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Podcast Episode 046: Listen to your audience like SXSW

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Hugh Forrest serves as Chief Programming Officer for South by Southwest (SXSW). Held annually in Austin, Texas, this event brings together more than 70,000 industry creatives from across the United States, around the world.

These creatives are inspired by nine days of panels, presentations, brainstorming, networking, deal-making, socializing, creating, innovating, and fun. The worlds of film, gaming, music, comedy, science and technology collide at SXSW. Year on year, the conference consistently draws big names as keynote speakers, and creates hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact.

Hugh is responsible for listening to the feedback of 50,000 people – the attendees of each year’s event – and distilling 5,000 ideas into 10 days of action. SXSW places enormous value on listening to the event attendees, sponsors, staff and the community as a whole. Hugh says without this, you lose your relevancy.

Over the course of six weeks, each year Hugh and his team sift through feedback. It gives a fuller picture of the event, as an organiser there are things that didn’t go well that you had no idea about. It can be exhausting, especially when the criticisms are sharp. But it is this which helps you get better.

SXSW has a unique voting system to facilitate interaction with the community, the panel picker ensures that anyone with an internet connection can submit a speaking proposal. It allows users to vote on topics, giving Hugh an idea of what people are really interested in.

It’s not just learning and listening to the audience that is crucial – Hugh and his team initiate a dialogue with those who’ve provided feedback – replying to emails, having a coffee with their attendees. Some of the best advocates for the conference previously had a complaint, but were addressed by Hugh’s team and made positive.


Episode 046: Deep Listening with Hugh Forrest


South by Southwest is arguably the coolest entertainment trade show of the year. We’re back in Downtown Austin. South by Southwest attracts a bunch of big names from a bunch of big industries, film, gaming, music, comedy, and technology, which is a big reason why we’re here right now. Last year when we were here, we talked with some pretty cool people, including Frank Oz, the voice of Yoda and Kermit the Frog, and the composer for La La Land. Previous speakers at South by Southwest I mean have included Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, and this year we have some big names as well. Melinda Gates is here, Eddy Cue of Apple, and Chelsea Manning. Nonny de la Peña is here, the godmother of VR.

We’ve talked with her in the past, and she’s giving a keynote speaking presentation this year.

Oscar Trimboli:            

Started in 1987, South by Southwest is an annual conference in Austin, Texas and brings together over 50,000 people creating hundreds of millions of dollars of economic impact. Hugh Forrest is the chief programming officer of South by Southwest. For decades, he’s been listening to the voice of the attendees. Hugh helps to answer the question how do you listen to the feedback from 50,000 people and then how do you distil 5,000 ideas so that you can create a thousand great speaking opportunity for the next year?

Hugh and his team take the time and by time, I mean a lot of time, six weeks to sift through the feedback from the previous year’s attendees. Hugh and his team make a point of engaging with people who’ve provided criticism. As a result, they’re both surprised and delighted when they’re contacted. Yet despite this care, the collection of potential speakers, of voting system for the attendees, Hugh and his team nearly missed out on having one of the fasted growing social media companies of its time speak at their event in Austin. Let’s hear from Hugh.

Oscar Trimboli:   

Hugh, I’m curious what you struggle with when it comes to listening.

Hugh Forrest:              

I think the thing that I struggle with the most and need to refine my approach on is bandwidth on listening. I love to talk to my staff and get their impressions. I love to talk to the community, whether that’s the virtual community or the actual community, and get their impressions of what South by Southwest is doing well and not so well at. But I find that all those things are fairly time consuming and time is one of my most valuable assets at this point as it is with I would think most of your users. How to balance out those two concerns, how to spend a good amount of energy and bandwidth listening to users, listening to community, but also how to not have that absorb my entire day or entire week.

Oscar Trimboli:     

For an event of 30 years and hundreds of thousands of people who come through each year, what do you think the cost of not listening would be for South by Southwest?

