How to Show Up Creatively at Any Large Scale Event on Any Budget And Make an Impact

Inspired by What Worked (And What Didn’t) at SXSW 2022.

I had the incredible opportunity to attend South by Southwest this year in Austin, TX, and see how some of today’s most innovative brands showcased their product and message to appeal to the SX audience of creatives and professionals. I’ve put together my list of the most effective strategies event planners can use to showcase your company’s brand creatively at any budget level, inspired by what I saw at SX this year, and while these tips are inspired by a creative conference, they extend to any audience or type of event, because showing up creatively will help you stand out from the crowd and ultimately get attendee mindshare. 

Over the years SXSW, originally a creative conference focused on Film, Music and interactives has become more and more focused on technology and innovation, and with that shift corporate brands are challenged to show up creatively in the hopes of getting a scrap of attention and mindshare from SX attendees who have 20+ other sessions, activations or parties they can go to at any given time at the packed event. 

While big companies with big budgets often make the biggest splash here’s some advice on how to show up effectively as a brand at SX, or any large conference at different budget levels to make maximum impact. Some of the core principles of how to show up extend across all investment levels: 

Principle #1:

Be truly attendee first! Prioritize what the event-goers want over what you want to tell them. Maybe that’s a place to sit and charge their phone after running around all day, or fun photo ops they can post to social to show off their conference experience, or access to see a hot new band in an intimate setting, etc. If you can provide a service to your audience they are going to show up and appreciate it and associate your brand positively. Some of the worst activations we saw at SX this year completely ignored this principle and used their presence only to pitch their product and proved attendees minimal benefit, and therefore minimal reason to stick around.  

Principle #2:

Be creative… but really, get out there and have fun with it! 

The buzziest activations at SX, big and small, really pushed the envelope in terms of creativity, from experimental artist exhibits to VR interactives, or unique swag items, attendees love novelty and appreciate the opportunity to have a unique experience. If you can give them something truly interesting to see or do, again you’ll elevate your brand, likely get increased social media attention and leave attendees feeling positive about your company. 

Most Effective Large Budget Strategies: 

Full Venue Takeover 
If you have the budget the best way to have complete control and customization over your attendee experience and leave a lasting impression, is to take over a venue and build it out to create a memorable and fun attendee experience. Some examples of brands that went this route at SX in 2022 include Dell, Slack, Doc Martens, NBC, and Cheetos, and ranged from building out a carnival-like branded campus with games attendees could walk through and play to win prizes, to hosting a custom music lineup while offering free on brand tattoos, to a fully immersive guided tour showcasing product tie ins. One way to tweak this approach for your budget is to adjust the length of your takeover. You can still make a big impact with a single-day activation and capitalize on the draw of exclusivity with a one-day-only experience, or get as many people through your activation as possible with a multi-day event. Regardless of length, promote your takeover on social, make sure to tease the most exciting aspects, like musical acts, giveaways, and other exclusive experiences, and get your event on pre-event blogs to crate buzz, then at the conference try and get in the official conference app or guide and invest in posters or other out of home branding in high traffic areas promoting your location and dates, and again tease why attendees should spend their precious time visiting your activation over all the other ways they could spend their time. 

Most Effective Medium Budget Strategies: 

Corporate Lounge Sponsorship
Now hear me out, because these can be done really badly, but with the right approach, a lounge build-out can be a huge draw. Here’s how to do it well: rent one of the conference rooms at the official venue and instead of hosting a session activate the space with fun things like free food and beverage and activities attendees will actually appreciate, like professional headshots, free juice bar or coffee bar, grab and go snacks like nuts, cookies or fruit attendees can eat there or take with them, get creative with your theme – for example one lounge had a tarot card reader tying into their “future of work” theme. Brand the space, and make it beautiful and comfortable so attendees want to stay and spend time there like an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the event.

Container Pop Up
This can be a super fun and effective way to make a big impression if you have a sizeable budget and it gives you more flexibility for customization by not being tied to a brick and mortar venue that may have rules about what you can and cannot do in their space. Get a permit and drop or build a self-contained structure in a high traffic area close to the event center and turn it into a mini venue, this could be an airstream, modified shipping container, or other modular structure where you can create an experience and showcase your brand. 

Most Effective Small Budget Strategies:

Swag or Food Pop Up & Giveaway
Try setting up a branded coffee cart, food truck, or other outdoor station in a high traffic area for a half-day or one full event day and give away something of high value that attendees really want – good coffee, cool swag, it’s ok to make them do something for it, like take a survey, or watch a product demo if what they receive is high enough in value. Make sure your pop-up is beautifully designed to visually draw people in, and don’t overbrand your giveaways, opt instead for a minimal or artful logo or no logo at all.

Well Designed Posters With QR Codes
If you have access to a good designer this is a truly simple and low-budget way to be seen around a conference. Posters are everywhere at SX, telephone poles, buildings, construction zones, etc. Make a poster promoting your event or product and put a QR code on it, if your art and copy are interesting enough people will stop and scan, I speak from experience!  

Re-Charge Station Sponsorship or Pop Up
Again this goes to the principle of providing a service for attendees, and nothing is more valuable than a place to re-charge your phones and devices after running around a conference all day. This could be an official conference sponsorship at the event venue, a pop-up style outside, or at a nearby location. Brand your space, make it beautiful and comfortable so people want to visit and stay awhile, give your brand representatives a chance to make connections, and provide loads of charging stations and chargers. People will love you. I will love you.