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5 Questions to ask before launching at SXSW


Ignite X specializes in helping technology startups grow their market visibility and brand. We bring expertise, connections and tenacity to helping brands break through the noise. Here are some of the things we've learned along the way. 

5 Questions to ask before launching at SXSW

Carmen Hughes

When the price point for a basic exhibition booth at SXSW Interactive starts at $3,400, it makes you wonder: Should I launch my company at this event?

Industry trade shows are a time-honored way to market your business and products. They’re events at which you can develop new business contacts, initiate partnership deals, build brand awareness, and generate news headlines. But are they right for your startup?

Most entrepreneurs aren’t swimming in venture capital funding, so they’re looking to squeeze all the value out of their dollars. An event designed to showcase emerging technologies seems like the right place to get discovered, especially given the media hype that surrounds SXSW. (aka “South By”) The challenge is that a lot of the attendees are simply there to be entertained and get free stuff.

A few years ago, when SXSW Interactive first launched, it was a fantastic platform for introducing companies and products to the market. Attendees, myself included, were interested in learning about new businesses and meeting fellow entrepreneurs. It was relatively cheap to get an admission badge. Mostly you learned about new consumer apps you could clog your phone with. But, the networking parties were glorious. Back then, it really did bring smart, creative people together for professional development and product discovery. The event has grown and changed a lot during the past 10 years. The official SXSW 2017 marketing materials say that it’s more than simply a showcase for consumer applications; it purports to be a place for B2B companies too. So, is it a good place to launch your business?

I asked a few friends who work in the Austin, Texas startup scene. Almost everyone said no right off the bat. The most commonly cited reason was the price and the ephemeral ROI. It’s simply too expensive for most startups to launch their product or service there these days, now that well-established brands have seen that they can get in front of audiences there. Those big brands bring their big marketing budgets to the table, which makes it harder for new companies rise above the noise and get noticed in any meaningful way. So here’s a list of questions you should ask yourself before you commit to investing your marketing dollars in launching at South By:

1) What are your goals for the event?

You need to set at least two very clear goals for this event, with quantifiable returns on your time and money investments. Do you want to create brand awareness, generate sales leads, or find new business opportunities? Are you wanting to inspire people to sign up for your service, expand your pool of beta testers, or get real-time feedback from prospective users? Do you want to create social media buzz? Make sure each person on your team knows exactly what they’re there to do, or you may lose them in the deluge of partygoers.

2) What’s your budget?

You have to consider the necessary capital investment. The most basic exhibition space at SXSW in 2017 costs more than $3,000. Add labor, electricity, travel expenses for your team, lodging, food, snacks, and incidentals. Then add the cost of marketing swag to the mix. That total price tag starts to add up very quickly.

3) Are the people who attend SXSW the right target persona to help you reach your goals?

Mostly millennials who work at large corporations and have a hand in making decisions for their company will be in attendance this year, according to the SXSW 2017 attendee demographics report. Thirty-eight percent of attendees will be aged 25-34. Twenty-five percent will be in management, with only 24% of those being the ultimate decision makers for their company. Furthermore, 39% of the employers are large businesses with more than 500 employees. Small businesses with less than 50 employees will account for 33% of attendees. Who are you trying to connect with? And what are they there to do? Sixty-three percent of attendees reported that their top business goal for attending SXSW is to “find new business opportunities.” That’s remarkably vague. So, ask yourself if this event will put you in front of the audience you need.

4) Can you leverage partnerships to make the event less pricey?

I know a few startups with synergy that are planning to share space to lower the cost of having a presence at the event this year. Consider whether you can work with a partner to get more value out of this event. That could mean sharing the cost of team labor, splitting the costs of your communications, or ordering marketing swag with a friend’s company to cross-promote. Be creative here. That’ll help you stretch your marketing dollars and help you stand out.

5) How will you measure success?

Here’s the $50 million question: How will your efforts impact the bottom line? At the end of the day, the point of investing money in attending an industry event like this is to propel revenue generation. During marketing launches and other brand awareness-building activities, it can be tough to measure who remembers you after the event. You can certainly use tools like IBM Watson Analytics for social media to listen to what people are saying about your brand before, during, and after the event. You can also count the number of articles written about you, the unique visitors to your website, or the amount of new accounts created during your SXSW campaigns. Pause and think about what would make the most impact for your business. How will you measure that and link it back to SXSW activities?

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself, if I spend this amount of money will I realistically get the ROI that I want? Is there a more effective way that I could reach my target audience? Could I use a lower-cost digital marketing strategy like a Facebook video ad or an AdWords campaign? It’s easy to get distracted by the parties and live bands at South By. Heck, there are 24 conference tracks this year! There are so many reasons to go. But before you start packing your bags, take some time to brainstorm.

Be realistic, even pessimistic as you sit down and ask yourself these questions. It could make or break the runway for launching your new business.

Related articles:

4 Veteran Marketers Weigh in: Is CES Worth The Investment?

How one startup used CES to springboard from concept to exit in 2 years

How to prepare a vibrant product demo video

How to Calibrate Your Consumer Mobile App To Successfully Attract Media Ready to Launch Your Tech Startup? How to get reporters to pay attention