Behind the Scenes: SXSW advisory board

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It’s six months and counting until SXSW 2015 commences, but the conference is top of mind for many people in the advertising and marketing industries. I’m sure you’ve seen people on Twitter begging asking for votes for their panel proposals. Or perhaps you know colleagues that were glued to their computers last month when SXSW registration opened just so they could get a chance to score one of the precious hotel rooms in downtown Austin.

As of late I have been on my own mini-SXSW bender. I’m a member of the SXSW Advisory Board and this is the time of the year when I’m on the clock. The last couple of weeks have found me binge reading and giving my two cents on two hundred different marketing related proposals that are trying to make the cut for the interactive portion of the conference. With this being my fourth year on the board, I thought that I could share my view on the selection process for the conference and what I think about when giving feedback.

First, here’s some background if you aren’t familiar with how proposals are chosen for SXSW. The advisory board is one of three components of the panel selection process. The other two factors involved are public votes (otherwise known as “the panel picker”) and the input of the SXSW staff. You can read more about this here and here.

The 200 proposals that I review are taken from the same pool of proposals that are available to be voted on by the public – you can peruse any and all of them over on the SXSW panel picker website. This year I was assigned to the branding and marketing category. My task is to evaluate each proposal based on how relevant it is, on the quality of the speakers and on the creativity of the proposal. Because SXSW opens its doors for submissions to anyone, the quality you will find definitely varies. Some are thoughtfully written while others seem like first graders crafted them. (First graders who often times have an undying love of nonsensical marketing buzzwords.)

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When evaluating the proposals, there are a few key things that I try to keep in mind in addition to the above mentioned judging criteria.

1) Be ruthless: SXSW receives thousands of submissions for their panels yet only 10-15% of those will actually see the light of day. When you’re submitting a presentation proposal you have to keep this in mind. If you have typos in your proposal, you are out. If you are proposing a panel but don’t have all of your panelists identified, then it’s a no-go. If you don’t provide background or supporting materials, then it seems like you’re not taking it seriously.

2) Weed out the spotlight seekers: You’ll be surprised at the number of people that only want to be a speaker at SXSW so they can claim that they’ve done it and hear themselves on stage. The proposals that would actually provide value to the audience get more credit in my book as opposed to the ones that were submitted by people who only want the accolade of saying they spoke at SXSW.

3) Diamonds in the rough are sought out: the proposals that show the most promise often times may not be the most polished but they took a different angle on a familiar topic or brought forward a new point-of-view with rationale and proof to back it up.

If you’re thinking about dropping your hat in the ring next year for SXSW, then I’ll offer up these suggestions. Be absolutely ruthless in your own regard. Read through proposals that have been submitted for this year to get your own idea on what should make the cut and what shouldn’t.

Just as you do in marketing, focus on finding a unique angle for your proposal. I can’t tell you how many proposals that I read this year on the subject of social media (still!) or “marketing to millennials” that almost were carbon copies of one another. Way. Too. Many.

Lastly, put yourselves in the shoes of the reviewers. I read 200 proposals and that became a grind after a while. I can’t even imagine how many proposals the full time staff at SXSW has to go through. The little things matter. Spelling counts. Correct URLs count. Having all of the proposed panelists identified count. (Don’t go claiming a “star studded lineup of panelists” without actually identifying a single one of them.)

You should be buttoned up on all fronts when you submit something for an event that has as much impact as SXSW does. That’s the standard that I’m holding. Do the same for yourself.

(Photos courtesy of Chris Piascik and Spinnerin via Creative Commons License.)

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