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50 SXSW 2012 Panels Worth Getting Excited About

Here's a sad fact about SXSW – at any given time there are at least 16 other talks, events or meetups that you could be attending besides the one that you do make it to.  That's assuming you even make it to any events at all.  But whether you are ambitiously aiming to make it to a long list of events, or not going to SXSW at all … the fact is that the range of talks offers a really interesting spotlight into trends and insights for anyone working in a digital or business role today. 

Some are good world changing ideas, and others are the worst kind of introspective navel gazing crap you would expect from a big interactive conference filled with people who spend way too much time idolizing one another. To help bring attention to some gems amidst the noise, here is my list of great panels happening at SXSW this year. I know I won't make all of them, but these are the ones I'm really excited about and highly recommend. In case you're interested, check out my full virtual schedule for SXSW, including other events outside of panels here.

Also, here are a few places where you'll be able to see me for sure in case you're going and would like to meet up:

  1. MEETUP – The "Get Ready For SXSW" Meetup For 1st & 5th Timers (And Anyone In Between) (Friday, Mar 9th at 3pm) Co-hosted with Charles Duhigg, Author of The Power of Habit (currently #12 in Books on Amazon).
  2. PANEL – How To Be Strategically Unlikeable Online (Monday, Mar 12th at 9:30am) – my talk at SXSW, which will be the biggest panel at SXSW thanks to a big surprise we'll be unveiling on stage.

Friday, March 9

  1. OMG Your RFP Is Killing Me (2:00pm) – As someone who has suffered through trying to respond to more poorly written, confusing and contradictory RFPs than I care to admit, I am thankful for this panel.  Anyone working in a consulting or agency role should be too.
  2. The Accidental Creative (4:00pm) – A session I am looking forward to from a book I really enjoyed. The biggest takeaway from me about what it takes to be continually creative … fill your brain with knowledge from outside your industry, and let your mind make the connections itself.
  3. Why Happiness Is the New Currency (5:00pm) – This is a topic that is seeing more attention from multiple places these days – which is a great thing since most of us don't spend enough time understanding what really will make us happy and how to get there. The cure to rising social media jealousy?  Find a better metric for happiness.

Saturday, March 10

  1. Digital Vertigo (9:30am) – A sneak peek at the new book from Andrew Keen (author of Cult of the Amateur – a great commentary on the downside of social media). This is a preview of his latest book Digital Vertigo – and someone who has managed to piss off as many "social media gurus" as he has is worth a listen … even if you might not agree with his point of view.
  2. Crowdsourcing a Revolution: Can We Fix Healthcare? (11:00am) – One of the most exciting things about SXSW this year for me is how so many panels on the topic of healthcare are now integrated into the main program at the event. This is one of the first, and looks to be one of the best that I highly recommend checking out.
  3. The Power of Fear in Networked Publics (11:00am) – A great session from Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd on how fear is such a pervasive part of our culture and how it impacts our behaviour.  I imagine this session will give me lots to think about in terms the positives and negatives of using fear as a motivator for anything.
  4. The Complexity Curve: How to Design for Simplicity (11:00am) – The title says it all for this one – if you do any design for anyone, you should go to this talk.
  5. Likeable Social Media (11:30am) – A talk from my good friend and fellow believer in the power of likeability, Dave Kerpen. Highly recommended.
  6. Not Just Tech Support: Online in India (12:30pm) – India is finally emerging from beyond the outsourcing reputation, and this panel is one that I'm really excited about attending because of how it is one of the few panels focusing on India and its role in the the future of business and social media.
  7. Catch Me If You Can: Frank Abagnale 10 Years Later (3:30pm) – I am a fan of this movie, and intrigued to hear what Frank Abagnale is doing today.  Beyond that draw, he seems like a super interesting guy and one worth listening to tell the story of his life.
  8. The Curators and the Curated (3:30pm) – A great session on a really popular and important topic, this is part of the Future of Journalism track that I hope to spend some time attending at SXSW.  Plus the speaker list including David Carr, Maria Popova and Noah Brier are all worth listening to.
  9. Not Your Mommy's Blog: The Evolution of Dad Blogs (3:30pm) – If you are a Dad working in marketing, it is easy to feel ignored because everything seems so focused on the moms.  Sure, they make most of the decisions and buy most of the stuff – but we matter too, don't we?  Dad bloggers get the short end of the stick when it comes to visibility and attention too.  And in case that's not enough of a reason to attend this session, you might just find out that Dad's can be a good target market to sell your stuff to as well.
  10. FOMO: How Can Brands Tap into Fears of Missing Out (3:30pm) – I have read plenty of great insights from Ann Mack at JWT in the past, so to see her giving a session like this was enough reason to put it on my short list.  The FOMO trend is one that definitely matters when it comes to consumer behaviour in an age when everyone shares everything they are doing … especially at SXSW.
  11. Priming Audiences
    for a Truly Social Olympic Games (5:00pm)
    – I am surprised that there are so few sessions devoted to Olympics considering it is coming up in just a few months, but this one promises to be a great sneak peek at some of the very cool social engagement programs that will be coming during the London Games in August.
  12. The View from Inside Rainn Wilson's Brainstem (5:00pm) – Um, Rainn Wilson – Dwight from The Office and author of the amazing SoulPancake book … do you really need more of a reason?
  13. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (5:00pm) – I had the chance to get an advance copy of Peter Diamandis' new book that this talk is based on, and it will be worth attending.  Even though he is up against Rainn Wilson, definitely try to check this out.
  14. Beg, Borrow, Bribe: Startups in Emerging Markets (5:00pm) – A great and important session from G Kofi Annan on emerging markets and startup culture.  The insights in this session will be super useful if you do any work in this area, or care about how to support more innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging markets.
  15. Enterprise Social Media: Five Emerging Trends (5:00pm) – A super relevant session from two leaders at IBM about trends in enterprise social media.  This will likely be very applicable if you do any work with social media and driving its strategic use and adoption in large enterprise cultures.