Hugh Forrest:              

I think the cost of not listening is you just lose your relevancy to your community. I think that in many ways and in many instances your community, your users understand your product better than you do. That’s a difficult thing to say because you want to know everything about what you’re doing, but they are certainly experiencing what you produce, your events in a different way than you are as an organiser. The more that you can listen to their experience, learn from their experience, understand what they like about the event, understand what they didn’t like about the event, try to figure out which of their concerns are most valid and which of the concerns may not have quite as much validity, I think the more relevant you can make the event and more compelling you can make the event.

I feel like that over the 30 year arch of South by Southwest the more that technology has evolved and evolved in fairly simple ways, the better we’ve been able to listen to our audience and learn from our audience and improve accordingly.

Oscar Trimboli:            

In the planning process kicking off for the next year, there’s so many stakeholders that you need to think about. There’s the audience, the of course, but there’s speakers, there’s sponsors, there’s staff, there’s the Austin community, there’s the broader community who cross the United States, and South by Southwest has a global impact these days. Talk us through our you prepare and what’s some of the techniques you use to listen to the audience for the current year for example.

Hugh Forrest:              

Well, we spend a what I like to say probably say is an inordinate amount of time reading through user feedback from the previous year. There are many who had reasons for doing that. You learn about the event from a completely different perspective than you had as an organisers. There’s often things that you learn that were great that you had no knowledge of. There are often things that you learn that didn’t go so well that you had no knowledge of. Just reading this feedback gives you a much better perspective and much fuller perspective and much more nuanced perspective of what was good and what needs improvement.

I’ll also say that that process of reading feedback, of digesting feedback, of trying to understand feedback, of listening to what your users and what your community is saying can be mentally, emotionally, spiritually exhausting. It’s often not easy reading sharp criticisms of what you’ve done, particularly if you think you’ve done something incredibly great. I think you try to have a generally positive attitude here and understand it’s all part of the learning process and helps you get better. Throughout the most harsh criticisms and throughout the highest praise and the whatever objective truth is, it is somewhere in the middle, but again helps you do that by reading this feedback.

We’ll spend six weeks reading feedback, trying to analyse that feedback, try to put that into some general themes and even more specific themes. Then by about late May, early June we’re beginning to plan for the next year. One of the big pieces in terms of planning for the next year is this South by Southwest PanelPicker interface that we’ve been using for approximately a decade. This is an interface where anyone in the community, which basically means anyone with a web connection, can enter a speaking proposal. It is a system that allows us to listen to what the community wants, to get new ideas and new speakers into the event.

We’ll get somewhere in the neighbourhood of 5,000 total ideas, speaking proposals for South by Southwest, of which probably about a thousand of those will be accepted to the event. The other 4,000 are also again very, very useful in terms of trying to discern what our community wants to hear, what our community wants to learn about in the coming year, is it that in 2018 our community is much more focused on learning the latest technologies or the newest ideas about blockchain or the latest technologies and newest ideas about a security or the latest ideas, newest technologies in terms of any of the other kind of verticals that we cover.

But again, this PanelPicker system is ultimately a way for us to communicate with our audience for us to learn from our audience, for us to listen to our audience. I think it’s one of the many things that has helped us continue to improve as an event.

Oscar Trimboli:            

Back in the late ’80s where South by Southwest started, how did you collect feedback in the days where you didn’t have this mass scale technologies?

Hugh Forrest:              

It was certainly word of mouth then and more reading accounts of the event in what was then the dominant media, which would be newspapers and magazines. South by Southwest started in 1987. We added in 1994 what was then this multimedia event. Put ourselves 20 years back in a time machine or 25 years back, that was right when we’re in this beginning of the kind of internet era. The feedback mechanisms were certainly not as sophisticated then as they are now, but we also … I mean another thing that we did then, maybe do less of now, was just have focus groups. Go out to lunch or have a coffee with someone who’s attended the event and ask them what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it.

