About 40 percent of the 2,000 sessions at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin last March were chosen from ideas crowdsourced through the SXSW PanelPicker.

Every summer, the conference organizers launch the online PanelPicker platform for a one-month window for anyone to submit ideas for potential sessions in the Interactive, Film, or Music portions of SXSW. The dates this year are June 28 to July 22.

One of the fundamental goals for any event planner in a rapidly digitizing, globalized world is to better engage audience members. However, most conference organizers for even the largest events have found it difficult to set up such an online crowdsourcing system, effectively drive engagement, and deliver real results. That’s what makes South by Southwest’s platform something of a benchmark for the conference and events industry to study.

The first PanelPicker launched in 2007 solely for Interactive, before expanding to Music and Film in 2010.

Once the PanelPicker submission phase is over later this month, the SXSW community at large will then have a few weeks from August 8 to September 2 to vote on how they feel about the different session proposals. After that, the SXSW staff and SXSW advisory board will vote for their favorite ideas.

The community and staff votes are weighted 30 percent each, and advisory panel votes are weighted 40 percent to determine which of the proposed submissions will see the light of day in Austin.

Mike Shea, executive director of SXSW, told Skift that there were over 4,000 session ideas submitted through the PanelPicker last year for SXSW 2016, and he expects there to be about the same volume this summer.

“In some ways our biggest problem is a good problem to have, which is that we have too many good submissions and we really don’t have the ability to put all of them on the program,” he said. “At the same time, it’s also a challenge to keep from repeating ourselves. There are only so many different ways to talk about touring in a band, or so many ways to address making your first film.”

The Case for Crowdsourcing Content

The direct benefits of user-generated programing for conference attendees are fairly straightforward, if the organizers can pull the necessary resources and staffing together.

First, Shea said that crowdsourcing engages an organization’s target community with the brand before the live event, and it keeps them engaged in the event design process over an extended period of time.

In effect, the whole process behind searching for content via a crowdsourcing platform like the PanelPicker is actually a source for event content itself, which is heavily promoted on the SXSW website and social media channels.

Second, seeking community input serves “a very, very useful purpose in building our programming and bringing things to us that we would have never conceived,” Shea explained. “There are a lot of ideas that come through PanelPicker that would never have occurred to us in a million years.”

But there’s a third takeaway that the SXSW senior staff never anticipated when they first launched the PanelPicker a decade ago.

As soon as the community voting phase begins, the people who submitted ideas start promoting their specific sessions on social media to push people to vote for them. That generates a significant volume of online conversation that’s also sharing the SXSW brand and #SXSW hashtag.

“That has been an unexpected dividend in that it works as a promotional tool for the event itself,” Shea said.

Managing The Message

Like any conference, there’s always the concern at SXSW that speakers will be overly self-absorbed. The fear is that presenters will use the stage to market themselves and their products or services, versus delivering valuable thought leadership on a subject of public interest.

Last night in New York during a SWSW roadshow to promote the PanelPicker, Maria Alonso was one of a group of production coordinators for SXSW who spoke about what her crew does to mitigate the marketing-speak.

“We spell that out in a letter we send in the beginning that presentations cannot be too full of marketing messages, and we require everyone to send in an outline of what they’re going to talk about in January,” Alonso said. “There have been times when we’ve had to go back and work with them on their session, so yeah, it’s always an issue that we’re watching out for.”

To help address that as well, the official SXSW app provides a place for people to comment on any particular session, but Alonso said that if they can get even a five percent engagement level among attendees to comment, they’re doing pretty good.

Looking ahead, SXSW continues to broaden its scope across all sectors. A big part of the event’s success over the last decade is based on the interdisciplinary user experience bringing together industries in technology, music and film. That frisson of energy and cultural collision-making is what’s given rise to the cult-like following surrounding the show.

Part tech event, part business conference, part festival, SXSW set the precedent for the slew of new “biz-tech innovation forums” emerging on the global scene, ranging from XOXO Portland and C2 Montreal in North America to London Technology Week and Tech Open Air Berlin in Europe.

Now, according to Shea, the PanelPicker is continuing to expand that machine-meets-media-meets-marketing mashup by attracting more and more ancillary industries including travel, sport, food, and fashion, etc.

Every industry today is eager to break out of their silos to develop new partnerships with brands participating in SXSW and similar events, because biz-tech innovation that blurs the line between commerce and creativity is the new global lifestyle.

“That interdisciplinary spirit has been really liberating, and I also think it’s been a big part of our success,” Shea said. “Many other events have adopted a similar approach over the years with varying degrees of success. There’s a lot of interest in mixing more than just one industry and really getting people to cross pollinate their ideas.”

So, we asked Shea, how come other conference organizers are having challenges bringing together different business sectors and crowdsourcing content ideas from multiple industry audiences on a simple digital platform?

“That is a big end of the question,” Shea answered. “I’ll tell you, if we knew the answer to that, we would bottle it, sell it, retire, and buy a little tropical island.”

Photo Credit: SXSW 2016 hosted over 2,000 scheduled sessions during the 10-day event. SXSW