How tech companies lured people to SXSW activations

It wasn't just about free stuff.

Thousands of people lined up at trendy Austin bar Icenhauer at SXSW 2018, but they weren't waiting for a refreshing handcrafted cocktail or finger food. Instead, they were trying to get into HP and Intel's "Digital Artistry House," where a handful of artsy demos were set up. And from a quick glance around Rainey Street's other brand-dominated establishments, no other spot was as hot as Icenhauer.

According to HP, close to ten thousand people came through the Digital Artistry House, taking part in activities ranging from an AI portrait generator and an on-the-spot art contest to a series of panels. I was surprised at the amount of people that turned out, to the point where I felt bad cutting ahead of the dozens of people waiting in line under the sun to get in.

After entering, guests can get their portraits done by artists using HP's Zbook X2 tablets, take a photo and have their likeness turned into an AI-morphed work of art or try to design their own laptop skins. The company will mail each guest's masterpiece to them, tailored to the dimensions they set, which makes for a nice post-event gift. Those who want to learn how to improve their creative tech skills can also watch and talk to an Adobe expert who was showing off how he was editing live footage at the scene, or mingle with artist influencers like Android Jones.

All of the stations at Icenhauer used some sort of HP product -- whether it's the Zbook tablets the artists were sketching on or Z 3D cameras that let users integrate realworld objects in virtual 3D. It's a good way to introduce HP's tools to the creative professionals it is clearly courting at SXSW.

Aside from the obvious draws, like free drinks and swag, I wasn't too sure why people were clamoring to get into the Digital Artistry House. Maybe I don't understand the SXSW crowd very well, or I'm underestimating the appeal of Instagram-friendly portraits. But those aren't the only reasons people knew to go check out Icenhauer. HP itself publicized the event through "key influencers and partner companies via social," SXSW's social opportunities as well as "geo-target(ing) via Twitter and Facebook."

HP's had similarly large turnouts at other festivals like Panorama and Coachella, although the company offered more artsy, experiential demos at those events. It had various whimsical light installations and immersive experiences, instead of just a handful of drawing stations. The number of attendees bodes well for HP, which is trying to reach "digital storytellers" and creative professionals. Few other laptop makers are meeting their target audience at such gatherings -- competitors like Dell, Samsung and Sony are also here at SXSW but to varying degrees of involvement, while Asian brands like Acer, Lenovo and ASUS were missing.

It was a different story a few blocks away at Twitter. After launching 11 years ago at SXSW, the social network forever tied itself to the festival. But today, as I walked away from HP and the rest of the cool restaurants along Rainey Street, all was quiet at the Twitter House.

Catch up on the latest news from SXSW 2018 right here.