Hugh Forrest Unlocks Secrets of SXSW Keynote Selection Criteria


If you want get booked to keynote SXSW, now’s the time to start planning. And what better way to start then by listening to this exclusive deep dive interview with Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Office at SXSW, about how he goes about making that decision?

Welcome to my first episode of the new B2B Lead Gen podcast, hosted by yours truly, Eric Schwartzman. Many of you may know from On the Record…Online, an award-winning podcast I produced from 2005 to 2015.

Highlights include what it takes to be invited to keynote SXSW; how tech companies have leveraged the popularity of SXSW to launch huge brands such as Twitter and Airbnb; plus the challenges and surprises of his role, including how the festival became involved in the Gamergate controversy, and the ongoing importance of face-to-face meetings in the industry.

After this coronavirus pandemic winds down, I imagine there will be a ton of pent up demand for conferences and trade shows. Next year’s SXSW could be the biggest gathering yet.

Show Notes:

Eric Schwartzman: Welcome, B2B start-ups, change-ups, scale-ups and grown-ups. This is the B2B Lead Gen podcast. I’m your host, Eric Schwartzman. Let’s do this.

ES: You’re the Chief Programming Officer at SXSW. It’s definitely the most influential interactive conference in America. And technology’s always changing, it’s always moving. So when you’re creating educational programming in an environment, I guess we have to do it I don’t know how many months in advance, but probably a lot of months in advance. I guess you’re part fortune teller, yeah?

Hugh Forrest: Part, but I hope not too large a part, because I’m not as good a fortune teller as I’d like to be. If I was I’d be in a different line of work. How about that?

ES: Do you have some sort of a process? I mean, how many years have you been doing this now?

HF: I started at SXSW in 1989, so I’ve been here roughly 30 years. In terms of a process, the process is just a process, meaning that we start meetings to plan for the next year, the next March, those meetings typically start in July, and we aim for the big name keynote speakers, the people we hope will fill the biggest rooms. We’re talking and talking and talking. Someone nominates. The person coming to the committee that we have working on this stuff will nominate someone. Hopefully we have robust dialogue with someone saying, “I think this is a great person for the event,” and someone else will say, “I don’t think this is a great person.” I certainly have learned, and learned the hard way, that the more you can discuss something, the more likely the result is going to be a positive one. I also am a huge, huge, huge believer in the power of community. So I get a lot of great ideas from the community. And that belief in the power of community is certainly one of the driving motivators behind the SXSW PanelPicker interface, which is how we choose a lot of our programming. And that idea being that the community has lots of great ideas that we might not have yet, and the more we can engage with that community, communicate with that community, interact with that community, learn from that community, the stronger the event becomes. 

ES: Hugh, I’m particularly interested in the pre-qualification process. And I’m particularly interested in those panels and speakers that don’t come from PanelPicker, that you decide, and you and your committee or group decide, need to be there to have a well-rounded event. Are there any lessons learned about pre-qualifying? Obviously, once they’ve pre-qualified, they still may not pass muster once you start talking to them, but what is it that brings someone up to the level where you say, “Wow, that’s somebody we really need to consider”?

HF: Well, 60–70% of the programming comes through PanelPicker. The other 30–40% is stuff that we’re curating that we’re reaching out to. It was certainly at a basic level where we’re doing searches on our favorite search engine to see if this person is in the news a lot at whatever time we’re considering this person. That’s certainly an indicator. We’re also looking at their social media following given that social media is often some degree of indicator of relevance and in terms of where we are in 2019 and 2020. I’ve learned a lot about simply the power of celebrity over the last few years and whether you like that or not, we’re constantly reminded that people who are celebrities have a better chance of filling a big room than people who have fantastic ideas but may not quite have that celebrity factor. So does that mean that you’re limited to only talking to celebrities? No, I think that means that you try to be creative and perhaps pair someone with a celebrity-type following with someone who’s got some fantastic ideas and get the best of both worlds that way. 

ES: One of the great things I remember about being at the keynotes is often — maybe this isn’t the case recently, I haven’t been in the last five years — but I can remember going into a keynote not having any idea who the person is, and being blown away and having that be one of the wonderful things about the conference.

