With a little more than one week before the digital world converges on Austin, Texas, for South By Southwest Interactive, startups around the globe are gearing up to turn heads. Many have teams in place to guerrilla market through the streets of downtown. Others throw huge parties in the Congress/Red River area, and others chose the traditional booth in the expo hall.

Startups head to SXSW Interactive for a shot at an entrepreneurial Cinderella story. If Twitter and Foursquare can do it, why can’t your brilliant idea?

While there is a split in opinions of launching your startup at SXSW, to many it’s too good an opportunity to pass up for marketing, promotions and the possibility of standing in the same coffee line as the VC you’ve sent dozens of e-mails to.

The question is: How does a company stand out in the crowded atmosphere of SXSW?

Between the panels, parties, stack of rack cards seemingly a mile high and the dozens of people who approach me while I’m simply trying to make it around the convention center to “download and try their app for a free gift,” I completely forget about 98% of the companies I discover at SXSW.

Here are several ways startups and technology companies are trying to stand out and create a memorable impression with at least a fraction of the almost 15,000 attendees.

  1. Rides: Giving rides is a gracious and appreciated gesture. When you’re running between panels or meetings and one is at Sheraton at noon and the other at the Hyatt at 1:45, there’s no relying on the bus system. Or cabs for that matter. But if you can send a simple tweet to get a ride, you’re going to go out of your way to publicly thank and connect with the company that gives you a lift. Telerik, an international developer tools company, will provide SXSW Interactive badge holders with a complimentary ride if they’re willing to answer questions about various IT subjects along the way. Its “TechCab Confessions” offers it an opportunity to connect with the ideal potential customers. You can find out more about the service at its website. Denver’s HomeAdvisor is taking a different approach. It sees more value in giving free rides at night after the parties and events wrap. It’ll run its service from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. and require only a tweet to @homeadvisor using the hashtag #trusthomeadvisor to get picked up.
  2. Find partners to create an offering: Hosting a huge party is expensive. But Togather, a book event crowdfunding platform, forged in-kind partnerships with a brewery, authors already traveling to the SXSW and users of its service to create unique events that offer experiences directly tied to its service. A charity dinner was planned with the brewery and it used its incubator’s already rented and paid for space to host late night readings. The authors in town love the opportunity to schmooze with more conference goers, and the other sponsorships kept costs to a minimum and appeal to a maximum. Seize opportunities to create unique events that don’t require a cool indie band and a $12,000 bar tab.
  3. Be an anarchist: Forget SXSW “official.” The city if filled with unofficial events that target festival-goers but aren’t listed in the SXSW programming. If can grab some speakers or personalities who catch attention (media members, VCs, social influencers, authors, etc.) and get them to donate time or for little cost/promotional value spearhead an event you can attach your name to, do it. Adometry, an ad analytics startup based in Austin, is conducting an educational event featuring renowned statistician Nate Silver, with a three-hour agenda of offerings, including food. The companies give attendees an exclusive experience during a crowded weekend; it’s more than just a party to create buzz and hashtags that die soon after the event.
  4. Power in numbers: Many startups organize events under one banner. This year, there is a group of startups conducting the first community representation at SXSWi. Las Vegas startups are booming, following investments in the city’s downtown area, and the success of tech startups from Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh. They’re heading to SXSW to promote their community as a group. They’ve bought booth space but are also hosting a private press lounge at the Driskill, several parties and other grass-roots marketing throughout the city. While their tactics there border on typical, they were able to afford them by gathering a headlining sponsor and pooling funds from eight official participants, and they will go not just to push the startups’ offerings but to entice techies to set up shop in Las Vegas.

The ways of infiltrating and capitalizing on SXSW are endless, and many startups with the smallest budgets find ways to get creative and gather attention. That said, don’t discount run-of-the-mill items such as T-shirts, stickers and stress balls. Have fun with your plans and try not to go for broke; you’ll feel bad if you don’t tip the shuttle driver on the way to the airport.

Constance Aguilar is a social media strategist and account manager at Abbi Public Relations, where she oversees client strategy on social media channels and through traditional media relations as well as event producing. You can follow her on Twitter @ConnieAguilar and read her blog posts at The Abbi Agency Blog.

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