The typical virtual attendee of 2020 was confined to a home office. But in 2021, remote comes in a variety of flavors. It’s an insight the SXSW Online team embraced in its monumental task of transforming a 10-day, multi-venue, three-part, in-person festival into an enriching, comfortable and accommodating virtual experience for wherever the attendee may be. Think: Home with a few obligations to juggle during the day; traveling, but socially distanced from large groups or events; or dropping into the office during the week.
This year’s festival features more than 400 sessions, panels, presentations and partner programming. It offers more than 200 mentors, resulting in 2,000 opportunities for mentorship. On the music side, it is showcasing 275 artists with 70 music showcases, many of them international. And on the film side, it offers more than 150 features and shorts, including more than 50 world premieres and dozens of special events. Woven throughout are cutting-edge interactive features including explorable virtual versions of Austin locations, and extended reality programming during live panels, special events and the festival’s Virtual Cinema.
For Scott Wilcox, chief innovation officer and partner at SXSW, developing the program was an exercise in leaning on muscle memory to execute what has worked well in the past for the 35-year-old festival while embracing the “why and the how” to evolve it. Ahead of the festival, March 16-20, we connected with Wilcox for an inside look at how the team approached content and networking with the roving attendee in mind.
EM: Unlike the virtual events of 2020, it seems attendee dynamics now are so varied that the ‘desktop approach’ is no longer relevant. Is that how your team approached the program?
SW: That’s absolutely the intention. As we were designing this year’s event, we all attended many virtual events collectively, and one of the key things we noted is being able to shake up the environment and have multiple ways into the content for a varied experience. We’ve worked hard to create a number of points of access where you can experience some of the VR worlds with your headset, or you can engage in what we think of as ‘premium couching’ in your living room and kick back and watch world premiere films or hallmark events, or maybe you’re on the go but need to connect with somebody at the event, so you’ve got your mobile platform. We felt we could create this simultaneous experience that everybody knows and loves about events while offering the flexibility for people to move around and make it work for them.
EM: We’ve been talking all year about the ability to collect more data, potentially more intelligent data, in the virtual realm. What’s driving your measurement strategy?
SW: First and foremost our focus is using it to understand whether things are being discovered or not to give our audience a better experience. One of the ways I think about data holistically is, one, we’re trying to create this experience for all these creatives so they can accomplish their goals. What does the data tell us about how successful we’re being in that in real time? And then, we’ll also look at the data that may give us the ability to tailor experiences for our attendees using personalization and our capabilities to help people discover them. Our focus is very much around listening and discovery.
EM: Given the festival’s history, magnitude and influence, what has helped your team dig into the planning process in the virtual space?
SW: We first took inspiration from our conference themes, which really set the tone. And then we thought about inclusiveness and access. We went broad in terms of the number of platforms that you can access on the connected TV side alone—there are apps for Apple TV, Roku, FireTV, Android TV and Samsung—and then you’ve got a mobile web app and mixed reality platforms. We thought about what a great opportunity we have to make SXSW more accessible than ever particularly to an international audience, because you don’t have travel. We’ve been in international events of some scope for a number of years now and we’ve seen the uptick in our engagement internationally because there’s new opportunity for people.
EM: Let’s talk balancing content and networking. You have an enriching content program, but just as many opportunities for connection, right?
SW: The networking element is what happens organically in physical events, and we’re having to work harder to create those opportunities, which we think are still incredibly important. So our focus on mentors, the dozens of workshops and meetups in addition to one-on-one networking discussion channels, exhibitor demos, and sales meetings—we put a lot of focus on allowing engagement because, yes, the content is super important but at the same time it’s people wanting to engage around that content.
(SXSW 2021 technology partners: Swapcard, event platform for web and mobile; Brightcove, streaming VOD and TV apps; SimpleDCP, pre-production, digital video, quality control).
Image credit: SXSW/Blake Kammerdiener, XR Programmer