Marketers bet on clever hashtag campaigns to stand out at SXSW

by Lauren Johnson

This Friday, agencies, brands and startups will descend on Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest Interactive conference. Last year’s event brought in 32,800 people, and if you’re a sponsor or startup launching something new, that massive size makes it hard to stand out.

To cut through the clutter, companies are whipping up hashtag campaigns. Of course, the strategy is hardly new: Heineken, Evian and Oreo have large-scale campaigns that turn social chatter into on-the-ground activations.

But SXSW’s culture has a lot of qualities that make these social activations stick. After all, the media, tech and advertising worlds post practically everything that happens at conferences in real time on social media (including that one guy who manages to live tweet everything said during hour-long keynotes).

Plus, Austin’s foodie scene—a major draw for some SXSW folks—is doing an amazing job of using social media as an extension of word-of-mouth marketing.

Here are three ways agencies and brands are making the most of hashtags at this week’s conference.

Raining hashtags
Mobile weather startup Poncho launches today in Texas with a social media blitz in Austin.

The text message-based weather service sends people daily alerts tailored to their ZIP code, wake-up time, commute and work schedule. Since launching in 2013, Poncho’s growth has been primarily focused on the Eastern seaboard in cities like Boston and New York, but it’s steadily been gaining traction elsewhere. In October, it rolled out in Chicago.

“Poncho has grown by 50,000 subscribers after we announced that we’re launching Texas, and to cover the demand, we’re sending a team down to Austin to make sure their SXSW goes well,” a Poncho rep told Adweek. “Whether Poncho subscribers live in Austin or are just traveling for the festival, we’re going to make sure they’re dry, hydrated and arrive at both their parties and the airport in style.”

The startup is partnering with Resqwater—an “anti-hangover drink” made with vitamins and electrolytes.

Starting on Sunday, Poncho and Resqwater will deliver things like umbrellas, sunglasses and drinks to people who post the hashtag #askponcho on social media. The promotion runs through next Thursday and will be live from 7 a.m. to noon each day.

A “karaoke taxi cab” will also roam Austin to pick up people who want a free ride. Here’s Poncho’s ad for the campaign:

Real-world pain points
For years, digital shop SapientNitro has sponsored the lanyards that attendees wear to panels and events. This year, the cords are printed with the hashtag #SXSBest, a social hub of content that Sapient is using to create a best-of-Austin guide.

Leading up to SXSW, the agency identified people on Twitter who have been tweeting about the conference. Those “digital influencers” will be sent packages with items like energy drinks and battery chargers when they land in Austin this week.

The agency is also encouraging people to post the #SXSBest hashtag on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram with their own tips for the best panels, nightlife, restaurants and trends. An on-site team will then surprise a select few with free coffee, umbrellas and chargers. (Sapient isn’t the only company getting in on the game. Mophie also has a clever activation involving a pack of St. Bernards to deliver phone chargers.)

“What we try to do each year is find an interesting and relevant way to contribute to the culture and community of South by,” said Daz McColl, Sapient’s chief brand strategist.

Food-photo strike
BBH New York wants foodies to swap out their usual over stylized Instagram photos of tacos and ribs for a cause this week.

The agency is teaming up with Share Our Strength for a South by Southwest “social media food strike.”

The idea is inspired by the fact that 49 million American suffer from food insecurity, or the lack of reliable access to nutritious meals. This week’s effort teases a bigger campaign that BBH New York plans to launch in July.

The #FoodPicStrike hashtag will be plastered on napkins at Austin’s food trucks and restaurants. Instead of posting pictures of food, the campaign encourages people to post pictures of the napkins on Instagram tagged with the hashtag and the @GreatNationsEat Instagram handle. The pictures will then be added to a microsite.