SXSW Report: Radical Openness: Growing TED by Giving It Away

TED provides a forum to disseminate "Ideas worth spreading." In recent years, TED has grown leaps and bounds in popularity thanks to the organization making "TED Talks"—attention-grabbing and inspiring 18-minute videos by their renowned list of speakers—freely available on the web for anyone around the world to view.

June Cohen, executive producer at TED, gave a talk at SxSW entitled Radical Openness: Growing TED By Giving it Away. She outlined the counter-intuitive steps that TED has taken over the past several years to open up the elite, private conference to the world. While conventional wisdom told them to treat the TED brand like a luxury and keep it scarce, they were driven by their singular goal of spreading ideas. Instead of devaluing the brand, opening TED content yielded some surprising results.

Cohen discussed three distinct phases of opening up TED: making TED Talks available freely online, allowing independently produced TEDx Events, and the TED Open Translation Project. Throughout the talk, Cohen emphasized TED's singular goal of spreading ideas. They used this goal to guide their decision-making, especially when ideas were controversial and it was easy to back down.

One key motivator behind releasing TED Talks online was to relieve some of the demand for the conference itself. However, the very next year TED sold out quicker than it had before (one week) even though the registration fee increased by 50% to $6,000, and had a 1,000 person waiting list. Today, the 900 TED Talks have been viewed over 400,000,000 times around the world.

Content Accessible on Any Platform

TED set out to reach people everywhere with online TED Talks. They factored in geography and changing media consumption habits, which change quickly and vary based on the time of day. In this way, they didn’t think about releasing “web video," but rather video content that is accessible via any platform (computer, mobile, tablet, set-top box, etc.) and adapt as habits change. They embraced an open model and released the talks under a Creative Commons license, allowing people to do anything they wanted to (non-commercially) with the video.

Designing an Emotional Connection

TED Talks aim to evoke contagious emotions, elevate the viewer and make them feel lifted above themselves through human storytelling. The videos begin with a compelling attention-grabber, foregoing speaker intros from an emcee, so they can grab people within the first five seconds. These fundamentals dictate how the content is shot, edited, and delivered. Most viewers watch TED Talks via a mobile phone, so speaker close-ups and tight edits are a must as they help create the emotional link between the viewer and the speaker.

An Accidental Global Team

Two years ago, TED created the TEDx events as a way for independent organizers to host their own TED events. These events adhered to strict branding, content, and operations rules including the stipulation that TEDx organizers could not make a profit; this ensured that the goal behind each TEDx was consistent with TED’s overall goal of spreading ideas.

Though they launched thinking there would be a couple dozen TEDx events, in the first two years people around the world have hosted over 1500 events in 96 countries and in 35 languages, ranging from the world-class TEDxAmsterdam to TEDxAmazonia in the rainforest and TEDxKibera in the largest squatter city in Africa. TEDx transformed a global audience into a global team, creating volunteers who have become truly invested in the same mission as the parent organization. As each organizer has their own personal mission, they aren’t only giving but also getting something back in return.

TED openAPI: The Next Open Frontier

As Cohen outlined the progression of open projects at TED and how the impact of each has surprised them, she then announced the TED open API as the next wave of openness. The API will focus first on giving app builders access to TED’s video content library and metadata (topic, ratings, speaker, date, etc.), allowing developers with great ideas the ability to re-package and re-distribute TED content in new and engaging ways. Why open up the API? According to Cohen, every time TED has opened their community, they’ve been "utterly moved, awed, inspired, delighted, and pushed further." They’re waiting to be surprised by developers, and believe the best ideas are the ones they haven’t thought of yet.

What makes openness work?

The steps toward openness outlined in this talk are counter-intuitive, especially for an organization with roots as a premium, exclusive brand. Openness works for TED because people generally desire to be a part of something larger than themselves. Cohen insisted that openness can work for other organizations, and to do so, she gave a few steps to help enable that openness:

  • Draw on a passionate user base (it doesn’t have to be large)
  • Put forward a clear goal that inspires that base
  • Provide clear guidelines, with rewards and consequences for desirable and undesirable actions
  • Allow your community to police itself through karma, moderators, and an open feedback loop; the community is the best enforcer of any rules
  • Make your contributors, speakers, developers, and others into rockstars by recognizing them any way possible

Cohen concluded that openness isn’t easy, that it takes time and goes against human instinct to stay closed and protect things one is close to. It’s difficult to fight against this tendency in an organization, and these battles weren’t foreign to TED. To make openness a success, one must go beyond the fear of pushback and get out of one’s comfort zone.

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