How NOT To Approach Event Networking: Lessons From SXSW
For those who are unfamiliar with it, SXSW is one of the largest tech, music, and film gatherings in the world – and it continues to grow in size, length, and influence every year (after all, everything is bigger in Texas). So we flew south ready to engage potential customers, connect with business partners, attract attention from industry influencers, and learn from the leaders in innovation. We stuffed our luggage with branded t-shirts and printed several hundred business cards to hand out to new prospects. But between all the BBQ, beer, tech bashes, and live indie music, we spent the majority of the past four days genuinely mingling and not hard pitching. We didn’t hand out one t-shirt. I came back with 192 of the 200 business cards I left with. And we still had some of the most important conversations we’ll have in 2013.
The conversations we had at SXSW were meaningful not because we collected a large bucket of qualified leads, but because we engaged with individuals about topics in which we both have a stake. These types of conversations don’t happen in sequestered meeting rooms, and they don’t come from brand reps dishing promo products, nor in front of booths in the expo hall; they happen in hallways. They happen in line for the Salesforce Cloud Lounge. They happen over late night pizza slices with strangers that turn out to be Foursquare’s founding team. It’s the mimosa you share with a Silicon Valley Bank executive that happens to sit next to you at brunch that makes a difference. Followups aren’t an awkward fumbling of business cards and emails. They happen over Twitter and through tagging group pictures together. The way that prospects interact with brands has undergone a 180 degree shift, and nowhere is it more apparent than amidst the most innovative brands and people in interactive technology.
Passing out t-shirts at SXSW felt like bribing prospects for conversations. None of our actual prospects wanted t-shirts; they wanted meaningful, human conversations. Geoff Lewis, investor at Founders Fund, tags the wrongdoers as having “Networking Syndrome.” These people spend more time actively networking than actually experiencing the essence of the event: having fun! Technology, music, new people – all in an incredible town – those are the experiences people go to SXSW to find. The people who went to SXSW exclusively to promote their business were outliers.
— TechCrunch (@TechCrunch) March 10, 2013
And when they found us in the expo halls, on the streets, or at parties with an approach such as, “Would you like to hear about XYZ company and see a demo?” our response was a firm, “Nope!”. Want to sign up for a marketing list? Nope! Here is a t-shirt and a frisbee. Don’t want it! I can’t knock their hustle and scrappiness; they are doing their job and trying to get involved without the $400k sponsorship budget. But too many people still assail event attendees – and people in general – with short-sighted and ineffectual tactics to build relationships.
How many of us actually want to be sold to? We don’t need more people telling us new things; we want people we trust to tell us valuable things. Trust always comes first. How do you build trust at events like SXSW? Show that you authentically care about the same things the people you want to reach care about. One of my college professors constantly repeated a quote that has always stuck with me: “People have to know YOU care before they care to know.” We’re all drowning in information about apps and solutions and problems we never knew we had. Events like SXSW are meant to create an environment to escape from the flood.
We trust people and the brands they represent. In Austin, we learned that informal conversations amongst peers hold more power than hard sales pitches from strangers. We fell into conversations naturally about the future of technology with some incredible people. We had the opportunity to tell them how we are working to change how people reach local businesses. We spent the majority of SXSW jumping between meetups and parties, and we still walked away having successfully engaged potential customers, connected with business partners, attracted attention from industry influencers, and learned from innovative geniuses.
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