With South by Southwest’s IRL Future in Limbo, Is It Worth It for Brands to Show Up?

Key Insights

The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on events in 2020, and the marketing industry hasn’t been immune. For the first time in decades, major industry events like Cannes Lions and South by Southwest didn’t go on in person. In the case of SXSW, timing—it was set to occur just as stay-at-home orders went into place around the country—meant the festival wasn’t able to do much virtual programming.

As the last few months of the year begin without an end to the crisis in sight, it’s brought a new realization: The pandemic will likely continue to impact events into 2021.

SXSW acknowledged as much this week, announcing plans for the online portion of its 2021 festival. Details around any in-person events—and whether they’re happening at all—are still being ironed out with the city of Austin, Texas.

While it remains unclear how SXSW’s in-person programming will shake out, it seems brands that want to have a presence there are planning to, regardless.

“I get the sense that brands are actively planning for their 2021 programming, whether that’s at SXSW or others,” said Alex Beer, chief client officer at GMR, an experiential marketing agency that’s created SXSW activations for Warner Bros. and Esurance in the past.

Beer said any company “looking to interact with the creative community and also put their brand in front of some thought leaders” will be keeping the event top of mind.

“The difference for 2021 versus 2020 is SXSW was really the first industry event that canceled, so brands and attendees had to react,” he said. “Now that we’re six-plus months ahead, we can plan for a virtual presence. It’s really opened up a lot more opportunities for our clients to have the time to plan as opposed to just react.”

Chiara Adin, co-founder and CCO of Austin-based experiential agency N/A Collective, which has produced Twitter’s SXSW experiences, said if the 2021 conference goes fully digital, brands need a clear purpose in reaching consumers if they choose to spend money on a digital activation.

“It’s going to depend on whether brands have a message, an announcement or an innovation to share where the timing lines up with SXSW,” Adin said. “The reason why many brands activate at SXSW is because it’s tied to something new they have going on.”

Adin noted a key deciding factor for brands and marketers next year could be whether they’re an official conference partner. While official partners promoted their Austin-based activations on SXSW’s official schedule before the pandemic, unofficial activations often generated just as much buzz simply by having a downtown presence and relying on social and outdoor marketing, and word-of-mouth. 

“Brands that are part of the official SXSW will have to figure out a unique way to integrate their message or create an experience, whether it’s virtual or hybrid,” Adin said. “Those brands and marketers that relied on going rogue probably aren’t going to do anything [SXSW-specific] next year if it’s fully digital.”

Many brands are still figuring out what their SXSW 2021 will look like. Facebook, Twitter and Bumble declined to comment for this story. Pinterest, which has activated at SXSW in years past, will not be participating live in 2021, said Judy Lee, Pinterest’s global head of integrated marketing, but is “excited to continue to explore ways to be involved.”

[email protected] Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.