Sunday, March 11

  1. Can Gaming Make the World Better? (9:30am) – Gaming is definitely a hot topic, but the quality of the speakers on this panel makes it a must see on my list, and it should be on yours as well.
  2. The State of Social Marketing (9:30am) – Another session with a great list of organizations represented, including Eloqua, Jess3, The Next Web and Unified.  I've heard almost all these speakers or know them personally, and this should be a great panel.
  3. Food Trucks Share Social Media Tips (9:30am) – A perfect topic for a panel in Austin, food trucks sit perfectly at the intersection of so many hot topics in social media today … dining and reviews, geolocation and mobility, and experiential marketing.  The insights in this session should be applicable to a wide range of businesses and industries. 
  4. Friending Pharma: Patients, Industry & New Media (9:30am) – Another healthcare session worth checking out, and one of the only ones to even mention Pharma in the title.   
  5. Pitching Start Ups to Ad Agencies and Clients (9:30am) – The main reason this one is on my list is because I am one of those agency guys heading to SXSW and open to being pitched by startups. One of the biggest reasons I return year after year is because it is one of the few events where I can get some face to face time with people doing interesting things with startups.  
  6. Socializing the Presidency: Digital Politics 2012 (9:30am) – There are lots of political panels happening at SXSW this year thanks to it also being an election year. This one stood out to me because of the quality of the speakers – Christina Bellantoni from PBS, Craig from Craigslist, Heather Smith from Rock the Vote and Maria Teresa Kumar from Voto Latino. Check out this panel to help get ready for what will be the most social media enabled election in history.  
  7. Mother Goose Got Punked: Next Gen Visual Stories (11:00am) – Not only do I love the fact that this storytelling session focuses on nonprofits, but the majority of the speakers are photographers and videographers themselves – which means that this should be a highly practical and informative session for anyone in the nonprofit world looking to get better at telling engaging stories.  
  8. Discoverability and the New World of Book PR (11:00am) – Having met or heard a few of the speakers on this panel before, anyone considering writing a launching a book should put this panel on your list.  Not only should get a lot from the discussion, but the Q&A should offer a great discussion and some highly useful tips to take away.  
  9. The Science of Habits: Why We Do What We Do (11:00am) – This is the official session for Charles Duhigg, who will be co-hosting a meetup with me on Friday.  In case you don't make it to our meetup, or even if you do, I highly recommend seeing Charles talk about his amazing book in person.  
  10. FILM – Decoding Deepak (World Premiere – 11:00am) – This is the only film that made my list (in case you forgot, SXSW is also a huge film festival!).  It is the world premiere of a highly engaging film from Gotham Chopra, Deepak Chopra's son.  I have corresponded with him in the past and seen the trailer for the film (which you can also watch here) and it is pretty amazing. For anyone who has admired Deepak Chopra from afar, or ever considered what it would be like to be the kid of a famous person … this movie brilliantly deconstructs the experience. 
  11. How Brain Science Turns Browsers into Buyers (11:00am) – I have read several of the books from the speakers at this session and just having AK Pradeep (author of The Buying Brain) and Roger Dooley (author of Brainfluence) – two of the leading minds in studying how our brains control the buying decisions we make – is enough to make this panel worth attending. For anyone who has a website or business to optimize based on real research from leading researchers studying the brain, this session should blow your mind (um, pun intended).   
  12. Open Art, Open Audiences: The Edinburgh Festivals (12:30pm) – The Edinburgh Festival is one that I have admired from afar for some time and always thought about making it to. This session should be an entertaining chance to go behind the scenes.  

