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Most agencies identify with the saying, “the cobbler’s children always go barefoot” — except during SXSW when even the most frugal practitioner doffs their sack cloth and dons their dancing shoes and party hats — and I love it! During the second week of March, agencies go hog-wild: exuberant live-tweeting; passionate Facebooking; a river of well-posed Instagrams of people, places, and parties; a Photostream of digitari; a Channel’s worth of spicy video; and a blogful of insights, learnings, and experiences. It’s generally a thing of ephemeral beauty — every single agency doing in one week the best creative and inspired work of their entire life, for anyone! And then it’s over — until next year!

If you read my blog with any regularity you’ll know how important I believe a portal to you, your staff, and your agency’s creative process is every day of the year — and not just during South-By.

I am always afraid that when agencies finally reveal the most beautiful parts of themselves to the world via Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and Tumble during South by Southwest nobody will notice — and they won’t. Nope.

Why won’t they notice? Because they don’t already have an audience locked and loaded, that’s why — there’s no one listening, looking, or paying attention to you by default, this isn’t The Tonight Show in the 70s and you’re not a young comedian getting your Big Break.

Social media works only when people passively stumble upon your posted content well after they’ve actively — at one point in the past — committed to Liking, Plussing, or Following you intentionally in the past.

Without an audience that you’ve cultivated for years, every day, you’re putting on a show in your basement for your stuffed animals and maybe your mom, dad, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you might benefit from being shared through by someone with a powerful influence on your behalf, but “being discovered” is generally only 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration and you can’t just assume that cream always rises to the surface.

Even that comedian in the chair next to Johnny Carson wasn’t discovered overnight, either, but suffered night-after-night in front drunken and sweaty comedy club patrons.

And, if you think you might be able to magically gin your SXSW impact by being creative #with #your #sxsw #hashtags, then you’re deluding yourself — the twittersphere is polluted by everyone doing the same thing.

And, this remains true even if you’ve got the best content ever, even have programmed vending machines to release frosty cans of beer to folks who tap in the right Twitter command, or even if you make everyone in the office attending SXSW dress like characters in The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or Star Trek — even if you get both buys and girls to dress like “Bikini Princess Leia.”

Maybe, if your agency is the modeling sort, but otherwise, so is everyone else.

When you’re stuck in a self-imposed analog world right in the middle of a party, the only way to stand out at all is by already being someone — a super-celebrity, in fact — or have access to some amplification!

Scream all you want but if you don’t have access to a megaphone, a bullhorn, or the public address system — if you can’t already access an audience — all of your amazing content, your beautiful soul, your creative genius, could very well be but a fart in the wind.

And you need to think about setting up that volume, that access, that audience well before you ever need it!

Even doing some sort of publicity stunt benefits from having access to strong and penetrating access to lots and lots of (passively) interested people.

My experience of this year’s SXSW Interactive is defined by how people I already follow on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Tumblr are experiencing and sharing it and not through general SXSW-gazing.

(I don’t mean to repeat myself over and over but I have been talking about this a lot lately — case in point, If You Perform Only To An Empty House Your Show Will Close — and it’s true.)

There are exceptions at every SXSW, for sure. There are always breakout stars that ascend each and every year in Austin, both apps and bands alike.

However, for the rest of us, the share needs to be incremental and the trust and intimacy needs to be earned over time.

And that goes double for agencies and other service-based organizations — at least those organizations who don’t hire already-made men and women and then pour resources into co-branding, working hard on stitching together the celebrity of the hire into the fabric of the agency.

If you’re not building revolutionary new apps, innovating the bejeezus out of the state of the art, or hosting the most amazing top-shelf doos that Austin has ever seen, then you’ll need to find a way for social media to work in your favor instead of just becoming a mute also-ran.

It’s only because I am Director of Social Media at Unison Agency that I am experiencing — that I get to experience — Tedi Konda, Julius Talvik and Robert Fardi’s unique and creative experience of Austin via our @UnisonAgency Twitter feed and on Facebook; though if I weren’t on their team, I might have missed all content they have shared on Facebook and Twitter for the last few days — and that would have been ashame because I felt like I was there and had an opportunity to see SXSW Interactive through the eyes of a creative, branding, and branding agency.

I feel like following Julius, Tedi, and Robert as they attended SXSW has giving me a little more insight into who the men are and what matters to them: what they’re curious about, interested in, passionate about — how they’re willing to let their hair down, and even what they look like (had I not know them a little bit already, before).

Mind you, this advice is really only important if you want your trip to SXSW to do triple-duty: an opportunity to network, connect, and reconnect; the chance to experience and learn what’s going on in the industry; and to let your clients, prospects, and colleagues in on how cool, worldly, connected, and in-tune you are.

You don’t need social media for the first two, only the third — and you don’t need to reassure those people who are already in love with you or are your clients, past or present, how creative and talented you are — they should know that through personal experience.

You need social media as a bridge to people who are on the fence about you — or don’t know you at all, yet.

The best way to use social media is as a differentiator, as a way to build trust and intimacy efficiently and not just person-by-person, call-by-call, and handshake-by-handshake.

While social media is not supposed to be a broadcast medium — it is surely two-way — it is a very efficient way to communicate and keep connected with a lot of people over time a hell of a lot more intimately than by just using an opt-in email blast service like Constant Contact or MailChimp.

However, unlike email lists, which can be used for periodic alerts and update blasts, social media is more Constant Gardener than Same Time Next Year (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

I am writing this on the Sunday before popping down to SXSW to present on a panel entitled Outsourcing & Offshoring Social Customer Service — it’ll be my first South-By — please stop by, the panel’s on Tuesday!

I am excited to present, of course, but I am also so excited to be part of the one time each year when digital, social media, branding, and interactive agencies spend a little time showing off their own social media skills, their own talent, their own staff, their own celebrity, and their own access to the coolest parties, panels, and presentations.

This is an essential time for most agencies, too, because most agencies spend every hour of every day bringing their clients’ social media presence to life and forsaking their own. So, for a couple weeks in March, the entire team gets the green light to come out from behind the camera and show off a little.

And I love it!

However, I’ve seen more quality content flow through my readers in the weeks leading up to and including SXSW that I see the rest of the year — and I am always worried that all this great news — these precious announcements — get lost in the raging flood waters of news, humble-bragging, sharing, party, play, and reporting that’s coming in from everyone else at exactly the same time.

All that said and done, just imagine all the great content, all the brilliant ideas, and all the charming wit and candor that nobody except a couple-hundred friends, family, and followers — if that — ever get to see. That precious ephemera.

All those Tony Awards gone unclaimed because all of this great stuff never got the audience that they deserved but ended up never going further than the basement.

 

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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