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8 great exhibitors at SXSW and what we learnt from them

Oliver Emberton

Mar 20

10 min read

This was our first year exhibiting at SXSW, and we took some time out to see how everyone else was doing. Here are the exhibitors who most impressed us, and what we learnt from them.


Glomper is a social network for sharing events. We were hugely impressed with their marketing, which we think outshone companies spending far more.

The two biggest things they did right: they got outside of their stands, and their brand was ultra-clear and consistent.

Most companies, including ourselves, thought in terms of ‘what do we do with our stand’. Glomper realized that this was just a tiny part of what a passer-by would experience, and did their best to reach you multiple times throughout a day. This made you far more likely to care when you did see their stand, or just to remember them afterwards.

For one, they had giant Glomper mascots roaming the area. People would stop to pose for photos (this is our own Dave, hard at work as you can see):

It was an approach that worked, precisely because their mascot was a core part of the brand and because it was so consistently employed elsewhere.

A low cost trick we wish we’d known was putting up flyers and stickers. There are no restrictions on these, so for the cost of some color prints you can get your brand in front of thousands of queuing and eating punters:

Again, this mostly worked to aid recognition / recall of their brand, and it only worked because their brand was so simple and consistent (compare with the messy red posters below it). They even sponsored the local rickshaws/pedicabs.

Finally: they created a custom area on their website for SXSW, made it relevant to what they did (it was an event, after all) and promoted it heavily.

We don’t envy their task of getting people to use a new social network – that’s phenomenally hard, and perhaps beyond what SXSW can even achieve by itself. But we think they did a really good job of their marketing and put a lot of bigger companies to shame.


Filmaster is a film review and recommendation service that did a lot with a small space. A popcorn machine provided a fitting and unique gift for passers by, and the free-standing Angelina Jolie Leg proved popular at attracting photo ops. For demos there were free-standing iPads and a sit-down sofa with their app running on Google TV.

The consistency in message (from the popcorn to the t-shirts worn to the free bottle openers) made it easy to see just enough of what Filmaster did to provoke curiosity with passers by. A sense of humour and original ideas go a long way – we suspect they didn’t have to spend a lot to achieve this either.


Cricket had perhaps the single most impressive and unique giveaway of the whole exhibition – custom pieces of art made from old LPs. You could make your own or ask their staff to make one for you:

These were so impressive that we saw people stop to ask others where they came from, to take photos of them, and to ask for directions to their stand. They pull off the rare feat of being strongly branded (their logo is smack in the middle) and yet hugely appealing:


DasKeyboard sell high quality mechanical keyboards. Their stand had a typing game where you compete to be the fastest typist each day, to win one of their own keyboards.

This was brilliant for several reasons: firstly, they’re making a game out of using their own products. I probably wouldn’t have stopped to just use a keyboard, but to compete in a typing contest – well – now I’m interested. Secondly the people who would be most attracted to this are their perfect customers. Thirdly they created a reason to return and try again.


TuneUp is a service for cleaning up your iTunes music library. They had an authentic and eye-catching stand, thanks to one VW bus:

In addition to making you stop and stare, this bus is a mascot for their brand. I learned how they have another one in their offices, which they use for private meetings. There’s even a fireplace with party lights inside!

It’s a rare pleasure to find a brand that can make you smile like this!


Dell managed a surprisingly charming stand for a large corporate (they actually had two – this is the one outside of the exhibition hall):

Firstly it was adorned with scrappy handwritten messages, and most importantly it offered something impossibly cool: they filmed people for 4 seconds at 1,000 fps and slowed that down into a minute of video footage. Here’s our own attempt at a horror movie:

(See more videos like this)

As a brand building exercise it was quite something – we also liked the way they made you sign up for the shoot using a Dell laptop; they were pretty nice to use, but they didn’t need to shout that at you.


Freelancer really got into their gamification at SXSW. You could sign up to win their 80” TV (pictured) by competing for points from various challenges.

For example, these ‘hot spots’ were hidden throughout SXSW. Find one and tweet a photo to gain points:

Other challenges ranged from answering questions to checking in on Foursquare at their stand.

We don’t know how many people really got into this – we wanted to try, but there wasn’t enough time for us – but there were over 6,200 people playing in total. The concept certainly made their stand – ahem – stand out. It didn’t hurt that their layout was open and inviting too.

Getty & iStockPhoto

The stand for the photo giants was simple but we think played to their obvious strengths: great images and video. With a large stand they could afford the luxury of open space; like most of the best, their layout encouraged people to walk up to an iMac and try their service out.

For promotions they gave away gorgeous posters and t-shirts featuring photos from their library; there was also a 10% discount code so visitors had something to hold onto and remind them to buy on their return. Mostly though, we think this stand was just intended to gently remind you they exist.


The official stand for the city of SXSW, Austin employed a beautiful and unique aesthetic that mirrored their own quirkiness.

Comfortable sofas didn’t hurt either. We found time and time again that open plan stands attracted far higher footfall and encouraged people to interact once they’d been ‘softened up’ by walking into your space.

Sliderocket / Socialcast

Simple but highly functional – this stand may not be the most exciting, but it got all the fundamentals right.

