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Marketing Lessons from SXSW 2016

April 20, 2016

The 2016 South by Southwest (SXSW) conference is a wrap, but the marketing world is still buzzing about it. One of the most talked-about marketing masterpieces at this year’s SXSW was the astonishing installation of a 100-foot Ferris wheel in downtown Austin, to draw attention to USA Network’s show, Mr. Robot, which is set in Coney Island. The USA Network installation took over an entire parking lot, and in addition to the 10-story Ferris wheel, visitors were treated to a game arcade, photo booth, screen-printed t-shirt bar, graffiti art installation, and a basement-themed lounge where they could watch the show’s pilot episode. Talk about an experience!

If your company doesn’t have the budget of USA Network, you can still take some of the principles from this extravaganza, and other key lessons from SXSW, and put them to work as part of your own trade show marketing plans.

  • Visual Impact – That Ferris wheel could be seen from pretty much anywhere in the conference-involved areas of downtown Austin. It was a standout and a landmark. You don’t need a Ferris wheel to achieve visual impact and make your installation a landmark. You need height, color, and movement. In the case of a trade show booth, this can be achieved with an island exhibit, with tower displays, or with ceiling-height displays. People photographed and shared that Ferris wheel endlessly because it was a visual event. Provide your visitors something photo-worthy and watch your reach grow exponentially.
  • Hashtag Or Bust – Social media marketing isn’t new, but some of the ways in which it intertwines with trade show marketing are. Social media is not an optional side project; it’s an integral part of getting the full value from your trade show marketing investment. Pick a short, memorable hashtag and check that it’s not already in use on the major social media like Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook and Periscope. You want people to be able to use one hashtag across all their social media. Then, give them a reason to share about you: A great visual image, a giveaway, or people doing something fun in your booth. This extends the reach of your message, and gives you long tail benefits because some of these social media will continue exposing your message long after the show is over.  Adweek reported that Capital One was able to get great leverage from their #secretsauce hashtag garnering over 4 million social impressions.
  • Re-thinking Swag – Swag is a perennial topic of debate among marketers. What things are worth the significant investment? And how do we account for changing attitudes toward sustainability? Even as recently as 10 years ago, companies wouldn’t have been criticized for handing out throwaway items as swag, but in today’s world, that’s a consideration. Because the Robot series is already a proven winner, USA Network was not taking much of a risk in giving those t-shirts away; people will wear them, and they will serve as conversation-starters, giving the network more long tail benefits. On the flip side, consider how many Progressive Insurance t-shirts you see in the trash, because convention-goers didn’t really want them.

You may gain gratitude and attention in-the-now if you’re giving away little tubes of sunscreen, but unless your product is sunscreen, there is little long-term benefit for your company. The same goes for disposable bottles of water. But if you give away re-usable water bottles that don’t leak, you’re more likely to see long-term benefits from that exposure.

One smart, inexpensive swag idea at SXSW was paper packets of radish seeds given out by Radish Labs. There is no waste, it’s easy to dump the seeds into a pot and throw some water on them (making it likely that people will actually do it), and they will enjoy the radishes.

  • Appeal To The Inner Child -Yes, you go to a trade show to appeal to sensible business people. Adults. But consider this: Many of the film screenings at SXSW were held at midnight. And the Saturday night of SXSW was the day that we shifted to Daylight Savings Time. That night, a theater full of jaded film journalists sat rather grumpily waiting for the screening of Keanu, an action-comedy about a stolen kitten. The film was scheduled to end at 3:30 a.m., due to the time change – no one could blame them. Then something interesting happened. The comedic team of Key and Peele came on stage with a basket of toy kittens. They started throwing the stuffed animals into the audience, and suddenly, those tired, grouchy journalists were jumping to catch them like a bunch of bridesmaids going after the wedding bouquet. A lot of those kittens will end up going to the children of those attendees, but it’s a safe bet that a significant number of them will end up in their offices, too. Remember the plastic Bucky Ball toys that were so popular as swag 10 -15 years ago? Chances are that you not only remember them, but you know someone who still has one in his office.


Scaling Grand-Scale Ideas

For every outrageous spectacle you see at a show like SXSW, there are ideas, themes, and principles you can use on a smaller scale for your own benefit. Always ask yourself how a given idea will expand your reach and give long-term benefits. Cultural attitudes are shifting, and that shift is going to have a big impact on marketing. Sustainability is a hot issue. Next time you’re at a show, take a look at what items are dropped on the floor or into trash and recycle bins. You’ll see a lot of swag that companies spent money on, money that was literally thrown in the trash. Worse still, people are photographing and sharing that on social media as an example of shameful waste. Make sure your company’s logo is not the one photographed in the trash. Think about how your company can use trade show marketing to build a perception not only of your brand and product or service, but of your company as a socially and environmentally responsible entity, as well.

About the Author

Jill is the owner of Skyline - Xtreme Xhibits and is a strategic trade show marketing consultant, with over 22 years of experience in the trade show and events industry. Jill is driven by her passion for unique and memorable exhibit design, overall successful trade show marketing strategies, exceptional customer service and flawless program execution. For more information on exhibit design, trade show marketing, trade show displays, trade show booths, and trade show exhibits in Austin or San Antonio, TX, please visit Xtreme Xhibits

expo, graphics, social media, Trade show marketing, exhibits, trade shows
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