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Hold the smartphone: SXSW Interactive attendance number change paints different picture

In its 20th year, SXSW Interactive struggles with signal-to-noise ratio

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Last week, two days after the conclusion of South by Southwest Interactive, I reported attendance numbers for the festival, a number we usually post the last night of Interactive but which was delayed this year. In the Thursday post, we said that festival attendance was down for the first time since 2002, with 29,668 versus 30,621 for the 2013 festival.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson said in his keynote at the festival in reference to Pluto and the number of planets in our solar system, it's probably a good idea not to get too attached to specific numbers.

The festival has revised the figure, saying that the 29,668 number failed to include festival speakers who were comped gold badges, a mistake which would have accounted for another badged 2,836 registrants. An additional 294 registrants, fest director Hugh Forrest says in an email, "Came via the 'cleaning / re-counting' process that traditionally occurs after SXSW." 

What does this mean?

  • It means the total number of Interactive participants (Interactive, Gold and Platinum badgeholders with access to the fest) was actually 32,798.
  • It also means, contrary to what the previous narrative may have suggested, the festival did not shrink or plateau or  go bust due to over-branding and Lady Gaga. Though, Forrest himself points out in the same email, "Percentage-wise, this is the least we have grown over the last 10 years. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. As always, the quantity of the registrants is less important than the quality of their experience."
  • It means the festival grew about 7 percent from 2013 to 2014 versus a decline of 3 percent as was previously reported.
  • It means the festival was more crowded than last year, a feeling I had throughout the fest that didn't seem to gibe with the 29,668 number, though the weather scramble to get indoors may have also had something to do with that.

Over the last week, I've wondered a lot about how much importance we place on the attendance number every year (certainly, I'm always scrambling to get it confirmed and posted at fest's end) and whether it paints a true picture of the Interactive experience. 

It certainly can't be denied that from 2006-2014, growth of the fest in raw numbers has been a major part of the SXSW Interactive narrative. It has created logistics problems downtown, it has shaped the perception attendees have of the fest from an intimate little fest into a bohemoth and it has, somewhat predictably, tied in to larger conversations about whether the festival has become over-branded, whether SXSW Music's party atmosphere may have contributed to tragedy and whether the attendance of Interactive can be tied into a prediction of when (or if) the tech bubble will burst.

That's a very long sentence to say this: the number is just a number and there are plenty of other stories and variables that will determing whether SXSW Interactive has peaked and what its future will be.

Revised attendance figures:

1995: 1,010(N/A)
1996: 1,356 (34%)
1997: 1,401 (3%)
1998: 1,252 (-10%)
1999: 2,233 (78%)
2000: 3,755 (68%)
2001: 3,155 (-15%)
2002: 3,015 (-4%)
2003: 3,036, (1%)
2004: 3,270 (8%)
2005: 3,343 (2%)
2006: 4,733 (42%)
2007: 6,843 (45%)
2008: 9,052 (32%)
2009: 10,741 (19%)
2010: 14,251 (33%)
2011: 19,364 (36%)
2012: 24,569 (27%)
2013: 30,621 (25%)
2014: 32,798 (7%)
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