Contrasting Pubcon and SXSW
The dust has settled after my back to back Web conferences in Austin: WebmasterWorld’s Pubcon South, and South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, and I thought I’d take a minute to compare the two. I’ll start by saying that any such comparison is beyond apples & oranges… the two conferences are quite different in scale, objective, and many other ways. Given that, here are a few areas of contrast:
Size. The most obvious difference is size – Pubcon South is a regional conference with half its attendees from Texas; the numbers looked to be in the mid-hundreds. SXSW draws attendees from all over the world and was expected to approach 10K. That made Pubcon fairly intimate while SXSW was a bit more impersonal. As one might expect, SXSW attendees were a lot more diverse in many ways.
Registration. Pubcon registration in Austin was smooth sailing. SXSW was a lengthy ordeal involving long lines and a couple of intermediate wait periods – first one had to pay, then stand and wait for a photo, then stand around again to wait for the badge. Clearly, registering thousands of people is a bigger task than signing in hundreds, but I’ve been to shows like CES and Comdex that dwarfed SXSW in size but got people through more quickly. I missed a panel I had hoped to attend because of the hour-plus delay in registration.
Venue. Pubcon’s venue was perhaps the most intimate setting in years – a small, suburban conference center with a large ballroom and two smaller conference rooms that allowed three session tracks. It seemed to work out well – most sessions were well attended, which wasn’t always the case in the six-track Las Vegas Pubcon. A bonus of the location was outstanding food, at least for a webmaster conference. One lunch featured bar-b-que, an Austin specialty. Attendees used to the dry, cold sandwiches served up by the Las Vegas Convention Center raved about the food.
SXSW is held in the Austin Convention Center with some sessions taking place in the neighboring Hilton. For a city of Austin’s size, the convention center struck me as unusually large, and most walking is around the lengthy perimeter of the building. The scale felt more like McCormick Place than a mid-size city convention center. I’m sure McCormick has more exhibit floor area, but navigating the Austin CC seemed to involve as much walking as some of the bigger venues.
Exhibits. SXSW had a good sized exhibit hall for film and interactive, and the people showing their wares ranged from CCNY Journalism to Google. This Pubcon had a few small displays from local vendors, but did not attempt to create the exhibit space offered in Las Vegas.
Presentations. This was the most interesting area of contrast. At each conference, I was able to take in only a small percentage of the panel discussions due to multiple tracks and hallway networking, but I did see a difference. Befitting its mission of helping webmasters, entrepreneurs, and businesses of all sizes get traffic and generate revenue, Pubcon sessions had titles like, Top Ten Techniques For Writing Headlines That Rock! and Organic Link Building Campaigns. SXSW, on the other hand, delved into topics like Minority Report is Real and Social Media Nonprofit ROI Poetry Slam.
All of the Pubcon sessions I attended had panelists who were well prepared and wanted to give their audience some serious takeaways. Just about every Pubcon presenter was a hands-on expert in the topic being discussed.
SXSW panels, in contrast, varied tremendously and ranged from brilliant to boring. The worst were panel discussions where there seemed to be little or no preparation by the panelists. No slides, no conscious thought to what the audience needed to know, just people chatting at a table in front of a huge room. Tiny talking heads are not engaging or informative. And it wasn’t just me – several of those sessions started out with packed rooms, and saw massive attrition during the course of the discussion. Advice to panel moderators – be sure each panelist has a plan, a presentation, and takeaways for the audience, and that each panelist’s content complements that of the other panelists rather than overlaps. (At Pubcon, Lawrence Coburn of Rateitall.com moderated the Consumer-Created Content panel in which I spoke, and he communicated with me and the other panelists multiple times in the leadup to the event.)
One could argue that SXSW is less about “takeaways” and more about stimulating thought and discussion, but losing half the audience in the room accomplishes neither objective.
Despite some dud panels, though, SXSW had some that were indeed great examples of speakers who not only knew their topic but came prepared to communicate. In Politics, Technology, and Pop Culture Change v2 Lawrence Lessig showed that he is a Jedi master of Powerpoint, wielding his slides with precision as deadly as Obiwan’s light saber.
For me, the highlight of SXSW was Presenting Straight to the Brain featuring Cliff Atkinson, moderator (Beyond Bullet Points), Craig Ball (craigball.com), Jared Goralnick (AwayFind / SET Consulting), and Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users). The panelists all demonstrated their preso expertise with their own creative slides. Craig Ball showed how simple PowerPoint animation can bring concepts to life for an audience.
In short, the Pubcon panels were very audience-friendly and were loaded with useful info. SXSW packed more star power into their panels, but the quality varied. The best were very, very good.
Parties. SXSW is definitely one of the better party conferences. Generally, there were multiple “official” parties per evening, with plenty of private events taking place as well. The party action was scattered around downtown Austin. Only complaint – at events like SXSW, people want to mingle, talk, and network, but many of the venues seem to feature music so loud that one has to yell to be heard, and to repeat almost everything more than once. My vocal chords were shot after the first night at SXSW.
Pubcon South was a pretty weak party scene (no big blowouts like a night at Rain in LV!), but its final networking event at Logan’s in downtown Austin (the classic “pub con”) was perfect. Great local brews on tap, heavy hors d’oeuvres for those who came on an empty stomach, a venue that was cozy but easily held the crowd, and not so noisy as to hinder conversation. I don’t recall a reception/networking event at any other conference that worked as well as this one.
Twitter. One similarity between Pubcon and SXSW was the massive adoption of Twitter. It was very common to see many, many laptops open to Tweetdeck during panel sessions and keynotes. The hashtags #pubcon and #sxsw were usually in the top 10 trends while sessions were ongoing. In fact, there was so much live-tweeting that at SXSW most panels announced a separate hashtag just for that panel so that the participants in the room could interact more easily. It was common to see a live Twitter feed on the screen at both events. Some may question whether Twitter has hit the tipping point for the population as a whole, but clearly it had hit critical mass among the digital media types at these events.
Summary. I hope that the back to back scheduling of these events can be accomplished again next year. Both Pubcon and SXSW offer unique content and opportunities, and the ability to blend the two without additional travel is great.