  13. How We Do It in Brazil (12:30pm)
    – Once again SXSW is very thin on panels with a global focus, but this is one that made my list. It's focus is doing business in Brazil, which should matter for many businesses because of the size of the country and economy, but also because it will be hosting the Olympics in 2016 and the FIFA World Cup in 2014.  
  14. Everybody's a Bloody Entrepreneur! Or Are They? (12:30pm) – It doesn't take much these days to call yourself an entrepreneur, and this panel focuses on the good and bad of that.  It is enough to make this panel interesting, but also love that it is a panel full of successful female entrepreneurs, but that the focus of the session isn't on women in business or women in tech. We often pay too much attention to that, and not enough to the credentials and expertise of the speakers themselves. This is a session filled with four super successful entrepreneurs. Period.
  15. The Payment Revolution is Coming: Welcome to Interchange Zero (12:45pm) – Telling you to go to a keynote talk doesn't really offer much – they all should be good. But this one with Scvngr founder Seth Priebatsch is on such an important topic that it really is a can't miss session. The future of money, digital wallets and virtual currency all are hot topics this year. I can't make every session about those, but this is one that I plan to be at.
  16. What the Internet Finds Funny: Creating & Covering Humor Online (3:30pm) – The powerful role the humor in marketing and advertising can take in actually punching through and being effective.  The only reason I think we don't see more sessions on this is because of how pitifully bad most marketers are at it.  
  17. Reprogram Your Yard, Then Eat It (3:30pm) – This is not on my list for any social media or professional learning, but instead because I'm just so interested in the idea. Can I learn to grow my own food, get over my own mental barriers and actually make myself healthier in the process?  If there is any talk on the list that should immediately be turned into a DVD and made required viewing for at least half of America, this would be it. 
  18. Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death (5:00pm) – This was a hot topic last year and seems to have died down a bit since then, but is no less relevant as a trend or important topic that we should all pay attention to.  For anyone who has wondered what happens to your Facebook page after you pass away, and all the other issues around "digital death" – this panel should be a good one.
  19. PostSecret + BLUEBRAIN: A Multimedia Presentation (6:30pm) – If Frank Warren were showing up somewhere to read random entries from Wikipedia, I'd probably show up … and pay good money for a ticket too.  In this session, the creator of PostSecret will go interactive and do something new and different with his amazing content.  If you don't have this on your list to attend, you need to add it.

