Hybrid Hour: SXSW Edition

Virtual Event Tips from SXSW's Chief Programming Officer

By Danica Tormohlen, Host of Hybrid Hour


Hugh Forrest, SXSW Chief Programming Officer

Back story:

Hugh has worked on SXSW for 32 years. In March, the SXSW Conference hosted conversations with diverse visionaries across multiple industries with 230+ sessions sourced from the SX community. Keynote conversations featured bestselling author and political leader Stacey Abrams; U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; acclaimed author and Together Apart podcast host Priya Parker; bestselling author Charles Yu; and legendary musician Willie Nelson.

One review:

“SXSW 2021 was a complete success which is down to the great efforts of the event organizers, the willingness of the attendees to interact and enjoy all it had to offer, and the speakers, artists, and hosts providing the energy, insights, and performances to keep us all entertained. The integration of technology into live experiences is where all large events should be looking to going forwards and SXSW has just set the standard,” according to Vinyl Chapters.

Free for all.

View many of the 2021 keynotes and sessions on demand for free on SXSW’s YouTube channel.

First time’s a charm.

“The event was much more successful than we anticipated. Part of that was having fairly lowish expectations is we've never done a virtual event before. We've certainly live streamed before, and we have 30+ years of expertise in producing in-person events. So the first big challenge for us was that we had never produced a virtual event before. Our speaker lineup was strong, and we were able to do a lot of things in the virtual world that resonated well with our community.”

Eliminating pain points.

The SWSX conference attracted 70,000 attendees in person in 2019 and about 70,000 attendees online in 2021. “That problem of too many people for a given room goes away. That was always one of our biggest pain points when we had a really popular speaker, and there were more people than seats available. You eliminate that pain point online, so it was much more enjoyable for our attendees.”

Prerecorded vs. live sessions.

“This is something that evolved, and we debated about a lot in the months leading up to South by Southwest. I had watched a lot of other events. Mainly from a bandwidth perspective, we decided that prerecording the sessions was the right way to go. It would minimize the amount of technical problems we would experience, and for the most part, that worked pretty well. In retrospect, a strong proponent of doing your content prerecorded.”

Interaction with speakers.

Pro tip: “In many cases, the prerecorded sessions would be augmented by the speakers interacting with the audience in the chat function. That is a really powerful experience when you're watching Priya Parker and her husband talk, and they're interacting with the audience in the chat while they're talking.”

Sponsor exposure.

“For every conference session, showcase or film screening, we essentially built in a five-minute bumper before that given event. We would include a short message from one of the sponsors plus logo visibility from all the sponsors. It was a cue-in that people became familiar with and gave these sponsors some good visibility to our community.” Experiential marketing activations did not translate to virtual, he said.

Curated content by channel.

“What we found with channel content — which was something that surprised us a little — was that people liked having a curated experience where you just parked yourself in channel two all day and stayed there. But you easily go to channel one or channel three with one click. That really worked well for 2021.”

Less is more.

How does that impact future programming decisions? “That's something we are we're talking about and thinking about a lot for 2022. Do we need to pull back on what we're offering people in a real world? Are all those choices just too overwhelming and too confusing for our audience?” SWSX offered 2,000 panels in 2019 vs. 230 sessions in 2021.

Networking online.

“I think generally that networking is not quite as strong in a virtual world as it is a real-world event. That said, there were some strong exceptions with our meetups on Zoom or Clubhouse, one-on-one mentor sessions and with our virtual trade show. Those were some ways that people connected. We all know that conferences are about information, but they're also making new connections that can lead to new opportunities down the road. The more we can provide those, the more value our community got out of the events.”

Don’t get hung up on the tech.

“There are some great event technologies out there, but all of them have some problems. We're not perfect on this stuff yet, but don't get too hung up on the technology. Make your event as compelling as possible where people can connect, and I think you'll have success that way.”

Looking ahead:

“We will embrace a more aggressive streaming strategy than we had before, which will allow more people to experience those keynotes and those bigger names who fill up rooms. We've done streaming in the past but not at the level that we will probably do in the future. Audience expectations have changed greatly as a result of how events have pivoted to digital.”

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Danica Tormohlen is an Award-Winning Journalist, Content Strategist and Omnichannel Media Pro. For trade show industry news and analysis, follow her on Twitter @DanicaTormohlen.