Getting a Seat at the Cool Kids’ Table: SXSW PanelPicker Tips and Tricks

July 6, 2016  | By Catherine Seeds

It’s hard to believe, but the programming preparation for SXSW Interactive 2017 is already underway. As many of us in the industry already know, the PanelPicker submission process kicked off last week and closes on July 22. Which means if you are working to submit a panel, duo, trio or solo session for next year’s line-up, you have exactly 15 days to finalize your panelists and hit the send button.

Courtesy of Ketner Group
Courtesy of Ketner Group

Getting selected to be a part of SXSW’s much coveted Interactive program is no easy task. The competition is fierce and it gets tougher every year when going up against highly sought-after tech speakers in the areas of robotics, virtual reality and machine learning, not to mention President Obama and J.J. Abrams.

Over the past two years, the Ketner Group team has led the charge in getting a few of our clients’ panels selected as SXSW speakers via the PanelPicker process, and in doing so, have learned a few tips and tricks.

For those of you who may not know, the PanelPicker process goes something like this:
It is a “three-step online process” that allows the SXSW community to have a voice in programming. The first step encourages the community to enter proposals for daytime conference programming for all SXSW events; the second step allows the community to browse all of these ideas, leave comments and vote for those they think are the best fit. The third step, not open to the public, is the input of the SXSW staff and advisory boards, which helps ensure that less well-known voices have as much of a chance as being selected to speak at SXSW as individuals with large online followings. The voting breakdown looks like this: Public Votes – 30%, SXSW Advisory Board – 40% and SXSW Staff – 30%.

While one can argue that luck and timing plays a huge part in getting picked for the “cool kids” table at SXSW, there is something to be said for paying close attention to the things that the advisory board and the SXSW staff recommend when putting forth a session to be voted on. According to SXSW, “Fully-proofed, narrowly-focused, forward-thinking ideas that emphasize creativity and innovation will have the best chance of successfully navigating SXSW community voting, staff analysis and Advisory Board feedback.”

Here are a just a few recommendations from the Ketner Group team on organizing a successful panel at SXSW:

  • It has been our experience that having at least one or two high profile speakers, whether by name or association with their company, coupled with an eye-catching topic that is new and different, is key. Our clients who have been selected for SXSW Interactive programming in recent years have used titles such as the “Future of Cool” and “Ghost Economy,” for their sessions, combined with speakers from Google, Zappos and Brooks Brothers.
  • Some of the coolest sessions that I’ve been to at SXSW have also included well-known media or industry analysts, such as this session from 2015 titled “Personalization for the People,” featuring Forrester’s lead ecommerce analyst and a reporter from CNBC, in addition to an executive from Sephora.
  • Take the time to review the sessions that were selected in previous years – SXSW loves featuring new speakers and new, never-seen before topics and data. As well, when recruiting for speakers, try to find candidates that have presented at other industry events – part of the submission process is to upload videos of the proposed speakers doing what they do best, speak! SXSW is looking to fill their programming with engaging folks who will, for lack of better words, put butts in the seats.
  • Learn all you can from others who have been successful at SXSW, and don’t make the mistakes of others. SXSW is hosting best practices meet ups in multiple cities over the next few weeks – take advantage of these events to learn how to make your proposal stand out. As well, there are plenty of blogs and articles, like ours here, that will give you guidance on what works and what doesn’t. Check out this great article in the Austin American-Statesman that outlines four concepts that make a better panel for SXSW audiences.

If your panel does get selected for SXSW, that’s when the real work begins! Stay tuned for future blogs on how to best prepare your speakers for SXSW and how to successfully promote your panel leading up to the festival. In the meantime, if you need any guidance on submitting a panel for SXSW this year, feel free to contact me at [email protected] and our team would be glad to help!

Good luck!