,000 people attended SXSW Interactive last March, and registrations for next spring are on track to exceed that number.

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