10 marketing tips to help your start-up stand out at SXSW

One of my favorite things to do is walk the trade show floor at SXSW and get a taste of the hundreds of bright ideas entrepreneurs from around the world hope to turn from dreams into cash.

And yet as I look at these important marketing efforts, they almost always fail.  This is such a pity because many of these companies are betting the ranch on a SXSW breakthrough. They need customers, partners, and investors and they need them now. So here are few thoughts on using a tiny bit of marketing common sense to increase your odds of creating a start-up that breaks through the clutter.

1) Tell a visual story of what you do.

So many of these trade show booth displays are a horrible waste of money because I am looking all over this fancy booth and I cannot figure out what you do. That is just criminal. You need to have a big, bright display that says: This is our unique value proposition and this is the customer problem we solve. THAT is going to make me stop and talk to you.

2) Forget the gimmicks. Give me the guts.

No serious investor or potential customer is going to buy into your company because you are handing them a pen or sticker.  This is a crowd who loves technology and innovation. They’re obsessed by it. Find a quick and powerful way to show them what you do. One of the most effective displays was a guy who was giving “classes” on his technology every 10 minutes. He actually had people sitting in chairs, waiting to watch the next demo.

3) Have several experts on hand.

I can’t tell you the number of booths that had one person there. If the representative was occupied, I probably wasn’t going to wait for my turn when there are hundreds of other booths to see.  Don’t worry about naps and lunch breaks. You can sleep when SXSW is over. All hands on deck.

4) Appear interested

There is one company that has had a massive SXSW presence the past two years. And yet the people who are there in the booth are all sitting around with their heads down in their iPhones. Are you kidding me?  I stood in one booth for TEN MINUTES before a person even noticed I was there, Look, everyone is in SALES now. You might not like it, but you actually have to talk to people. Stand up. Make eye contact. Be friendly.

5) Make it look legit.

Everything communicates. If your booth looks home-made, people will think your company is home-made. Don’t skimp on design. Look professional and respectable.

6) Don’t ask for my email address right away

If we’ve just met and you ask for my email address I am going to be suspicious. I do not want to be on another mailing list. But there is this powerful thing called reciprocity that will get me to connect with you.  If you spend time authentically talking to me and trying to ascertain my needs as much as you are trying to sell, I am going to feel indebted to you. If I feel like you are trying to help me instead of use me, then I am more likely to want to reciprocate and help you back. And if I am a really great prospect, maybe give me some little trinket so I can remember you and feel obligated to connect.  Then, I just might give you my email address.

7) Be ready for the big time

I cannot tell you the number of companies who did not have their technology ready for the show. “Well we just went live this week and we have a few bugs.”  “That’s a good question and that is certainly a flaw we are trying to correct next week.” “We hoped to have this ready by today but we ran out of time.”  That is just depressing. This is probably your one big chance. Don’t make this marketing investment an after-thought. Plan your development around your marketing.

8) Don’t let the skin get in the way

One thing that still prevails at SXSW is scantily-clad women.  Look, I’m not naive.  I know sex sells. Always has. Always will. But I think we need to move beyond this don’t we?  There was one booth jammed with beautiful women in skin tight outfits. These women were not technology experts. I just can’t take a company seriously that has to resort to that to sell their products and services.  Here’s the sad part — When I finally worked my way past the swimsuit models, I found out that the company really has a cool idea. They really did have depth — why resort to tired gimmicks that are just going to offend people, frankly?

9) Budget for professional help.

Here is the number one problem I see with tech start-ups. They dismiss the importance of marketing.  They either think they can do it themselves to save money or they totally ignore the fact that they need marketing at all. I talked to one entrepreneur last year who had a really good idea for a food app. But to be successful they needed to attract massive numbers of customers across the country fast. I asked him how he planned to scale. “Easy,” he said. “We add more servers.” No, no, no.  Without customers, you have no business. How do you plan to acquire customers? Budget for professional marketing help.

10) Close the deal.

Give me an effective and short flyer to take home with me so I can remember who you are and what you do.  Make sure your personal name and email address are on there so I don’t have to dig for that business card later. Don’t push for a demo or meeting next week because everybody is going to be catching up in the office after spending a week in Texas. But two weeks out is OK.

OK all you start-ups out there. Now go rev those marketing engines and sell something!

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  • MaureenMonte

    What a great set of guidelines! I think I kind of “know” them when I hear them but it’s great to see it in writing, and why. I’ve shared this blog entry with some of my extended team partners (outside of IBM) and with my brother who owns a marketing and communications company. This is perfect timing as we plan a big announcement and demo at IBM’s Innovate Conference in June. We’re all working together to deliver a better automotive solution in the cloud – we know we are awesome and now we will be better prepared to communicate it with clarity at the event. I’m very disappointed, however, to leave my leopard print, skin tight jumpsuit at home… I have so few occasions to wear it. Maybe I’ll bring it to Social Slam. 🙂 Also enjoyed the one on will – how cool is that SpaceX guy? Have fun down there – Thanks Mark!

  • Rosemary ONeill

    I’d go so far as to say if you’re one of those booths with scantily clad women in it, you’re dead to me. Unless you’re selling bikinis, stop it. I’m not one who generally gets worked up, but this type of thing sends me right over the edge.

    Another personal tip–don’t make your booth a closed environment. If I can’t see what’s going on, and it seems cramped, I’m going to probably keep walking.

  • “Tech not ready” is so annoying – to the visitors and to the people at the booth. Even if you did your part, if the tech side isn’t really ready you’re going to have one frustrating day. But hey, we’re not waiting for the next trade show, we’re going there anyway. Are you sure those people watching their iPhones haven’t just been let down by the tech team?

    I like tip 9. Because that’s what happens: people get started, develop some product, and then… Did you manage to convince that entrepreneur to budget for marketing?

  • Thanks Maureen. I will also be wearing m leopard skin jump suit at Social Slam. And pumps.

  • Powerful point Rosemary! Thanks.

  • No. He was clueless, and his idea is dead, unfortunately.

  • MaureenMonte

    What color pumps? I want to make sure we don’t clash. 😉

  • Gordon Phillips

    Bravo for outing this. It’s rampant in the digital trade show industry. True at Internet Week, App World, SMX, and ironically even Adtech. Please do not hand me a green frog, I got one two isles over…who was that again?

  • I can’t tell. It would ruin my aura of mystery.

  • Ha! Well said Gordon!

  • Great tips Mark!

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  • Thanks, Bernadette!

  • This should not be limited to just SXSW! I think it applies in most tech expos or even simple networking events. Great tips indeed 🙂

  • Thanks so much Jan!

  • jennwhinnem

    I wish more people felt like you do about #8. I was enlisted as a booth babe once (and I was ill-suited for it, as I could not answer the highly technical questions people had). And I watched a guy go down the line of booths asking the women in the booths out to dinner.

  • Sad. You just have to feel sorry for somebody like that. He must have a pretty shallow, desperate life.

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  • emarketing .

    Interesting points discussed for young start ups! According to me, the most important point which I felt that a start up should focus on is the budget for professional help. With professional help and the other points taken togther , one can become successful.

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