TED: Food for thought for millions

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When describing TED as a human network that ‘connects the idea-hungry elite’, Fast Company hit a nerve. But it’s not just about the elite anymore. The TED slogan, ‘ideas worth spreading’, has fueled a ravenous fascination and TED’s expanding footprint over the last decade has much to teach us. It is a unique case study: a non-profit that successfully transformed the generic keynote speech into a worldwide movement.

Consider a few figures for background. Six years after unleashing TED talks online, TED.com hit one billion views. This was just a preview of the spectacular surge to come. From 2012 to 2015, TED.com tripled the number of views to reach three billion. With 2,400 videos online today, the global appetite for TED is nothing short of insatiable.

Highly nutritional food for thought

‘What sets TED Talks apart is that the big ideas are wrapped up in personal stories and they’re mostly from people you have never heard of before,’ said Charlie Rose in a 60 Minutes episode exploring TED’s unusual value proposition. ‘And it is those stories that have captured the imaginations of tens of millions of viewers around the world.’

Taking a closer look, TED is both non-profit and big business with a hearty following in both the digital and physical world. The original one-off conference, launched in 1984, continues to influence TEDGlobal. International luminaries, innovative thinkers and thought leaders convene to make a case, take a stand, or deliver an ingenious, credible and forward-looking talk—in 18 minutes or less.

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Today, TED talks represent all professions, fields of study and practice, schools of thought and social causes, from heady issues such as climate change and global health challenges to the esoteric entomology of zombie roaches and other parasite tales (1.3 million views). TED speakers include legends—astronauts, billionaires and former presidents—and unknown researchers, artists and community leaders. Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg have shared the TED spotlight with obscure talent such as brain researcher, Jill Bolte Taylor, whose account of witnessing her own stroke catapulted her to the TED hall of fame—18.6 million views.

Serving up a feast for the mind and for the masses

Do schools kill creativity? Perhaps. But more important, education expert Sir Ken Robinson’s 2006 TED video has clocked more than 37 million views. In terms of online traffic, this figure alone goes a long way to undo any doubts that initially surfaced when, in 2006, TED leaders decided to shift the business model and expand the tent beyond the wealthy and well-connected, to include anyone with internet access.

‘There was a lot of skepticism’, June Cohen, executive director of TED media, told CNN. ‘People worried that it might capsize our business model because we were running an expensive, somewhat elite conference.’ 

Far from capsizing, the online platform gave TED transformational lift. With steady traffic clocking 80 million monthly video views, 15 million of which are unique visitors, TED is no longer a source of skepticism but instead boasts demographics so many marketers crave. TED talks viewers are educated, 71 per cent college graduates, and nearly half, 47 per cent, are high-caliber, C-suite professionals. Talks translated in 105 languages translates into truly global reach. The greatest regional growth in visits, from Q4 2013 to Q42014, was in the Middle East (77 per cent), followed by Australia and New Zealand (70 per cent) and then Europe (70 per cent).

Spreading TED

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If Starbucks is ubiquitous, TED is pervasive. You can access TED on your smartphone or tablet, on YouTube, on NPR radio—The TED Radio Hour—as a podcast on iTunes, on Hulu and, until recently, Netflix. TED also developed an app that has been downloaded more than 24 million times.

Through an initiative called TEDx, designed to help communities, organisations and individuals to spark conversation and connection through local TED-like experiences,’ the tent expanded exponentially, planting stakes in unexpected locales. Close to 50,000 talks have been given at 10,000 events in at least 160 countries worldwide since the program launched in 2009. In 2015, TEDx arrived in Cuba for the first time and claimed a stage in the infamous Sing Sing prison in New York. 

In its three decades, TED’s mission has been to link millions across the globe. Sharing his takeaway from the recent 2016 conference in Vancouver, author Carmine Gallo echoes Charlie Rose’s assessment: Stories have the power to shape our lives and the lives of our listeners,’ he wrote in Forbes. Examining the talks that tend to go viral, Gallo sees a common denominator: they are deeply personal and revealing, fertile ground for connecting with a growing audience.

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