BY LAURA LOREK
Reporter with Silicon Hills News
South by Southwest Interactive didn’t always get a lot of respect.
In 1998, the conference, then called SXSW Multimedia had a hard time gaining traction and took a backseat to the music and film conferences, said Hugh Forrest, executive director of SXSW Interactive. It was called SXSW Multimedia because CD-ROMS were a big deal and that technology ruled the tech industry.
Around 2004, SXSW Multimedia began to gain a bigger following, Forrest said. That was the year, Jonathan Abrams, founder of Friendster, the first online social network, gave a keynote talk, he said.
“He turned out to offend half the audience,” Forrest said.
John Battelle, CEO of NewCo, said at the early SXSW keynotes the audience was quick to voice their disapproval for speakers. Battelle interviewed Forrest Thursday afternoon at W2O’s PreCommerce Summit held at the Zach Theater.
SXSW Interactive picked up even more steam in 2007 when Twitter took off. Its founders always credit SXSW Interactive as its launching pad but Twitter, in fact, launched six months earlier, Forrest said.
This year, SXSW Interactive will have 35,000 attendees, Forrest said. The 23rd annual SXSW Interactive conference officially kicks off Friday and runs through Tuesday.
Between 2004 and 2014, SXSW Interactive had hockey stick growth. There were some growth years that were just crazy, Forrest said.
“The challenges of growth, the challenges of scale, the challenges of trying to retain the user experience that helped that growth is very significant,” Forrest said.
Battelle asked Forrest what year did the marketers show up?
There wasn’t a specific tipping point, Forrest said. They followed the success of startups spinning out of the conference, he said. Twitter hit it big in 2007 and Austin-based Gowalla and New York-based Foursquare both location based services launched in 2009, Forrest said.
“The common thread is the products, apps, services get the most buzz out of South by Southwest are the things that help people at SXSW,” Forrest said.
To get the most buzz out of SXSW, think up something that helps people digest the SXSW experience, Forrest said.
Battelle asked Forrest if he’s seen any breakout startups this year.
“Have you heard about that drone breakfast taco delivery app?” Forrest said in jest. There probably is something like that, he said.
It’s also interesting that on the eve of its one-year success at South by Southwest, Meerkat, the breakout app last year, announced it is changing direction, Forrest said.
“We were as surprised as anyone last year that Meerkat got so much buzz,” Forrest said.
It was a relatively small startup that got huge traction.
“Who knows if there will be something like that this year,” Forrest said.
SXSW Interactive continues to gain in popularity and the lines between music, film and interactive continue to blur together. In the last 15 years, geeks have become the rock stars, Forrest said. Mark Zuckerberg and his success with Facebook and getting crazy rich is so much what powers the startup mindset and ecosystem, Forrest said.
Throughout the years, SXSW Interactive has seen a lot of interesting, crazy, fun promotions including a Ferris Wheel at fourth and Congress this year, Forrest said. Those create buzz, but the things that create the most buzz are things that help people better absorb the event, he said.
In past years, Chevy provided free rides in a program called “Catch a Chevy” that got a lot of buzz with conference goers, Forrest said. This year, Mazda is SXSW’s auto sponsor, he said.
Forrest declined to name any marketing flops from previous conferences. He said SXSW seeks to provide guidance to marketers so they have a good experience.
Battelle said some of his best experiences at SXSW come from informal interactions around the conference.
SXSW is much more aggressive in trying to control unofficial parties and events around the conference for safety reasons, Forrest said.
Battelle asked Forrest how he landed President Barack Obama as a keynote speaker.
SXSW has been cultivating a relationship with the White House for years, Forrest said. In other years, the timing didn’t work out. This year, the timing did work out, he said. And the White House has been easy to work with throughout the process, he said. It wasn’t confirmed until SXSW announced it last week, Forrest said.
President Obama is scheduled to give a keynote talk on civic engagement with Evan Smith, Editor in Chief of the Texas Tribune on Friday at 2:30 p.m. at the Long Center. SXSW had a lottery drawing for its badge holders to attend the event.
SXSW is also livestreaming the event in several conference rooms at the Austin Convention Center.
SXSW is also famous for having tons of programming going on simultaneously and that’s intentional, Forrest said. Unlike the TED conference, which is carefully curated and designed to put the spotlight on one speaker at a time, SXSW offers a smorgasbord of content.
“TED is this finely curated meal and that’s wonderful, we are this all you can eat 24-hour buffet,” Forrest said.