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SXSW Takes Serious Tone Due to Economic Concerns

Mar 22, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The year 2009 has brought out the bear in all of us, even the normally bullish and upbeat crowd at the annual South by Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.
The once playful and partying attendees were mostly business at this year’s event, which expected to see about a 20% bump in attendance over last year’s 9,000 figure. They came to Austin to work and they left no stone unturned in seeking partnerships, deals, new clients and customers.
“The economy strips away all the extraneous,” said George Ruiz, an agent at ICM who attended the event, where many of his clients spoke on panels. “People are going out of their way to meet people and network. There is more of a practical vibe.”
That vibe was apparent in a session at which his client, Web creator Felicia Day, spoke about producing on a small budget. Web producers in the audience pumped her for specific advice on how to land sponsorships and grow audiences, as she has with her Internet show “The Guild,” which has an advertising deal with Microsoft.
Programming producers are especially eager to prove their value to advertisers, who hold the keys to the vault in a year when money is tight. Web star Alex Albrecht hosted his online shows “Diggnation” and “Totally Rad Show” live from SXSW, in part so new advertisers could see the fan reaction firsthand.
The “Diggnation” live event drew 1,800 attendees, giving new sponsor Adidas the chance to see what it’s buying—which is the show’s rabid fan base, Mr. Albrecht said. “The live shows are a great way to bring new sponsors in,” he added.
Tough times also bring opportunity. Online video site Hulu sells spots on its site and is running a primetime ad campaign for the site itself. The site rolled out the third spot in its national campaign last week during primetime on Fox and NBC, its corporate parents.
“Online video has a real opportunity to redefine what sight, sound and motion can do in terms of delivering a targeted message to users,” said Eric Feng, senior VP and chief technical officer for Hulu, during an interview at the festival.
Advertisers are willing to spend on digital marketing, even in a downturn, because the medium is more measurable and more evergreen than perishable TV spots, said Christine Beardsell, VP and creative director at the Third Act, the branded-content division of media agency Digitas.
“We are constantly looking for new partnerships,” she said. “We are looking for technology partnerships and content creators to reach the audience we want to reach.”
Internet producers combed the show floor and the festival’s busy Blogger Lounge to find new sponsors. Tim Street, CEO of ApeDigital, who is best known for his work as the producer of Web how-to series “French Maid TV,” trekked to Austin to land a new slate of advertisers.
“I met both start-ups and established brands that are already working in social media and are interested in Web video,” he said. “I met these people in the Blogger Lounge and was introduced by other bloggers. I would have never gotten to them had I tried cold-calling them.”
Popular Web show “DadLabs,” which reached break-even earlier this year, sent two employees to SXSW to meet with brand managers at automotive companies, apparel companies and automotive brands, said Brad Powell, chief operating officer for DadLabs.
“People are coming here to do business with brands and talk to brands,” said Barrett Garese, a talent agent at United Talent Agency. “Branded entertainment is one of the few areas where I see growth this year.”
Some media producers attended not for their own shows, but to produce material for media companies and technology firms. Internet host Zadi Diaz conducted live streamed interviews with other Web stars for PBS’ Web site as part of the network’s efforts to broaden its reach into the early-adopter crowd.
Susan Bratton, CEO of podcast network Personal Life Media, made the trip to conduct a series of interviews with Web 2.0 thought leaders on behalf of social media company Powered. The company is packaging those interviews into community sites it’s building for brands such as Sony, Hewlett-Packard and Atkins, she said.

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