HF: Sure, I think we’re always trying to get a little bit of a mix of people who are well established and have a reputation, as well as up-and-comers who don’t have that much of a reputation yet, and that can surprise people with their insights, with their inspiration, with their expertise. So, again, trying to achieve a balance there, although I think that as the event continues to evolve, and as the media landscape continues to change, we probably lean a little more now towards established names just because we know that that is what tends to attract more media attention, and media attention is one of the pillars of how the SXSW system works.

ES: Obviously it’s curated. And one of the reasons it’s great is because it’s curated, and partially curated by the community. But it’s interesting you mentioned the up-and-comer. I’m curious to know, and maybe there’s no answer to this, but I’ll just throw it out there: How does an up-and-comer get considered? What is it about someone who doesn’t have a following, isn’t a celebrity, but maybe has an interesting idea? In that case, would you get someone like Tara Hunt to do a keynote? What a fantastic keynote! And I became friends with her afterwards. I loved it. And then there was Danah Boyd from Microsoft, who I didn’t really know, and she was fantastic. What is it that gets somebody like that considered? Because there’s a lot of people like that, but only a few of them are lucky enough to make it to there, or unlucky enough, depending on how you look at it, to make it to the stage at SXSW. So any thoughts at all on what differentiates that [breeders cap]?

HF: Well, for someone like Tara or Danah — both great people and have contributed a ton to this “interactive industry” — before they had risen to the keynote stage, or however you want to phrase that, they had participated in SXSW quite a lot. So I had seen what kind of audience they would draw, I’d seen what kind of positive response they had gotten from attendees. So for people like that, it’s not completely out of the blue. We had had some experience with them in previous years. For other folks who may not be all that well known, I think it’s a lot of myself and other people on my staff trying to pay attention to as many different inputs, particularly over the summer when we’re a little less busy, and creating lists, however we create them, whether by texts, or by database, by sticky notes of “Wow, I read this really cool article about such-and-such and this person will be a great speaker.” And so, again, we typically bring 200–300 ideas to the table, and in our first meetings of the year try to go through as many of those speaker ideas as possible. If I think Joni Smith is a particularly great speaker and a particularly great candidate for SXSW, my job is to convince the other people on staff who are hopefully skeptical that Joni is a great speaker. Sometimes I can do that, sometimes I can’t.

ES: Now, in your position, I imagine you receive a lot of pitches from PR people and marketing people who are trying to get visibility for their brands. And I imagine sometimes you’ve taken the bait, sometimes you haven’t. But after 30 years you must have a thing or two to say about what type of tech services that are being pitched as hot actually make it, and which ones don’t. Do you have any wisdom on predicting which types of technology services make it or don’t, based on that experience of being pitched and featuring technology that didn’t make it, or featuring technology that did make it?

HF: Again, my tips here are fairly limited. If I had better expertise, I would probably be in a different line of work, but I do know that the kind of technology innovations, apps, breakthroughs that have done best at SXSW are the ones that have helped attendees experience and engage and absorb SXSW. So if you think about our biggest success story as an event, which was Twitter in 2007 “launching” at SXSW, one of the reasons in my mind that Twitter was so successful was that people used it or could use it in its still embryonic form to understand what parties their friends were going to, where they were going for lunch, where they were going for dinner. Same thing with Foursquare, which launched in 2019. About this time, Airbnb got a big push out of SXSW. I think we were their first event that they did and they sold one bed, and that was to their co-founder. But again, it was something, that there was a hotel shortage in Austin during SXSW and people needed a way to find rooms: Airbnb. Fast forward to 2015 when Meerkat had a big push at SXSW. Same kind of thing was that it helped people absorb and understand what was going on at SXSW. And you may never have heard of Meerkat — it was short lived, it gave rise to Periscope. 

ES: I remember it well. I remember every example you just shared.

