How to Win Networking at SXSW

How to Win Networking at SXSW

Or any other conference, really….

There are many reasons why we love living in Austin. Between the food trucks, the great winter weather, and the city’s lovingly fostered weirdness, it’s no wonder that people from across the country are moving here in a hurry. But if there’s one thing that makes living in Austin truly unique, it’s the South by Southwest conference and festival, which takes place every year in mid-March. With a music, film and interactive portion, the festival has a little bit of something for everyone.

Scratch that — it has a lot of everything for everyone, so much so that it can be easy to get overwhelmed. This is especially true when it comes to networking, as it’s easy to find yourself talking only to people you already know, or just to be intimidated by the prospect of approaching strangers. If networking is your goal, you’ve got to be strategic about keeping yourself on track while also enjoying the rest that the conference has to offer. Here are a few tips for doing just that.

1. Target Your Outreach Efforts

Before you even arrive at the conference center, do a little research. Find out who will be speaking on what panels, and, if there’s an attendee list, find out a little more information about the names you find. Is there someone who works at a company with a mission that really resonates with you? Are you really inspired by someone else’s work? Knowing this ahead of time will help you seek out the people you’d love to meet the day of.

It also can’t hurt to reach out to those people directly beforehand on Twitter or over email, start building that relationship, and, when you’re comfortable, even propose meeting up. All it takes is a nice, “I really enjoyed your article in _______,” to strike up a good relationship online that will spill into the offline sphere as well. For that matter, it may also be well worth it to make plans ahead of time with old friends you know will be in attendance as well, so you can catch up and then focus on other people when the time comes.

2. Talk to the People Next to You

While opening a conversation at a party may continue to prove difficult, talking to the people next to you at panels should provide an easier in. Asking what has brought your neighbor to this specific panel may spark a compelling discussion over a shared area of interest. Inquiring about other panels they’ve attended so far can also be effective, as can wearing clothing or accessories that are different than the norm or reference an inside industry joke. As tempting as it may be, don’t focus all of your efforts on trying to meet the panelists or other famous people. As with everything, it’s quality over quantity, and a famous person who takes your business card along with hundreds of others won’t necessarily have the same kind of impact for you as someone less famous who really believes in your cause.

3. Know Who You Are and What You Do

Of course, you can’t really convince other people that you’re just the person they need to know unless you you know who you are and what you do, and you’ve packaged this into a digestible elevator pitch. Yes, it can be incredibly hard to do so if you’re just starting out and have your hands in dozens of different pots, but having a clear thread and theme will help the people you’re talking to understand how you might work together. Even better: get the other person to tell you about themselves first so that you can tailor your message to them specifically.

4. Don’t Hide in Technology

Yes, even at SXSW, it’s important not to get lost in your devices. When your friend leaves you for five minutes to grab a coffee, use that time as an opportunity to strike up a conversation rather than checking for phantom texts. Or, grab a coffee of your own; the small talk opportunities are endless when you’re all scrabbling for a limited supply of wooden stirrers.

5. Be a Connector

One of the most awkward moments in networking is when you realize after your initial exchange that you have nothing in common and there’s no way you’ll be working together. Don’t freak out. Listen carefully to what the other person is saying, and try to think of someone else who would enjoy meeting them. Connecting other people just feels good, and it also makes other people eager to send contacts your way.

And of course…

6. Don’t Forget Your Business Cards!

There’s nothing worse than reaching into your bag and finding you’re fresh out of business cards after having had an exciting exchange with someone. Bring more than you think you’ll need, and make sure to follow-up while you’re still fresh in that person’s mind. If you need to, take notes on the card to ensure that you remember your discussion and can send them a personalized note. For more tech-savvy conferences like SXSWi, take advantage of business contact apps like CardMunch or CardCloud to take the paperless business card route.


SXSW is truly a gift to the city of Austin, one we here at Alt Creative look forward to all year round. With a little bit of planning, the conference can be both a stimulating and educational experience, and one that grows your business and professional career. So grab those business cards, don that offbeat t-shirt, and go to town!

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