Getting Social at SXSW

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By Liz Gold

Though it's been over two months since South by Southwest (SXSW) was held, it's an event that keeps on giving.

SXSW is a set of film, interactive, and music festivals and conferences that takes place every spring in Austin, Texas. SXSW Interactive, one aspect of the event, is focused on emerging technology, a focus that has earned the festival a reputation as a hotbed for new ideas and creative technologies. For accounting firms, SXSW Interactive is a way to stay ahead of the curve. 

Pannell Kerr Forster of Texas P.C. (PKF) realized this when Raissa Evans, executive manager of Practice Growth, headed there on vacation three years ago. A self-described "marketing nerd" and the Association of Accounting Marketing 2011 Marketer of the Year, Evans took the trip from Houston to Austin to check it out. 

When she returned from the event, she talked to Karen Love, director of Practice Growth, who immediately thought SXSW was something the firm could get behind as a business expense. 

"Technology is critical to the future of business, and business leaders cannot afford to be left behind", Evans said. "We need to know about what is going on outside of the accounting world. By sending a team to this event, we can not only stay on top of trends in technology, but we can also be seen as a company that is tuned in to those trends and looking out for the advantages technology can deliver to clients."

The business case is understandable given the conference's growing popularity. According to Evans, the number of participants who attended SXSW Interactive in 2010 was 14,251, last year there were 19,364, and this year that number increased to 24,569 – with participants coming from seventy-two countries.

For PKF Texas, SXSW Interactive has proven to be a perfect fit. SXSW Interactive's "Startup Village" is a designated area in the hotel that's dedicated to resources, vendors, and breakout sessions, where start-ups and entrepreneurs worldwide can network with private equity firms and venture capitalists. Currently, 40 percent of PKF Texas clients are venture-capital backed. 

So the next year, a team was assembled to attend SXSW Interactive. Aside from abiding by Evans' rule to accept every personal invitation extended (even if that meant skipping a panel), each team member was equipped with a field guide prior to the event. The guide included conversation starters with company facts and information about where people may have heard of or seen the name PKF Texas – whether that be its podcast and radio program for entrepreneurs, its blog, or the private equity network it's connected with. In addition, the guide included key messages PKF knew would be recognized by conference attendees, such as its experience with international business and its status as a Microsoft Gold Partner for business technology solutions.

Evans and Love came back from the SXSW Interactive experience with a ton of ideas and information to share about what's unfolding in the world of technology. They published four articles addressing different aspects of the event; launched a full mobile website,; and took their "PKF Texas - The Entrepreneur's Playbook" of best practice radio tips and rebranded them as thought-leader production videos.

But that was last year.

This year they're still taking stock of all they learned. And while last year they were the only middle market accounting firm present at the Interactive event, this year it seemed more accounting firms were in attendance. Still, that didn't mean other participants weren't surprised to see them there. 

"They have this image in their head that accountants are boring, you know, the green eye shade. They don't realize how deeply [accountants] get into the business of the clients they help", Evans said. "Especially entrepreneurs don't realize that an accountant is a trusted business advisor and can help from their foundation on up."

The team gave out social media cards – instead of the traditional firm business cards – made specifically for the event that listed all the different ways to contact the firm (and individuals) via social media. For the event, they identified themselves as Marketers IRL, which stands for Marketers in Real Life.

"We're not just marketers who sit back and make pretty brochures and make our website look good. What we do has to work in the real world; it's integrated into everything else we do", Evans said. "We don't believe in marketing stunts."

As it stands today, PKF Texas has accounts on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr, and their popular technology blog,, which is written by Greg Price, the firm's Consulting Practice leader.

Though PKF Texas is not yet on Pinterest, Evans said there was a lot of buzz at SXSW Interactive regarding the interest graph platform. "If you're saying 'huh?' at this point, you're not alone. While social media gurus have been talking about the social graph (data mapping based on being aligned with people), the interest graph is a representation of our affinity toward different topics."

"The interest graph is just being explored and has the potential to be a lot more powerful than the social graph", Evans said. "The social graph is about mapping everybody on the planet who is connected to you and how. While the interest graph is more about what your interests and passions are and the strengths of those, and what areas you apply each of those things to. When the interest graph gets mapped out better – one of the big things in that is going to be based on how well you manage your CRM and whether your message is getting through, especially considering aggressive 'noise' controls." 

But the business case for using Pinterest within an accounting firm is still yet to be seen. Evans said the social network could be a natural extension of the firm's already extensive "people section" on its website. While the firm takes pride in a section promoting their people as themselves – with interviews covering everything from their stock interests to why they came to PKF Texas, personal interest bios, candid photos provided by staff, and a link to the firm's Flickr account to showcase its involvement within the community –  Pinterest can offer another dimension to get to know PKF Texas' employees, which in turn can be a great recruiting tool.

All the work and social media has paid off for PKF Texas. According to Evans, at least $3.5 million in client work came directly through Price's blog – which launched in 2006 and just went through a relaunch on a new WordPress platform to keep up with the latest technology and to add social media sharing functionality.

"We have gained clients from several different channels – several from LinkedIn, one from Twitter, as well as getting offers for speaking engagements, media, and meeting new people", Evans said. "We are so heavily involved in the community, and these channels are where people are communicating."

Evans' Top Trending Topics from SXSW Interactive 2012:

Talent wars. There were so many sessions on how to find the right people, how to engage the right people, or how to get more out of the people who are working for you. Even though times are improving, they're not improving everywhere, and employers who were on skeleton crews are having a hard time finding the talent needed to grow.

Biohacking. Timing your work based on biorhythms, figuring out how to be more efficient, getting more out of a day, and busting myths like multitasking. 

Women. An enormous focus on women and the lack of women in technology. Because SXSW is becoming a bit more corporate, they're picking up on this issue that corporate America has been dealing with for a while now in terms of the lack of women in leadership and executive positions.

Pairing down technology. Noise control. Making the mobile experience either better or simpler. Convergence of communication channels and "features" or managing content from multiple sources.

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About the author

Liz Gold owns Rhino Girl Media, offering writing and editing services to companies of all sizes. A published journalist for sixteen years, Liz writes about business and culture. She can be reached at [email protected]


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