Each year, SXSW Interactive draws nearly 20,000 attendees from as many as 63 countries throughout the world to Austin to consume over 900 conference sessions. Given these mind-blowing statistics, it’s no surprise that SXSW is a major event in the marketing world. 

However, if there’s a downside to the conference’s tremendous size and scope, it’s the fact you actually need to employ a strategy to make this powerful event work for you. With SXSW just around the corner (Interactive starts this Friday, March 9th), I reached out to a few experts and seasoned veterans of this event.

The question I posed? What ONE thing do SXSW attendees need to remember? The ONE thing can be as simple as a packing tip or as abstract as a frame of mind or business development idea that people should remember as they get ready to make the most of their time in Austin.

Here’s what the experts say …

Jason Falls, CEO, Social Media Explorer@JasonFalls

“My one thing is to have a clear set of business objectives. SXSW is a fun event and full of lots of opportunities to party, network and otherwise get distracted. It took me a year or two to realize you have to really hunker down and focus if you want the trip to not be a wasted business effort. I lost money the first two times I went. The last three, I’ve come out far ahead. Because I focused on doing so. Make a list of what you want to accomplish from a business perspective. Then do it. There will be time for a drink or two along the way, but don’t waste the opportunity because you want to hob nob.”

Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs, @MarketingProfs

“Last year was my virgin experience at SXSW. It’s pretty much the conference equivalent of slamming a Red Bull: Part inspiration, part opportunity, part flat-out rush. So my ONE THING: Plan, but don’t over-plan. If there are people you want to connect with, definitely make a plan in advance as to where/when that will happen. In other words: If you leave it up to chance, chances are it won’t happen. It’s too huge, too crowded, and too nuts.

But at the same time, part of the magic of SXSW is the serendipity of the whole thing: Some of my favorite conversations and funnest moments in my virgin experience last year happened totally by accident, when I was just hanging around the hallways, or the lobbies, or the streets (!). So leave some space to let those moments occur.

Wait – can I add a second thing? HYDRATE. There’s so much excess (of great food, of alcohol, of the energy of the people and the city itself) that you have to replenish. For me, that means drinking tons of water. And eventually, getting rest. But sleep at SXSW is for chumps: Crash when you get home!”

Marcus Nelson, Director of Social Media, Salesforce@MarcusNelson

“ABC — Always Bring Cards. Don’t be caught without biz cards, that’s a rookie move. Have a really cool, memorable card that stands out. ABC — Always Be Charging (your electronics). Bring external chargers for phone & laptops. Bring along a powerstrip and you’ll be everyone’s hero!”

Amber Naslund, SideraWorks@AmberCadabra

“That one’s easy. I’ve been for many years now, and my one irrefutable piece of advice: Expect that all of your best-laid schedules and plans will be blown to pieces, and learn to go with the flow. Serendipity is the name of the game at SXSW.”

David B. Thomas, Director of Social Strategy, Radian6, @DavidBThomas

“Don’t get too hung up on the big parties, and especially don’t worry too much about being on the VIP list. Most of those parties are a lot of fun, yes, but also very crowded and loud. You’ll get much more out of small gatherings with people who you have never met, or people that you only know online, and meeting their friends. Allow for serendipity. Also, if you’re not staying in downtown Austin, keep in mind that taxis can be very hard to find late at night.”

Mack Collier, Founder of #Blogchat, MackColler.com, @MackCollier

“My one thing would be to wear comfortable clothing, especially shoes because you will do a LOT of walking in the Austin Convention Center. When you arrive, I would make sure you get a map, and also find the Blogger’s Lounge. The Blogger’s Lounge is a great place to meet people and get some work done.”

Eric Boggs, CEO, Argyle Social, @ericboggs

“Wear something memorable and pack comfy shoes.”

Krista Neher, CEO, Boot Camp Digital@KristaNeher

“Pace yourself. It is a LONG conference and lots of the best networking happens in the evenings and outside of the sessions. Don’t worry too much about attending sessions — you can learn just as much, if not more, in one-on-one conversations with other smart attendees.”

Tom Webster, Vice President, Edison Research, @webby2001

“My strategy is just to be present, avoid deficit thinking about what I’m *not* at, and enjoy where I am.”

Lilly Crick, Manager, Partner and Event Marketing, (mt) Media Temple, @freelilly

“The brand parties and unofficial stuff usually have the parties with the free liquor. To RSVP for these, you just have to know someone or be very diligent researching and following all the random SXSW party lists. The shuttles are awesome and will get you to all the venues to your hotel, for free with a SXSW badge! (mt) Media Temple always throws the best SXSWi party!”

Michael Nieling, Founder & Creative Director, Ocupop@ocubot

“One thing matters — stickers. Of course you want to make sure you have a boatload of business cards in your bag, but it is the consensus at Ocupop and beyond that stickers are the currency of the future – the tech world LOVES stickers.”

Nikki Little, PR Professional & Social Media Strategist, Identity, @nikki_little

“If I had to only pick one piece of advice for SXSWi attendees, it would be to plan ahead. There is so much to do during Interactive, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, especially if you’re a newbie this year. Look at all the sessions ahead of time (pay close attention to the locations) and make your schedule. Figure out who out of your friends/online connections will be there, and make plans to meet up. Also, look at all the events and parties and sign up for whichever ones you even slightly think you may attend. Trust me – you’ll be happy you prepared in advance.”

Raúl J. Colón, President & Co-Founder, CIMA IT Solutions@rj_c

“Carry enough ‘juice’ or batteries to keep your mobile phone and other devices charged while on the move. You don’t want to be a camping out on the outlets when the conference continues to move. I carry a Mophie device for my iPhone and a Kensington battery pack for other devices. Plus I use my MacBook Pro as an extra mega battery. Every chance you get to replenish the energy on your devices do so.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: Raúl has put together a comprehensive SXSW Guide on his blog.)

Jacqui Chew, Principal, iFusion Marketing@JacquiChew

“Don’t judge the session completely by the title. Consider the speaker caliber too. (Comfortable shoes are a must!)”

Tim McDougall, VP/Products & Publisher, SourceMedia Group@timmcdougall13

“Go with a game plan, but don’t over-schedule. List the top several sessions you absolutely want to attend, the top vendors you want to make sure you talk to, and a few key people you want to meet. But leave some room so you can listen to what other attendees are excited about, and leave room for unintentional discovery – your best chance for a breakthrough at SXSW is by discovering something you didn’t know you didn’t know.”

Josh Cramer, CEO, Cramer Dev, @joshcramer

“SXSW is huge — like internet huge. You’re going to miss 98% of the conference. Just focus on enjoying that 2%. The most valuable things you’ll learn will be those that you don’t expect. Lots of interesting people come to SXSW from all over the world. See how many of them you can meet – they will change how you think.”

Are You Ready?

In summary, the SXSW experts remind us to have a plan — but not too much of a plan. And to be flexible. Also of note, many reminded attendees to wear comfy shoes.

As for me, I’ll be there. Contact me if you want to meet up or just give me a holler on Twitter. You can also view my public SXSW schedule here.

What are your tips for making the most of SXSW?