Inside PR 3.36: Inside SXSWi – an interview with Hugh Forrest


This is the second of the two shows, Gini, Joe and I recorded at PRSA Counselors Academy Conference in Austin – our annual must-attend agency leader event.

We’ve just watched Hugh Forrest, director of South by Southwest Interactive Festival – or as he likes to call himself, the community manager – present a keynote on SXSWi and how it’s grown to become a major social media and tech event.

Hugh was there from the start as the first employee of SXSW. He was hired by the organizers in the mid-90s when they heard you could migrate a database to a computer and asked him if that was possible. When he said yes, they asked if it could be housed on his computer – he had an early Mac – and a career was born.

The lesson? You need to have the right technology at the right time.

In an interview after his talk, Hugh tells us about how the acronym P.E.A.C.E. describes their approach to the growth of SXSWi:

Patience over profits. It took SXSWi five to 10 years to incubate and grow to where it is today.

Early buzz is good buzz. SXSWi is involved in a 10 or 11 month planning process that starts in July and they try to get people talking about the next year’s festival not long after the current one is done.

Acknowledge your mistakes. If there are issues (and there usually are), be honest and explain to the community that you understand there were problems and you’ll do what you can to do a better job next time. Whenever you’re innovating, he says, expect to make mistakes.

Customer service leads to customer advocates. WOM endorsement and publicity has always been important to SXSWi. They try to create customer ambassadors by communicating often, listening to criticism and establishing a two-way conversation with the goal of turning ‘haters’ or people who’ve had a bad experience into advocates. And that’s what they’ve done.

Encourage massive creativity. SXSWi is not a technology event, it’s all about creativity.

He mentions they’re starting a festival offshoot called SXSW V2V, August 11 to 14, in Las Vegas focused on startups and entrepreneurs. It’s going to be a smaller and more intimate event than Austin and they’re excited about the possibilities of extending the brand.

Gini, Joe and I discuss Hugh’s points and our take on community building, something Gini spoke about in her Social Capital keynote. Have a listen and let us know what you think.

Have you ever been to SXSW? What do you think about the event? Are you planning to attend in 2014? We’d love to hear your thoughts.


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