SXSW: Festival Expects 28,000 Attendees With or Without a 'Highlight'

Tom Morello SXSW screen grab L

The interactive event gets bigger and noisier this year.

South-by-Southwest is expecting a crowd of 28,000 for the Interactive portion of its 11-day tech, film and music festival, Adweek reports. That's 3,500 attendees more than in 2012, and 9,000 greater that what showed up two years ago.

Whoa, will any brand cut through that clutter? Will there be a tech startup that breaks out and is the buzz of every party, every Airbnb/HomeAway rental and every hallway in the Austin Convention Center?

"I think because of the sheer size that it is going to be really difficult for one company to own the conference," said Heather Meeker, co-founder of marketing consultancy MeekerQuinn and longtime SXSW attendee. "That said, you never know—something might come out of nowhere. Look at Foursquare in 2009; that came out of nowhere. And that's what makes the conference fun."

To her last point, South-by has created a tradition in the last half-decade of providing companies like Foursquare and Twitter with a platform for hugely successful company launches.

Last year, the blogerati pretty much declared Highlight "buzz champion" of SXSW even before the festival began. Highlight "CEO"—the San Francisco startup was a company of two at the time—Paul Davison could barely grab a food truck taco in the Texas capital without a reporter sticking a voice recorder in his face.

"It wasn't something that we planned in terms of it being promotional event," Davison told Adweek on Tuesday. "We weren't even trying to launch there. It's just happened that people got really excited about our app."

The truth of the matter is, Davison and his single associate at the time (Highlight now employs seven people) didn't need to hire a PR agency or even print and hand out cool T-shirts to get people's attention. What they had to do was get Robert Scoble, Harry McCracken and other popular tech scribes to test out the so-called serendipity/passive location app and author an online thumbs-up. And one could argue that such gestures are Caesarean in another sense—pulling developing ideas out of their wombs and shoving them onto a huge stage that's hardly equivalent to the safe environs of an incubator program. 

"Highlight's product wasn't ready for prime time last year, in my opinion," Meeker said.

When asked if the show was too bloated with marketing messages to create another break-out name, Davison from Highlight replied, "The product is the most important thing."

If any startup is going to successfully use South-by as a launchpad, it's truly has to offer something different. GroupMe, a group texting app, didn't exactly smack of big innovation and was largely met with eye-rolls by attendees in 2011—in spite of being heralded as the shiniest startup of the festival. And it's plausible to argue that the only reason 2012 showgoers found Highlight worth talking about was due to its inherent creepy factor that causes most folks over the age of 28 to shiver.

Meanwhile, slews of major brands like American Airlines have high hopes to make their mark in Austin over the course of a festival running through March 17 (including the flagship SXSW Music portion). The recently rebranded airline will have a music lounge for people to grab a beverage and recharge their smartphones and tablets, while co-hosting a developers hackathon with AT&T on March 9 and 10.

"We've purposely orchestrated our activations in a way to stand out rather than get lost in the usual clutter," said Dawn Turner, entertainment marketing lead for American Airlines.

Meeker from MeekerQuinn added, "Everyone last year looked around and said, 'Holy cow, this has gotten really big.' It really took a lot of South-by veterans by surprise. But now we are more prepared as marketers to deal with all the noise because we are expecting it. My advice to anyone new to the conference is to wear comfortable shoes. You are going to be on your feet constantly because you can't get a cab or a pedicab."