Is the SXSWi Badgeless Movement a Sign of Things to Come in the Event Industry?

March 18, 2012

It started with a tweet:

“Connect to #Badgeless2012, FB and the Web”

At first, I thought that “Badgeless” might be referring to a technology that allowed event participants to interact with one another without using the square 3 x 4” piece of paper dangling from a string that we refer to as a badge.

I was wrong. A subsequent Twitter exchange with Chris Heuer, the founder of the global Social Media Club organization and member of the Badgeless Group at SXSWi, revealed so much more:

Badgeless is an organized movement of individuals who choose not to register (or pay the steep cost for a badge) for the annual nerd fest in Austin, Texas. Instead, its members connect via social media to enjoy the many free (and non-sanctioned) activities that have grown up around the main conference and trade show.

Badgeless participants didn’t get to see the Al Gore or Ray Kurzweil keynotes (although some buy a one-day-pass), but they did get a lot of free tacos and beer and each other, which is apparently the main attraction for them. Many of them are SXSWi veterans who have been there, done that. Now, they just want to see their friends. Chris Heuer was selling Badgeless T-shirts to raise money for his Social Media Club nonprofit association.

Although the argument can be made that Badgeless members are entitled to draft off the 26-year success that is SXSW, the practice is discomfiting to people that organize events for a living.

Heuer’s rationale for justifying his Badgeless status is that he contributes to the event in other ways by blogging and promoting it, and because, he tweets, “there is a community of people that exists who are #badgeless2012 already.” Plus, “it’s truly not against anyone, it’s for and about the alternative,” and “#WorldHasChanged,” he writes.

For some of the non-conformists, it’s about the money. Some Austin locals simply cannot afford to attend. Others, however, have somehow negotiated their airfare, lodging, food (no one can live on free tacos, can they?), local transport and other amenities, but choose not to buy the badge on principle or as one tweeter on the Badgeless2012 hashtag noted, “just to see what it was like.”

Circumventing the “system” is not new. Anyone remember Woodstock (jokes aside) where eventually the burgeoning crowd just broke the fences down and let themselves into the concert? Traci Browne recently wrote very poignantly about suitcasing at the Exhibitor Show in Las Vegas. And, despite conference organizer attempts to “own” the hotels surrounding their events, outboarding inevitably takes place all the time.

So what can event producers learn from the Badgeless movement at SXSWi?

  • For some, walled gardens of information are no longer attractive or worth paying for.
  • There is a sense of entitlement (good or bad) among some community members that justifies their activities “outside the tent.”
  • We are vulnerable because people can and will self-organize if we don’t help organize them.
  • There are whole groups of folks that aren’t part of our current communities doing interesting things.
  • If face-to-face interaction is the best offering we have, that isn’t enough.
  • Our communities are organizing themselves around ideas because we are too lame to be the idea.

What can event organizers do?

Acknowledge the dissenting voices. SXSW organizers are aware of Badgeless and other organized groups (there were plenty of companies selling their wares on the streets of Austin that didn’t pay sponsorship fees) and try to reach out to them.

Stop offering commodities. If what event organizers sell becomes something that is predictable, standardized and without differentiation, buyers will either look elsewhere for a less expensive option or seek to create something better on their own.

Let the outsiders in. Create virtual experiences—keynotes projected on a screen, hybrid extensions of live content and a social media outreach—to make people feel like there’s a party going on in the next room. Perhaps next time, they won’t want to miss it.

Provide a variety of ways for attendees to experience the event.There will always be a certain number of attendees who just want to hang out with friends. Others will come to learn. More will want to kick the tires at the trade show. Events must cater to all these groups.

The point is that the world has changed. After the current homogenous group of attendees moves on to retirement, the next demographic slated to fuel the growth of the trade show and conference industry isn’t going to settle for the same old same old. Either event organizers begin innovating now by changing the experience and opening up the doors to new ideas and ways of doing business or they will be on the outside sampling the free tacos and beer.

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