SXSW Banner
I hesitate to publish this but, to be perfectly frank, I was woefully underwhelmed by SXSW this year. I had a similar experience last year, but thought it was more my own fault – this year, I feel fairly confident in saying that some of the main challenges of SXSW are South By’s own fault and I’ve heard similar opinions from 4 other attendees.


My biggest issue with the overall conference is the flow and layout that covers a wide swath of downtown Austin. I found myself spending 80% of my time walking to get to an experience, activation, or session – 20% of my time was experience-based. I appreciate that SXSW is helping me meet my ’Steps’ goal on my Apple Watch, but for the amount of money I spent and even more valuable, the amount of time spent, I was quite frustrated. I had the Platinum Pass and I do not believe it was worth the $1,400 I spent. When I would finally arrive to a session I was interested in, more often than not it was full. I spent a good bit of time preparing ahead of time. I created a customized Google Map just for the conference that dotted downtown Austin with venues & locations and yet I still felt like I was zigzagging around and yet I never got anywhere worthwhile. I’m fortunate enough to live here so I know my way around downtown; I can’t imagine what it’s like for a first timer who isn’t familiar with the city.

The Dolby Activation at SXSW 2023.

The Dolby Activation at South By Southwest.

As an events and activation planner, it’s so hard to attend something like this and not have an opinion. As a whole, even the majority of the activations felt subpar. I didn’t entirely understand their purpose for being at SXSW other than just to say they are there. Most of them struck me as a waste of marketing dollars. I wanted them to be so much more.

If I have a client that is interested in activating at SXSW, I would want to squeeze every drop of value out of being there and I certainly wouldn’t want to offer a negative experience. If a brand wants you to come visit their activation, it has to offer something in return. Don’t make people register for your event; then send them emails and survey questions that they have to complete ahead of time, then make them stand in a long line, and offer them a drink and some plain almonds when they finally *do* make it in. That’s not a positive experience.

I think the Dolby Activation was the standout – that one delivered on a terrific immersive experience that was really informative and I walked out learning a few new things about Dolby’s current offerings.

Brand Innovators at SXSW

Brand Innovators at Lamberts BBQ

The best activation for the money is Brand Innovators which has a smaller multi-day conference in conjunction with SXSW at Lambert’s. Brand Innovators is tailored to brands & marketers alone; they don’t allow 3rd party services because they want their guests to be comfortable knowing they’re not going to experience umpteen sales efforts. Candidly, I suggest that some of the brands that are activating at SX consider a sponsorship package with Brand Innovators. It won’t make sense for every brand, but I bet it’s less expensive for a Brand Innovators sponsorship and if your brand is a service that targets marketers, this gives you direct access to many decision makers within those brands. (Note: this is not a paid endorsement – this is based solely on my opinion.)

I’m sure there are others who will strongly disagree with me but, unless you are a true SXSW aficionado OR you’re a VIP that gets access to everything without paying or making much effort, the SX experience is overwhelming and daunting.