HF: Yeah, Periscope gave rise to Facebook Live. So, again, I’m not a very good overall soothsayer, and my broker will tell you that, but I am pretty committed or pretty understanding that if you have some kind of technology service app that helps people at SXSW, whether it be transportation, whether it be hotel rooms, whether it be following your friend, connecting with your friends, finding new friends, that’s going to be successful. There are certainly plenty of success stories of start-ups at SXSW that are not directly [related] to absorbing SXSW, but they just don’t get the same or have not ever gotten the same amount of traction as things that follow that formula of “How does it help someone at SXSW?” And I think that SXSW, in a sense, is a preview of the future that we’re getting ever closer to, where you have a very dense population, a hyper-connected population, people who are using their smartphone proportionally more than the general population, and people who are trusting in that technology proportionally more than the general population. So, again, it’s a nice test bed for a certain kind of technology.

ES: That’s a great segue, because when we first saw social media, we all hailed it, and idealized its potential to democratize information and empower individuals. But Cambridge Analytica is a long way from the wisdom of the crowd. We seem to have partly been commandeered by demagogues and state-sponsored propaganda and troll farms. By rite of passage, I mean right of your position — you’re one of the most influential technology tastemakers in the world by who you put on the stage. Do you feel some sort of responsibility, do you feel an ethical responsibility with that power? Or if you could get Putin’s head of their troll farm, would you give the keynote?

HF: I’m sorry, who was the head of the troll farm? Which troll farm are we talking about?

ES: I don’t know, I don’t know who they are because they’re anonymous. But one of the things we saw through the election was all these troll farms in Russia that were sponsored. So if you could get the head of one of those troll forums to come in and give a talk, would you? Do you feel any sort of moral responsibility with SXSW at all?

HF: Yes, increasingly so, and increasingly within that scenario that you eloquently outlined there, that 10 years ago, probably even 5 years ago, we were all much more optimistic and enthusiastic about the possibilities of technology and the possibilities of social media. I think particularly in a post-Cambridge Analytica way, we’ve all come to realize that social media has a significant downside as it has an upside, that the people who warned us about the lack of privacy and what that would mean for our civilization were, in a sense, very prescient. And that does lead to a sense of responsibility. I think that while the head of a troll farm would be very “interesting,” I think that we do have a responsibility to provide forward-thinking content that is inspiring and is positive, and I don’t know that having someone who is using these tools to generally negative effect or impact is the way we want to go there. Now, perhaps pairing that kind of person with a strong journalist who can ask strong questions and won’t back down from those questions, is insightful, but I also think that part of our role, part of our moral code here, is to try to point to a better future, whatever that is in 2019, and try to inspire people with tech leaders, decided leaders that are doing good things, as opposed to depress them with folks that are not particularly doing good things with these tools.

ES: Is that getting tougher? Are those people getting tougher to find? Because they were everywhere before. Are they still out there? The optimists?

HF: I think they are out there. But yes to your question, it is a lot tougher to find these folks. And again, 10 years ago we could choose any number of rising tech leaders and say, “Wow, look at all the great things that this company is doing.” And where we are in 2019 and 2020, most of those tech leaders, we have realized that their creations have a significant downside. And that is, I think, a particular challenge for SXSW in the sense that so much of our growth was built on the wave of social media, social media innovation, being in the right place at the right time on social media. And again, where we are in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and realizing that social media is a real force that has some real negative impacts. And trying to wrestle with that and trying to showcase more inspirational leaders that are perhaps less involved with technology and more involved with other “innovations” that aren’t directly tech related.

ES: Hugh, what’s the biggest programming mistake you ever made at SXSW?

HF: The biggest programming mistake was when we waded into Gamergate in late 2015 and 2016. And that was — “big” does not even accurately describe how many mistakes we made in that particular instance.

ES: Can you tell us briefly what happened?

