5 Lessons for Public Media from SXSW

Posted on Thursday, March 15, 2012 in Insights, iMA Innovators Blog,

By Amanda Hirsch

As I catch my breath after a week in Austin, I wanted to share five key takeaways from SXSW for my public media brethren. These lessons are distilled from festival speakers and sessions, conversations with other public media professionals who attended "Southby," and my observations of the festival experience itself. Here we go:

1. Talk Less, Listen More

We don’t like going to dinner with someone who just talks about himself, observed panelist Liz Strauss at a session about measuring social media ROI. Similarly, we’re turned off by companies that just talk about themselves online.  Translation: if all you do in your Twitter feed or on your Facebook page is hawk your own shows/content/services… it’s time for a course correction.

Social media is supposed to be social. Approach these spaces as two-way channels, not broadcast platforms. This is how you build the authentic relationships that will ultimately fuel deep support for your organization.  

2. Discover What Your Users Really Want (So You Can Give it To Them)

The best journalists are great listeners, as NPR’s Matt Thompson observed at the iMA conference -- and so are the best interactive strategists, says KPBS's Leng Caloh. Inspired by Jared Spool's session on usability at SXSW, Caloh observed, "Being a good interactive strategist is like being a good journalist: it's about asking the right questions. What is the user trying to do? What will they try to achieve that? What are the metrics saying about what they're doing?" (Read a recap of Spool's session.)

The takeaway: As public media continues to explore new and better ways to engage Americans, we need to remember to listen to those we hope to serve, in order to serve them best. Note: listening is more than just patiently waiting your turn while someone else talks -- it's paying close attention. Observing. Hearing what's on the surface, sure, but also reading between the lines.

3. Come Out of Your Shell

Take a page from the Girl Scouts, and make new friends. Don't be insular. A number of public media folks I spoke to who attended SXSW emphasized how much information and insight they gained by attending a conference outside of the public media industry.  Of course, registration is expensive, so the takeaway here isn't necessarily to attend SXSW -- but to make a point of attending conferences and/or networking events outside public media.

This extroversion might also help you discover new fans -- and new talent. 

"Public media is much bigger than public broadcasting," notes AIR's Jessica Clark, pointing out that at SXSW "it wasn't just pubmedia folks who attended pubmedia panels." To Clark, this says that "there are many more people knocking at the door than we're letting in."

4. We Haven't Cornered the Market on Storytelling

Sometimes, I think we pride ourselves so much on the quality of our content that we forget how much other good content is out there. SXSW is teeming with storytellers, and with people who have storytelling expertise. I attended a session called Digital Storytelling for Nonprofits, and a friend attended (and raved about) a similar session called Mother Goose Got Punked: Next Gen Visual Stories. There were a ton of sessions on cross-platform storytelling (or "transmedia," the nom du jour), and of course, there was an entire film festival -- one film I especially enjoyed was a documentary called The Source, about a cult (my term) in 1970s LA.

The takeaway here is a corollary to #3 above: Remember that the world is full of storytellers, and stories, and stay on the lookout for the best of both to share with your communities... you may find them in unlikely places.

5. Content Is Only Part of the Equation

A lot of people attend SXSW, in part, to experience the famous Austin sunshine. This year, the festival began with two days of rain -- cold, relentless rain. On top of this, registration swelled to new levels, leaving some people waiting in line for two hours to pick up their festival badge -- and lines continued to greet attendees at nearly every turn. These setbacks placed more pressure on the conference sessions themselves to meet a high quality standard -- and while a number of sessions were strong, many fell short... something that was all the more noticeable in the absence of sunshine, at the end of a long line.

Just as the SXSW brand is about a combination of content (sessions) and the experiences that surround that content (lines, weather), your brand as a public media station/producer is about your content, yes, but also the experience you deliver -- how you make people feel. That means the usability and tone of your website matter.  The design of your mobile interfaces matter. Your responsiveness and personality on social media matter. The availability of your content when and where people want it, matters. Imagine you're an inspiring SXSW keynote on a sunny Austin day.


My husband and I led a session at SXSW called "Change Happens: Improv for an Unpredictable World," which distilled lessons in adaptability and leadership from the art of improvised comedy. One of the things you learn in improv is that listening isn’t about being polite – it’s about mining as much information as possible from the other person, so you can build the best scene possible. Replace the word “scene” with “story,” “product” or “service” and this lesson applies to business, public media included.

Listen on social media. Listen, everywhere you can, to what your community is telling you it wants, and needs. Listen to experts and practitioners in other industries. Listen for new stories and storytellers, in unexpected places. Then put that all together to deliver not just content, but an experience, that leaves people feeling satisfied.

You'll bring the house down.