Most Innovative Meetings 2012: #14 South by Southwest Interactive

Focused on pioneering technology, the conference developed its own innovative tools to give guests ownership of ideas.

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Photo: Arthur Vanroy

Affiliated with the film and music festivals that take place in Austin, Texas, each March, South by Southwest Interactive is a five-day conference devoted to new technology. Known as a breeding ground for fresh ideas—Twitter gained traction there in 2007, and Foursquare debuted in 2009—the event launched in 1994 and has exploded in recent years. In 2010, it had around 13,000 attendees, a 40 percent increase from the previous year. In 2011, the festival saw a record-breaking 20,000 attendees, and this year’s attendance held steady.

One of the tools organizers used to engage new guests, maintain loyalty, and build community is the crowdsourcing tool called PanelPicker. They developed the technology with programmer Lindsey Simon, a former Google staffer.

Initially developed for the 2007 event, the online tool was inspired by an unlikely source: T-shirt company Threadless. At the time, South by Southwest was hosting a T-shirt-design challenge, where contestants submitted images to the Threadless Web site, the brand’s online community voted on a winning design, and the chosen image appeared on the festival’s official bag.

“We thought, there’s no reason why we can’t take the same concept and help a community design the programming at our conference,” said the Austin-based festival producer Shawn O’Keefe, who works with a team of about 15 to 20. “The first year we had 700 ideas submitted, the next year it was 1,100, and then it was 1,600.” With the tool, the conference’s attendees can weigh in on topics they’d like to see explored at the next event; the audience’s opinions are then weighed against advisory board and staff voting.

Though crowdsourcing tools like PanelPicker aren’t unusual nowadays, “there weren’t really any conferences at the time doing what we were doing with this online platform,” O’Keefe said. With no real model to look to, “what we didn’t anticipate was the kind of community involvement that we saw. People would go out on these social media channels and start virally sharing what they wanted to talk about. That obviously makes marketing people happy, but what was more interesting to us was that people were associating their personal brand with the South by Southwest brand.”

It also allows the South by Southwest community to build its own data set. “Anybody can go in [to PanelPicker], look at it, and say, ‘O.K., what are people talking about?’” At this year’s conference, O’Keefe said, advertising, marketing, and branding companies were still keen to learn more about social media. Other attendees were interested in exploring the metadata of augmented reality.

“We started [PanelPicker] with the more practical intentions of: this is going to help us organize information and have a much more open and transparent process,” O’Keefe said. “It ended up being something even better, which was more community involvement and letting the community have a lot more ownership of the ideas and things they wanted to have happen at the conference."

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