The TED Brand
I used to think of a “brand” as stuff like Tide and Coca-cola–the name of a commercial product. About ten years or so ago, a marketing professor talked me into being on a panel about online communities at a business conference, and she patiently explained to me that a brand is “a promise of quality.” I didn’t 100% understand what that meant or appreciate its power til this past Saturday when I spoke at TEDxNYED.
TED is a wildly successful, top-tier annual conference. So successful that they’ve franchised it into “TEDx.” Independent organizers can apply to host an “independently organized TED event.” If they’re successful, they get elaborate instructions/requirements on how to host it–how to work with the media, what the signage should look like, how talks should be organized, etc. Some folks from TED headquarters help out a bit, but it’s basically an independent event. TEDxNYED was organized by a bunch of independent school teachers, mostly from the greater New York area. In fact, one of my high school teachers–Jeff Weitz of the Horace Mann School–invited me.
Using the TED name, the organizers assembled an all-star cast of speakers. When they invited me, they said “Henry Jenkins and Larry Lessig are speaking,” and I must’ve replied back “yes, I’ll come” in about a microsecond. So in fact did everyone else they invited–the organizers told me they were astonished at the immediate flood of positive responses. In fact, it caused a bit of a problem because they didn’t balance the first round of invitations as much as they intended. They figured they’d get the first round of yes’s and no’s and then look to fill out ethnic and gender and topic diversity with a second round of invites–but nearly everyone in the first round said yes.
TED is such a strong brand that during the conference, #TEDxNYED was trending on Twitter. Over 5000 people watched on the web live that day. Who knows how many will watch when the video is posted for later viewing. When I sat back down in my seat after my talk, I glanced at my email on my phone. My mailbox was full of “<name> is now following you on Twitter!” I’ve gotten more than 100 new followers since Saturday.
The TED format is the most un-academic I’ve experienced. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been to a conference before where there was absolutely no interaction onstage. 18-minute talks, no questions. No panels. The speakers speak, the audience listens. And as much as the TED liturgy tells everyone that the audience are as important and interesting as the speakers, the format says otherwise.
There are two models of what I experienced this weekend:
1. I went to a small conference organized by some very nice high-school teachers, held in the auditorium of a private high school, with snacks in the gym. The organizers had never done this before, and a few things were rough around the edges, but in the end it worked out great.
2. I went to a world-class, high-profile event.
The power of the TED brand transformed model 1 into model 2. The “promise of quality” that is TED is a force to be reckoned with. And now I think I understand what a “brand” is.