The South by Southwest® (SXSW®) Conference and Festivals encompass a number of experiences that take place every March in Austin, Texas. These experiences include a global conference, iconic film & TV festival, legendary music festival, and a comedy festival. Its purpose is to help creative people achieve their goals.
A Better Experience
After the 2020 festival was canceled due to COVID-19, the team behind SXSW 2021 knew they didn’t want that to happen again. After talking internally, they figured out that there was a way to hold SXSW virtually by partnering with Brightcove. They could still bring people together, just in a slightly different way.
Maintaining the sense of discovery that animates SXSW was key. “If we could do that with great talks, with great music performances, with great films, and be able to put that right in people's living room, then we felt like we were giving them a solid experience,” said Marshall Dungan, Senior Producer of SXSW.
When in-person events became an option again in 2022, SXSW decided to retain the virtual component and make their event hybrid. Through Brightcove, they created an OTT app where viewers could watch live and recorded sessions anywhere, whether on the go or in the comfort of their home.
The virtual, at-home audience was a no-brainer, given that many people have home entertainment systems that rival theaters. Providing them with crisp, clean sound and great picture through their own devices mirrored what they had come to expect in SXSW’s conference ballrooms.
The app also addressed the challenges of their in-person attendees. When sessions conflicted with each other, attendees would have to pick only one of them. Putting the content on demand gave the community a way to experience new ideas that they would have otherwise missed at the event.
“Introducing the hybrid model is useful to both in-person and virtual audiences. For example, our keynotes are all livestreamed. So if you can’t necessarily get in the room or you can’t get across town, you can access our keynotes from anywhere,” said Teresa Pappas, Senior Innovation Project Manager at SXSW. “It expands what a South by Southwest attendee can experience,” added Stephen Light, Director of Commercial Content.
Hybrid also gave the team a new avenue to reach people who weren’t able to geographically get to the event. It also appealed to those who simply wanted to be able to have a taste of the conference talks, culture, and overall experience.
“If we hadn't gone virtual, honestly, I question if we would’ve survived,” continued Light. “We needed it to put on the event and to keep ourselves relevant to the world out there at large.”
The greatest challenge going into the 2022 festival was that every session was happening live. In 2021, this wasn’t an issue, as a large swath of content had been prerecorded. Going live each day meant uploading a huge daily content load into SXSW’s CDN and into Brightcove so that it could be accessed wherever and whenever it was needed.
Every single session was created live, recorded, and turned around for the apps’ on-demand library. Furthermore, SXSW had many delivery platforms to produce for: Roku, Android TV, Fire TV, Apple TV, not to mention Android and Apple mobile devices.
On the front end, the team also wanted to create an excellent customer experience. This meant that the app and streaming had to work as expected, from easy login to constant stability.
Accessibility was also top of mind. SXSW had human captioners captioning the keynote and feature speaker rooms where the team was capturing video for the conference and streaming. People with hearing difficulties in the physical audience could watch the captioned video speakers on monitors in the room. These captions were then carried through the live channels, where the transcripts could be used to create SRT files (SubRip Subtitle files) for on-demand content.
Having everything available on demand gave the team something they’d never really had before: a comprehensive content library. “Prior to 2020, we were already set up to produce a ton of content every single year. To be making that much great stuff, but not actually using it in any meaningful way—I just feel like it would be a real waste of potential,” said Dungan.
For SXSW, it was important to find a vendor that could get the event content both online and on set-top boxes in people’s homes. Other companies were considered, but for the OTT app component, the team would have had to work with multiple vendors. With one company, the communication, workflow, and timelines would be more manageable. “I appreciate Brightcove as a vendor because they’re really committed to our vision. We wanted to leverage an existing technology in an entirely new way,” explained Pappas.
SXSW knew this was a hefty request. Previous vendors struggled to work with them because much of their technology was bespoke and because their event produced so much data. However, Brightcove was committed to understanding every issue and coming up with creative solutions.
Seeing other brands partner with Brightcove was a huge plus too. “Brightcove is an industry leader in online video, and so many major brands have worked with and are powered by Brightcove,” noted Light.
“The one word that I would use to describe Brightcove is ‘bulletproof.’ Their stuff just works,” said Dungan.
Working with Brightcove on the OTT component allowed SXSW to grow its audience in a way it hadn’t been able to before. In fact, the team discovered new audiences just by being able to understand where viewers were coming from in the world to experience the event online.
For Dungan, OTT was an obvious addition to the live experience. “It’s such a natural next step to add OTT to your live event, because if you want to be reaching new audiences, you need OTT.”
Light added, “If your audience is growing, your business is going to grow, your event’s going to grow. More people want to learn new things, want to experience new things, so we need to be able to provide those ideas to them.”