There’s a direct proposition for each of their products (“Get sh*t done”) that is actually clearer than their product name. This actually makes much more sense for relatively unknown brands – emphasize what you do first, then your own name (we made this mistake).

It’s combined with a screenshot that pretty much tells you what each product does, and that it’s web software – without needing to state either.

Finally their stand is open and encourages people to walk up and try the products without any pressure – from here it’s easy for someone to walk up to them and help talk them through it.

Dishonorable mention: Norton

We felt Norton managed to spend a lot of money without accomplishing much.

Right now they’re branded with the forthcoming Avengers movie, and we’re guessing that having Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Downey Jr. decorate your custom fitted truck wasn’t cheap. Whilst the result was certainly eye-catching, at an event like SXSW it seemed a little out of touch for a tech-savvy audience. I may be wrong.

To enter their truck you had to tag yourself in Foursquare at their location. For me, wi-fi was down all day, so they just ushered me in anyway. Once inside you are given a swipe card and asked to choose an identity. I can’t recall all the options, but as I chose “Java Droid” you can only imagine what the others were like:

From here you move from screen to screen, swiping your card, attempting a series of interactive challenges. The biggest problem here was despite the incredible show of technology on display, the games were unplayable crap. The best was a “remember the cards and pair them” affair, but the more action-orientated ones suffered from unresponsive touch screens and bugs; for the final game I was told I had won, and then that I had failed 2 seconds later. It somewhat undermined the concept.

Finally your photo is taken twice and you can go online to download or share it with your swipe card. It’s a cute idea, but they branded it pretty heavily if they want people to really share these (here’s mine, don’t laugh):

Compare with the far more genuine photos taken on other stands that didn’t require visitors go through a contrived series of games first, like this:

If Norton had only given people appropriate props to pose with (masks? capes? shields?) and let anyone walk straight in, I suspect they’d have been swamped with people who couldn’t share their images enough. Likewise if their games received a fraction of the attention of their sponsorship deals, we might have engaged more. As it is, I left the stand with a profound sense of wasted time.

So what did we learn?

  • Open stands are best. Don’t wall off more than you need to. People want to see you from afar and walk in without being pressured, and they really don’t want to queue.
  • End & corner stands are best. You simply reach more people.
  • Put a clear message first, not your logo. Unless you’re a household name, people want to know what you do first, not what you’re called.
  • Keep your branding ultra-simple and distinctive. A strong color scheme and unique element helps – e.g. the TuneUp bus, or the Glomper mascot.
  • Look at your product afresh. We quickly realized that people didn’t automatically realize we even made a software product, or that it ran on the web. Don’t assume any such thing: make it clear. Do so without text – consider a self-explanatory screenshot.
  • Get outside of your stand. Put up posters (they’re almost free, bar the time). Flyer desks. Sponsor bars, taxis and pedicabs. Consider walking around stands in a costume if that’s appropriate. Do whatever you can to repeat your message throughout the show.
  • Let people use your products themselves. At certain times, you won’t have enough staff to talk to all your visitors anyway, and this helps stem your losses. But regardless, a lot of people like to explore what you do without having a sales pitch in their face. Let them by having tablets or computers which they can use freely.
  • Gamify. Challenges give people a reason to re-visit, and to brag (and therefore share) about you. Make these games about your product – make them use your product and have fun doing so.
  • Be unique. Each visitor will see hundreds of companies. You have to work hard to stand out.
  • Have clear actions for visitors. E.g. try the product, take a photo, sign up now, leave your email address. Measure their success.
  • Wear your brand. For SXSW you want to be casual (unless you’re being ironic, a suit would look ridiculous). A strongly branded t-shirt makes your staff stand out from the crowds, and helps people approach you.
  • Make handouts worth keeping and carry-friendly. We made the mistake of giving out full size brochures. They’re far too big for most people to carry. Most handouts end up in the bin before the recipient gets home.
  • Assume wi-fi is non-existent. Don’t count on visitors Foursquaring, or tweeting about you on-site, because there’s a high chance they can’t. Nevercount on your product demo running over wi-fi.
  • Build a SXSW webpage. Or special offer, or product feature – whatever is appropriate. Tie to the SXSW experience to what you do for maximum relevance (like Glomper’s SXSW page).
  • Get pre-event and post-event coverage. We don’t know how Highlight did it exactly, but everyone was talking about a company without a physical stand. If you can pull of this feat, people will queue to meet you.
  • Assume your audience has the memory of a goldfish and the attention span of a gnat. We spoke to hundreds of companies, and were genuinely impressed by many. But we’re human, and we’ll fail to follow up with many. We’ll lose their cards and flyers, we’ll ignore their emails. We might even lie and say “oh yeah, we’ll totally check this out” just to escape your sales pitch. You need to be as prepared for all of this as possible.

It’s a tough world out there, and out of the hundreds of companies at SXSW only a fraction are likely to get the press, plaudits and customers that they seek. Even great marketing doesn’t necessarily convert into business success.

With thanks to all the lovely people at SXSW who let us photograph them, and apologies to all those other stands which we so very nearly included but couldn’t. We hope to see you all next year.