Try to get a different perspective on what you’ve produced and again what was good about it and what was less good about it. Certainly everyone will have a different opinion and everyone will have different ideas, but the more people you can listen to and the more inputs you can have there, the more you can kind of get a sense of, well, generally people like this aspect, generally people thought this aspect wasn’t as good and move forth accordingly. There’s sometimes that I think that as an event organiser maybe you don’t listen to your audience and maybe you make a decision that the audience isn’t as quite informed as you are, but those instances are few and far between.

Your audience is your lifeblood and the more you understand what they’re saying, what they want, I think the stronger you become.

Oscar Trimboli:            

Organizationally and individually, when you see complaints or those sharp criticisms that you talked about earlier on, what do you do with them? Because it’s one thing for surveys to collect information, it’s quite another for the people who took the time to provide the feedback to know that you’ve heard them. How do you close the loop in those situations?

Hugh Forrest:              

One of the things that the exercises that we’ve done within my staff in terms of processing this feedback is that each staff member has to read something in the neighbourhood of 300 or 400 total feedback records. The record could be fairly long depending on how much time and effort the particular attendee put into that process. It is absolutely great and ego enriching and fun and heartwarming and sends tingles up your spine when you read someone who said, “I had a great time at your event. South by Southwest is the highlight of my year. I got a new job. I met my girlfriend there. I decided to move to Texas,” and all those great things.

That’s great, but again, more beneficially is when you read someone who has sharp criticisms or complaints about the event and brings up specific and focusable issues that could be changed in the future. Again, with this feedback project that I have my staff do, part of what their exercise is responding by email to the people who had complaints and reaching out to them, trying to create a dialogue. In about a little less than half the cases I’d say, the person will respond back and usually respond back pretty positively, “Wow. I can’t believe that someone actually read what I had to say and I really appreciate you having a dialogue with me.”

There’s often nothing that can be done to solve this person’s particular problem since it happened in the past, but again, people by and large like to know that they’re being listened to and their complaints, their issues, their challenges are being taken seriously. There’s sometimes when people who had complaints respond negatively. My instruction to my staff is there’s no point in getting into an online shouting match with this person. Just don’t respond at that point. But again, in many cases, reaching out creates a bridge and creates a relationship and win someone back to the event.

They say, “Wow. Someone’s actually listening to what I’m saying. Someone’s actually taking my experience and the problems I had seriously. Someone’s absorbing my experience into how they will reform the event in future years.” Again, some of our best customers have come from people who initially had that negative experience, but you reached out to or we reached out to and created a personal connection there.

Oscar Trimboli:            

Do you have a couple of memorable complaints?

Hugh Forrest:              

One of the biggest complaints that we will get or the challenges we will get at this point is people not being able to get into a session, a panel, a presentation because it was too crowded and just being really upset about that problem. We have a pretty good way to respond to these people now, but ultimately that response is simply saying, “I’m really sorry. We try to figure out and match what perceived attendance to room size, but it doesn’t always work. We’re really sorry that you couldn’t get into this session in 2018, but there are all these other great sessions to get a chance to go to any of those.”

Oscar Trimboli:            

Listening to thousands of thousands of survey responses, how do you and your team work through that to sift out the patterns that inform the themes going forward?

Hugh Forrest:              

We will have a day long staff meeting where people on the team present their experiences and what they saw in their feedback and some of the ideas that seem to pop to them the most, as well as the experiences of reaching out to customers, what went right, what went wrong. It lets everyone on the team hear what other people have been doing, learn from them, identify it sometimes with the things they’ve said that match with their own experience. I’m a firm believer that learning to speak in public, whether that’s in front of 10 people or 20 people or 200 people or 2,000 people, is a life skill that can help you in many, many different ways. Asking people to present like that in front of a group helps us get better.

This bottom line, which you’re so focused on and hopefully we’re focused on, is listening to the customers. The more you listen, the more you learn.

Oscar Trimboli:            

What are the other processes or inputs that you use to keep South by Southwest relevant over the three decades that you’ve been going?

