How TED uses online video to spread ideas

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“There’s a real hunger in the world for meaning, for knowledge, for inspiration.” – June Cohen

For seven years, TED has been harnessing the power of online video to spread ‘ideas worth sharing’. Bringing together some of the world’s most inspirational people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design, speakers are challenged to give the talk of their lives… in 18 minutes. But how did this nonprofit organisation (which started as a one-off conference back in 1984) turn into an online video powerhouse that has surpassed its billionth video view?

From 1990 onwards, after a six-year break while the organisers worked out how they could make money from the business model, TED existed as an invitation-only annual conference in Monterey, California. But the culture was closed and exclusive, with wealthy delegates paying thousands of dollars to attend. There was no website, there was no YouTube and there was certainly no Twitter. If you didn’t go to the talks but wanted to learn from them, you’d have to speak to someone that had been or decipher their scribbled notes.

The real turning point was in 2006, when TED’s Chris Anderson (Curator of TED conferences) hired June Cohen as Director of TED Media. After several television networks rejected June’s idea for a TED TV show, she posted a selection of talks on the website, YouTube and iTunes in June that year. The response was astonishing and by January the following year, the TED website was re-launched around these talks, allowing a global audience access to some of the world’s greatest thinkers and leaders. At that point, there were 44 TED talks on the website – which had been viewed more than three million times.

It was down to the early success of their online videos that TED invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into its video production operations, as well as the development of their website. This decision meant that TED ideas weren’t only exposed to the delegates who attended the conferences, but to millions of people all over the world.

“We’re creating a TED experience online,” Ms. Cohen said back in 2006, “and that’s not about watching a single talk, but watching several in succession that relate to each other in unexpected ways.”

Although sharing content for free was contrary to conventional business logic, TED raised the price of their conference passes in the same year that 100 talks were posted online, and the passes still sold out more quickly than ever before. In fact, TED set the trend for other conferences, trade shows and corporate events, as organisers began to realise how online videos could help them generate more revenue. (For more on this, see Giving Away Information, but Increasing Revenue.)

While conference speakers may have voiced concerns over the free dissemination of their talks, the approach by TED could meet little resistance due to their well-known core philosophy. Their mission, which they have been successfully achieving for years, is ‘spreading ideas’.

If TED’s mission is to spread ideas which “have the power to change lives, attitudes and ultimately the world”, what could be a more powerful medium than online video?



As the graph of TED milestones shows, the views TED talks were receiving in 2007 have increased exponentially over the years as we have moved into the digital age. In June 2011 the amount of views totaled 500 million, and on the 13 November 2012, TED reached its billionth video view. As Chris Anderson said in an interview in March 2012:

“…it used to be 800 people getting together once a year; now it’s about a million people a day watching TEDTalks online. When we first put up a few of the talks as an experiment, we got such impassioned responses that we decided to flip the organisation on its head and think of ourselves not so much as a conference but as “ideas worth spreading,” building a big website around it. The conference is still the engine, but the website is the amplifier that takes the ideas to the world.

As TED Talks continue to be watched and shared around the world, with 17 new page views a second, the content continues to inspire not only delegates but a global audience. In 2014, TED will celebrate its 30th anniversary in Vancouver, Canada. The theme of this milestone conference will be ‘The Next Chapter’, both a reflection on the most significant developments of the past 30 years as well as a look at what’s ahead.

And the future looks very exciting…


Written by Victoria Crump-Haill, Senior Digital Account Manager

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