People at SXSW care about music. And movies. But the rumor coming out of the crowds at this year’s festival is that it's all about Interactive. Although SXSW will not release official numbers on attendance until the event ends (in over a week), the chatter in Austin is that the Interactive portion of the event, running from March 9-13, drew more attendees—or, at the very least, sold more badges—than Music.
The swelling of the tech-centric portion of the multi-day event points to just how important Austin has become as a place where up-and-coming start-ups unveil themselves and pitch their models to prospective partners, and users. PW attended SXSWi for the first time last year, and we approached the event with both trepidation and excitement. On the one hand, we wondered whether SXSW is really a place for publishers and book people. (And, in 2011, as in 2012, the numbers, ancedotally speaking, of people who work in publishing who attend SXSW were small.) But last year our feeling was, and still is, publishing people belong here. The need to understand emerging technologies in the book space is more important than ever, and it’s hard to beat SXSWi for that. Then there’s also the question of story itself. Last year when we attended this event, there was a lot of talk about transmedia. Although the term “transmedia” might not have been as buzz-y this year—in part because it’s become more of a standard one in conversations about books—questions about content and story are popping in compelling conversations everywhere. And that’s what matters most to people in the book world: presenting compelling content in new (and better ways), and then finding readers for that content. So, if there was a question when we came last year about whether book people belong at SXSWi, I think the undeniable answer this time is yes, they do.
Non “Book” Panels
One of the best ways to approach SXSW, since there are an overwhelming number of panels and keynotes, is to simply cherry-pick what sounds interesting. And, working in the book space, some of the most informative moments come from listening to professionals in other media and entertainment industries. In one of the better panels I attended, called Top Chef: How Transmedia Is Changing TV, executives from Bravo discussed the major transmedia success they had with an original Web series the network built around the latest season of Top Chef (which just wrapped its season), called Top Chef: Last Chance Kitchen. The reality series, which features a collection of chefs competing for a cash prize (and, as the show creators state, “the title of top chef”), pushed viewers to a competition happening exclusively online. On Last Chance Kitchen, chefs who had been eliminated from the show were given a second chance to get back on the series: they could cook in a one-off battle and, if they won, they continued on. Each Last Chance Kitchen “battle” aired initially on Bravo, after the airing of that night’s episode, so viewers could go online and immediately see who would win or lose, working up to a moment when the overall winner of Last Chance Kitchen was allowed back on the TV show for one more chance to cook their way into the finale.
Lisa Hsia, executive v-p of Bravo Digital, said the hope was that Last Chance Kitchen would draw 1 million streams. The web series ultimately drew 8 million, and became NBCUniversal’s highest-ever rated Web series. The web series was such a hit, Hsia said, that the highest-rated TV episode of Top Chef, from this season, was the one in which the winner of Last Chance Kitchen was revealed. (That episode was not the series finale episode.) Or, put another way, Hsia said roughly 26% of the Top Chef televisin-viewing audience watched Last Chance Kitchen.
So what does this mean for book folks? Well, on the one hand, Bravo’s Last Chance Kitchen seems incongruous to specific models book publishers are working in. Then again, not really. That Bravo found an ancillary way to drive viewers to the Web—a way that neither disrupted the TV viewing experience, yet also impacted the outcome of the show itself—offers an example of how transmedia storytelling can drive people from one platform to another and then back to the original medium. (That Bravo saw such high numbers on the TV episode where the winner of Last Chance Kitchen was revealed, shows just how invested audience members were in the outcome of that side competition/storyline.)
It’s All About Brand-Building
Although hearing the word “brand” tossed about ad nauseam can get a bit tiresome, one of the best things about SXSWi is getting to hear how marketing executives and creative teams in other industries are working to capture audiences through social media. And one panel which offered some unexpected insight was The New Hollywood: Building Celebrity Brand Online. The panel, which featured Meghan McCain (author, daughter of John and well-heeled online media fixture) as well as two executives at social media companies, who help celebrities build their brand and audience through social media, highlighted some interesting takeaways for authors, who are, in most respects, working in the same space, with similar end goals as actors and movie industry personalities. One of the more interesting comments was about the need to focus on emerging social media platforms. As one of the panelists noted, it’s much easier to build an audience on a social media platform that is still relatively new. In that mindset, working on newer social media outlets, like Tumblr and Pinterest, allows someone to have less competition and, therefore, potentially easier access to a larger audience. Miles Beckett, CEO of social entertainment company Equal, cited client Lauren Conrad as an example. Conrad, who is an author and a fashion designer (as well as a former reality TV star, having gotten her start on the MTV reality series Laguna Beach) has, Beckett said, seen a huge boost in fan engagement via Pinterest, which offers access to a young, female audience interested in pictures. And, although there does not yet seem to be an author who has been able to reach a mass audience using Pinterest—many in the book space have noted that the Web site isn’t the most logical fit for authors—publishers see potential there. And, certainly, Pinterest, along with Google+, remain the social networking platforms that people feel may explode this year.
Metrics and More
We will be here in Austin for a few more days, reporting on panels and tech companies to watch, and then offer a fuller overview of the show in the March 19 print issue of PW. We’ll be talking about metrics and how, seemingly, a number of start-ups are offering promising ways publishers (of any content) can take their social media presence and start measuring it in different ways. The promise of this, for book folks, is of course huge, in its potential for publishers and authors to better understand who their reader are, where they’re finding their books and, potentially, what else they’re reading. We will also be talking more about some book panels we were on—Calvin Reid moderated Discoverability and the New World of Book PR (hashtag #NewWorld) while PW hosted its own panel, Publishing Models Transforming the Book (hashtag #pubmodels). So stay tuned for more on social media metrics, interesting panels and, overall, what’s interesting for book folks at this year’s SXSWi.