SXSW Update: Brands, Boots, Zappos and a Close Encounter with Happiness

When I left my office space overlooking the Chicago River to attend SXSW Interactive, all of a sudden I was hit with the desire to own a pair of cowboy boots. I had no idea my jones-ing would teach me a secret as to why SXSW is so important. And I’m starting to see the bigger lesson in it. Namely, that it’s one thing to know what you want. It’s a far greater thing to get it from extraordinary people.

Everyone comes to SXSW with an agenda. Newbies typically come for the content—namely the panels and keynotes. Veterans come to network at parties. In my case, I know my limitations for small talk and attend both. The mix helps me see what’s coming. I will blog my trend analysis from SXSW later…

SXSW has a personality. It’s high-energy with an explosive imagination. The head rush it delivers springs from being among a tribe of people who thrive in the ethereal space of ideas.

Making the human connection matters more than ever in the digital culture. And the most popular technologies amplify what is human to us all. I met a parade of mind-bending people at SXSW. But there’s one example of what David Brooks calls the “new humanism” that stands out.

And this brings me back to the cowboy boots.

While in Austin, I figured I’d buy a pair rather than ordering them from Zappos, my usual solution. So I sallied forth into a local boot shop. It was the end of the day. Wilted before walking in, I found the heat and crowd of boot-buyers daunting. Still, boots were on my agenda.

You’d think the rivulet of sweat down running down my back would’ve deterred me from trying on some 30 pairs. Nope. I wore the salesgirl’s Southern charm down to a no-nonsense nub. Finally, I chose a pair. The price made my ears throb. Wrapping them up she asked me, “Do you love them?” I muttered something vague and walked out grateful for the rush of fresh air on my clammy skin.

Days later, as I checked out of my hotel, I met a Zappos employee in the lobby. We chatted about CEO Tony Hsieh, his boss, whom I had met in 2009 at SXSW. The guy seemed genuinely sold on Hsieh’s leadership and commitment to the brand promise: Deliver happiness. I confessed that I strayed from Zappos for a boot-buying experience that could best be described as, well, unhappy. He hiked back up to his room and handed over three copies of Tony’s books as a parting gift.

As I waited to board the flight back to Chicago, I glanced over and, lo and behold, there was Tony Hsieh talking on his cell phone (I’m not making this up). I snatched his book from my briefcase and approached cautiously. From a few feet away I gestured, “Will you sign it for me?” He smiled broadly, excused himself from the call and dug out a Sharpie. I softly thanked him as he jotted and told him how much I respected his work. He looked up and blushed, earning his reputation for humility.

It was one of my favorite SXSW moments.

And there it is. We can build dazzling websites. Launch sticky digital campaigns. Tweet our fingers to the bone. And yet, there is nothing so precious as making that human connection.

If you’re lucky, you can string together several such encounters and that’s what keeps many of us coming back to SXSW.