Hugh Forrest:              

Predicting the future is incredibly, incredibly, incredibly difficult. If it weren’t difficult, more of us would be doing much better with whatever we’re doing. But knowing what’s going to happen or imagining what’s going to happen in a year, three years, five years, 10 years is borderline impossible. One of our competitive advantages in that regard, however, is that the scale of an event like South by Southwest where we’re putting on hosting literally a thousand panels and presentations on literally hundreds of different topics. In terms of predicting the future, we maybe wrong on most of those topics, but the fact that we’re addressing so many means that we’re right on a couple also.

That ends up looking pretty impressive, the ones that we are right on and correct on, and in terms of trends when we say, “This is going to be big in a few years,” and if we’re correct on that. Certainly it is much, much harder for events that are smaller, that are not doing the scale of panels and presentations that we are to accurately predict because you just have fewer bullets to spend there so to speak. I will say that the quality that we’ve bet on for the last 30 years and will continue to bet on for the next 10, 20, 30 years, however long South by Southwest is lucky enough to survive, is creativity. We’ve always bet that creativity is popular now, will be popular next year, and will be popular five years from now.

As much as the world has changed in that 30 years since South by Southwest started, creativity is still an incredibly powerful component of all of our lives.

Oscar Trimboli:            

What are the big successes that have come out of PanelPicker and maybe what are some of the big failures that have come out of PanelPicker too?

Hugh Forrest:              

The PanelPicker is an interface again that we developed about 10 years ago. Anyone who can get online can enter a speaking proposal, and there’s about a month long period where speaking proposals can be entered. After that month long period, we have about two weeks where we kind of polish up everything that’s been entered, and then we have an interface where all those ideas are displayed. Again, it’s in the neighbourhood of 5,000 total ideas, so it’s a really long big large interface. Looks like kind of a … Well, it looks like a Gmail interface basically.

The easiest way to digest this is to use the search function to search the topic that most interest you, whether again that topic is wearables or big data or healthcare or artificial intelligence, entrepreneurism. When you can type that into the search function, you’ll get the 20 to 40 to 60 speaking proposals that are on that that cover that topic. You’ll see a title for the proposed session. You click on that title and you can read a description of that proposed session, as well as the proposed speakers. Users can do a simple thumbs up or thumbs down to vote on the session. 

There’s also a comment section where they can comment on a proposal, “Hey, I really like this because this is the wave of the future. These speakers I’ve heard before, they’re absolutely fantastic,” or you can say the opposite, “I don’t think this is relevant to the kinds of stuff that South by Southwest should be covering.” One of the initial successes of the PanelPicker was again understanding how powerful this concept of kind of users, people who would enter ideas sharing their ideas with their networks and telling their networks, “Hey, vote for my idea in the PanelPicker,” and thereby pushing the PanelPicker interface and by extension, pushing awareness of South by Southwest.

For any given proposal that is entered in the PanelPicker, there are three components to a total score that that proposal gets. One component is public voting, i.e., how many thumbs up they get. Another component is how our advisory board, their judgement of the given proposal, and that means five or six people from the advisory board will read each proposal and comment on that and rate that proposal, and then staff will judge each proposal also. The idea of having three different components is that helps mitigate this from simply being a popularity contest.

That if you have a million Twitter followers or Facebook followers, you don’t have an advantage or a significant advantage over someone who has a much less robust social media following. In terms of successes or failures, I think one of our biggest failures in the PanelPicker is several years ago we had a small social media company that entered a speaking proposal. This small social media company was relatively unknown at the time. The speaking proposal got only a few votes. Let’s say two of the votes were thumbs up, three of the votes were thumbs down. Not very much there. The advisory board didn’t particularly like it. The staff who were rating it didn’t particularly this proposal.