HF: We accepted a pro-Gamergate session. And, briefly, Gamergate can be described as a section of the gaming community that maybe doesn’t believe in equality, gender equality, as a goal for gaming. And we also accepted an anti-Gamergate session. This created a huge outcry in our community that we accepted both of these. We then doubled down on our mistakes by dropping both of these sessions from the schedule, which created even more of an outcry. Eventually we somewhat, or a little bit, mitigated this problem by adding in a series of sessions about online harassment. But again, I would much rather, I would have far fewer gray hairs if we just never made this mistake in the first place, of going down this path. If there’s anything remotely interesting about the Gamergate debacle, particularly looking at it through the lens of 2018, 2019, 2020, is a lot of those problems that we faced with Gamergate moved into the more mainstream society with the rise of the alt-right. And our current struggles or inability to control the alt-right or to understand what free speech is and what that really means and should platforms try to limit speech from the alt-right, or should that be protected by first amendment? So again, this was a huge, huge mistake on our end to go down that path. We learned a lot about crisis communications and the power of social media for good and not so good in that experience. And I think, hopefully, the even bigger lesson was that, going back to something I said earlier, we made these decisions on Gamergate without having exhaustive discussions on the implications of doing this. And had we had more exhaustive discussions on the implications of doing this, we probably would not have made those mistakes. So if there’s any lesson I’ve learned in doing this for 30 years it’s that the more you discuss something, the more you think it through, the less likely you’re going to make the kinds of mistakes that you look back on and wish you hadn’t embraced.

ES: Hugh, thanks for taking the time to do this. Final question: biggest surprise from all your years at SXSW?

HF: I think the biggest surprise that I have year after year at SXSW — and the fact that it happens every year, I probably shouldn’t be so surprised at it, but it’s still surprising, and surprising in a positive way — is as follows. On the one hand, SXSW as a tech company, as a tech conference, we’ve evolved into one of the world’s best, most prominent showcases of tech leaders who are coming up with all kinds of new ways to connect people via social media, via other new technology platforms. And that’s neat that we’ve grown to that position and that’s something that I’m proud of. That said, what we find every year at SXSW is that what people still crave immensely is face-to-face connections. I mean, you can connect by whatever new social media platform there is, you can connect via VR, by AR, by MR, by XR, by 23rd-century interfaces, via 5G, via 6G, via 7G. All that stuff is great and all that stuff is important and part of our future, and it’s things we will continue to explore at SXSW and other similar events. But again, what we really find, which is surprising and which is good, is that people still like to come together and interact in a face-to-face environment. They like to be able to shake someone’s hand, they like to be able to go to breakfast with someone, go to lunch, go to dinner, have a drink, have coffee, talk in a hallway, talk at a bar, talk at a party, that type of thing. And again, in a world that is so technology driven, that power of face-to-face connection is surprising and always leaves me relatively optimistic that the humans will win out.

ES: You know, it’s one of the unique things about SXSW. It seems so simple, you would think other conference organizers would follow suit. But something as basic as just having tables and chairs in the hallways, and having water available, and having enough WiFi, creates an opportunity to sit down and meet other people without having to do it in the aisles of a trade show, or to do it in a breakout room while you’re waiting for a speaker. There’s something very human about just sitting down and meeting people without either being a consumer or looking for information. And one of the things that struck me about SXSW the first time I went — gosh, why don’t more people do this? Why don’t they just put tables and chairs around so people can congregate? And I guess it’s because they don’t want to feel like they’ll be ripping off their exhibitors, or I don’t know what it is. But it definitely sets you guys apart. It was something that I thought [inaudible] was really good with, with the web as well, when it was around, the two conferences that stand out because you can go grab a coffee and meet somebody. And also, you don’t pay $12 for a bottle of water, there’s water there. 

HF: Thanks, Eric, for the nice words. I think there are a lot of great events that create a lot of great ways for people to interact. And we at SXSW can learn a lot from these things. But again, at a basic human level, people like to come together and share their creativity. And coming together and sharing creativity is never more important than it is now. We’ve got computers, machines, algorithms that can do lots of stuff a lot better than we can. But those computers, machines, algorithms can’t be quite as creative as we can, and can’t be quite as creative as when you put two really interesting people together and let them talk for a little while.

ES: Hugh Forrest, Chief Programming Officer at SXSW, thanks for joining us.

HF: Thanks for having me. 

ES: Thanks for listening. This is Eric Schwartzman for the B2B Lead Gen podcast. See you next time.

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