SXSWUnlikeableSessionImageMonday, March 12

  1. MY PANEL: How to Be Strategically Unlikeable Online (9:30am) – This is my panel, so obviously I'm biased … but I'm planning something unexpected and it should be a lot of fun, and educational too.  I hope you do show up, and in case you are planning on it, here's a page where you can RSVP to attend.
  2. Branded Documentary: Cause Marketing's Best Media? (11:00am) – Ever since the success of Inconvenient Truth, this has surely been a hot topic for nonprofits – so I love the idea for this session.
  3. Invention & Inspiration: Building a Better World (11:00am) – If you care about innovation at all, seeing Dean Kamen has to be on your short list.  His bio describes him as a "prolific inventor who has been compared to Edison."  In his case, it isn't just ego or exaggeration.
  4. Shut Up & Draw: A Non-Artist Way to Think Visually (11:00am) – Dan Roam and Sunni Brown in one panel session? There's only one word for that … WOW.  This panel needs to be on your short list because both of them are amazing people and talented communicators as well. This will be an amazing session.
  5. HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything (11:30am) – I loved Dov Seidman's book and his important message about "corporate virtue" is an important one for any business to hear.  This is a book reading that should be worth the time to see.  
  6. The Business of Kevin Smith (12:30pm) – As a media pioneer, Kevin Smith has launched plenty of firsts in the film and entertainment industry. His view of the world is one that I can't wait to listen to.
  7. #140conf @ SXSW 2012 (3:30pm) – Jeff Pulver is a master community builder – which is why every one of his #140 events are such a hit. He is running an abbreviated version of one of his events at SXSW, and one that you should try to make it to – especially if you have never made it to one of his #140 events before.
  8. Africa, Tech & Women: The New Faces of Development (5:00pm) – This panel brings together several under represented topics into one – which alone makes it interesting enough to make my list. 
  9. Timing is Everything: How to Maximize Your PR (5:00pm) – I have long believed in the power of timing to make marketing and PR more effective. In fact, it is a topic I devote an entire chapter to in my upcoming book. This will be a great session and reminder that if you haven't got the right timing, you're just preparing for failure.  
  10. En/Forced Femme: Sex Workers and Social Media (6:30pm) – A topic that we don't see enough conversation about is the role of social media in enabling forced sex workers. This should be an interesting session on the topic from a sex worker who will have a unique point of view. I love that this is part of the scheduling at SXSW.

Tuesday, March 13

  1. I May "Like" You, but I'm Not in Like with You (9:30am) – There's been a lot of conversation lately about how much a "Like" on Facebook really matters. In many cases it doesn't. This panel should bring that conversation up in a timely way.
  2. China: Creators and Consumers of the Future (9:30am) – There are many panels this year on China – and this one looked like one of the most promising because of its dual focus on creation and consumption coming from China.  If I make it to one panel focused on China, this should be it.
  3. Who Needs a Fashion Cycle? I've Got Social Media (11:00am) – A great panel focused on the intersection of fashion and digital tools.  Social shopping will be part of this and is a hot topic for the coming year. 
  4. Philanthropy for Everyone: Community Grantmaking (11:00am) – Some of the biggest crowdsourcing examples today are in the community grantmaking space, so I really like the idea of bringing microlending to smaller regional areas – including Detroit. This session should offer some great discussion about the next phase of Community Grantmaking.
  5. The Future of Work and the Free Radical (12:30pm) – How we work is changing, where we work isn't. This great panel should offer a new look at how the future of work will be dramatically different primarily because the things that matter to the work force are dramatically changing.
  6. Social Media & Young Children: Our Kids' Futures (3:30pm) – Now that my older son is 7 years old, he is starting to use the computer by himself … which is a freak out moment for me because I know all the crazy stuff online.  As he gets older and starts using social media, I'm sure I will start to panic even more – so this session is super relevant for me, but also for anyone who has young kids today.  
  7. Digital Debauchery with Anthony Bourdain (3:30pm) – I wish I was still going to be in Austin to be able to attend this one, because I love the viewpoint that Anthony Bourdain has offered through his travel shows.  He not only goes to interesting places, but he the best kind of adventurer, who doesn't need to dive off cliffs or climb into a cave with spiders to show us all the wierd and wonderful things that our world already has in it.

Of course there are probably a bunch of great panels that I missed.  In case you happen to be leading one, or have one that you're particularly excited about – feel free to add it in the comments.  And in case you didn't already realize, I only included the panels and talks during the Interactive part of the festival!

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Rohit is the author of 10 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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