The proposal was not accepted as part of the event. Like a lot of the proposals that come in, it got a letter or got an email saying, “Thank you for entering your idea into this interface. We really appreciate you showing your creativity with us. Unfortunately, your idea didn’t make it into this year’s event, but we encourage you to come anyway.” The post script to the story is that small social media company was Pinterest. Between the time that they had initially entered the PanelPicker proposal and the time that the four or five months later when the acceptance and sorry you didn’t make it letters went out, Pinterest had very much exploded.

We were eventually able to find a speaking slot for them and was the evidence that this system doesn’t always work. In terms of some of the big wins out of the PanelPicker, to me the biggest win or one of the biggest wins is simply using the PanelPicker as a barometer of what the community is interested in. Two years ago in the PanelPicker, we saw a huge uptick in the number of proposals that focused on chatbots. That made sense because chatbot technology had all of a sudden launched and become very popular. If you recall two years ago, a lot of tech pundits, futurists, whenever we were on a call had said that chatbots were going to be the next huge thing. Sure, chatbots are still around.

They haven’t gone away, but they haven’t quite popped in the way we thought we would. That said, the fact that we went from zero proposals on chatbots one year to 30 the next year was a strong indication that our community wanted to learn more about this. It was a strong indication how powerful the whole concept of AI was becoming in this community, and AI being kind of the simplest way to explain the technology that powers a lot of this chatbot functionality.

Oscar Trimboli:                                   

One of the things I noticed in working with you was how prompt you replied to an email and how engaged you were in your response. Talk to us how you stay engaged and listen to your staff.

Hugh Forrest:                                     

I’m generally pretty good at meeting with staff people, encouraging them to come and talk to me when they’re happy or not so happy, when they have an issue, when they have something they want to talk about, when they have a new idea. Again, that’s how little bit they’re that challenging to scale that kind of availability to talk with people, but I believe that simply sitting down with someone and talking to them is a show of respect, a show that you value their contribution. You may not always agree with what they’re saying, but again willingness to meet is an important thing.

I’m certainly better or one of my best skills, and I appreciate the nice words on it, is responding to emails quickly or responding to most emails quickly. That is again I think a function of customer service, of wanting to show the people that you’re dealing with that you respect what they have to say that they want to communicate. In the line of work that I do, which is a lot of trying to get people to speak at South by Southwest, it’s when you’re trying to pull in big names, you’re getting rejected quite often.

But it’s always nice when you invite someone to speak and you get a response back, “Thanks for the invite. I can’t do it this year,” as opposed to just never hearing back and wondering, well, did they even open the email or did it go in their spam folder? Again, to me the fact they’re trying to respond promptly, respectfully to emails, trying to communicate with everybody is an important part of showing your place in the community and respecting your community. Certainly there’s some days I’m better than this than other days. It is something that I think that a lot of people have noticed with me. I certainly take pride in that that people have appreciated that they can get a fairy quick response out of me.


I think often, and I’m having to remind myself of this, that often I don’t have a great answer to the person, but even saying, “Hey, I got your email. I don’t have an answer for you yet or I can’t solve this problem yet, but know that I’m thinking about it. I’ll get back to you at some point soon,” again, that process of communication is important.

Oscar Trimboli:            

I admire the care and the speedy replies from Hugh. I noticed that while I was working with him on constructing this podcast. I think leaders set the tone when it comes to listening. They set the example for their teams, for their organisation as well, and Hugh is a wonderful example of a leader who listens. From the systems he use to collect the potential event topics allowing attendees to vote on these topics and then spending up to six weeks to distil feedback and themes from the previous year event is really a great example of listening deeply. It’s a little wonder why South by Southwest has continued to grow, and Hugh’s been asked on many times can he take the out of Austin and take it global as well.

One thing I’ll do differently is understand how do I acknowledge people in email in a way that’s appropriate. I think that was a great listening tip from Hugh, even if a response is not required. To the team that listens to me, to Johnny, to Nell, and to June, thanks for being part of the journey towards a hundred million deep listeners in the world. To you, thanks for listening.


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