Online video is long past a new Internet fad — it’s taking over our mobile devices and our free moments as a primary source of content consumption. Just look at YouTube, with more than 1 billion users and more views every week from the 18-49 crowd than traditional television. For video creators, that can mean big opportunities to create and promote their content and brand, and for dedicated fans, that means full playlists and the ability to watch just about anything, from in-the-moment livestreams to historical footage, movies to makeup tutorials.
Enter VidCon — the preeminent event for all things online video. Bringing together creators and fans in one place, VidCon is a must-attend for anyone serious about creating and loving video content. We sat down with Hank Green, co-founder and CEO (and popular video blogger in his own right), and Michael Gardner, chief operating officer, to talk about the history behind VidCon, what they do to make it special for attendees, and what success looks like in an ever-changing industry.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the VidCon event.
Michael: We started in 2010 primarily as an event for creators in the online video industry. As the industry evolved, our event has too. So, we now operate in a three-track format — industry, creator (educational), and community (fan-based) — to support everyone in the industry.
Q: What’s the value to creators and attendees to experience VidCon in person?
Hank: For many creators, in-person experiences of this scale are out of the ordinary. A creator may have 10 million views on a video, and it’s no big deal. But when you get on stage and there’s 5,000 people there in the audience — that’s a big deal because you’re right there interacting with these people.
Michael: The point of VidCon is to bridge that gap between consuming online content from your favorite creator and having an in-person experience with them. Seeing the attendees engage with creators — getting hugs and selfies and having their questions answered — is amazing.
We’re always working on new event platforms to encourage that two-way communication. To directly engage with people — to have an interaction in real time that’s spontaneous and organic — there’s nothing like it.
Q: What steps are you taking to attract, engage, and retain your audience and sponsors?
Michael: We work on audience engagement before anyone ever sets foot on the show floor by engaging with attendees on social media and asking what they expect from the event. By keeping the conversation going, we can tailor the event to their needs and expectations.
We’ve integrated several platforms into our live presentations to increase engagement, like tweeting questions with specific hashtags that are answered in real time. This makes Q&As more efficient, and it gives us insight into what attendees see as important.
We also engage the audience through experiential activations on the show floor, including robust conversations, breakout workshops, thought-leadership sessions, and keynotes. When I see our attendees making lasting connections through a shared passion, I know we’re achieving our mission of celebrating and reflecting the online video industry.
Hank: Because our industry moves so fast, it can be challenging to keep on top of things. But our audience is great about telling us the latest trends and what they want to see.
Sponsor experiences on the expo floor are anything but traditional, including climbing walls and popup stores. Their value is much more than just their sponsorship dollars; the expo floor becomes an attraction itself, drawing in attendees.
Q: What challenges did you experience while transforming VidCon into a global event?
Hank: We knew we wanted to capture value for businesses, creators, and fans and to get them all under the same roof. That meant going global, but it also meant conquering multiple cultural and language issues. For example, we try to select host locations in which most people speak English. But they must also be creative cities that people are excited about visiting and are share-worthy.
Michael: We also have operational and logistical challenges, like learning the laws involved with doing business in a new country and understanding that not all countries have the same level of industry maturity.
For example, Europe is approximately 3-4 years behind the United States in terms of opportunities for creators and Australia has a different emphasis on verticals. That significantly affects the events we create.
Q: How do you measure the success of your events?
Hank: We get a lot of data from simple conversations during the event, but we also do a formal survey at the end. We’re relentless about asking questions, but luckily, our attendees are happy to answer them and provide tremendously valuable data.
We also look closely at our creators — how many views they’re getting and their level of engagement with their audience. This analysis gives us great granularity, and it also helps us see avenues we haven’t been actively pursuing but should be.
Michael: Technology lets us get valuable real-time feedback, like how much of our audience are browsing on their phones and not listening to the conversation. And that tells us a lot.
But with so many types of data collection — like geofencing and hotspotting — it’s hard to find the right methods to give you meaningful insights. If your core mission is improving your bottom line and increasing attendance by X percent, then data collection is great.
But if your mission is to deliver a message or an experience, there’s a lot of value in anecdotal data. These are the opinions that matter. When we hear the positive narratives about someone’s experience, we know we’re executing something amazing.
Q: How do you gauge what to include in future events?
Hank: We carefully monitor how our industry is changing and what our attendees and creators want, which involves watching a lot of YouTube to find out the new and interesting things that are happening.
We also maintain close relationships with sponsors (like YouTube) and platforms (like Musical.ly and Twitch) to learn what’s trending for them.
Michael: As the industry enters its “teenage years,” we realize that no one knows what’s going to come next. Technology will have a considerable influence on that, so that’s what we need to watch. New platforms are also emerging that are likely to be key players down the road, so we need to communicate with them and be ready to use them for third-party or value-added services.
Q: What value has the Freeman partnership added to your events?
Michael: Freeman is wildly innovative, creative, takes no excuses, and is always accountable — just what we need to deliver a good show. You can’t risk executing your event with a company who can’t keep pace or can’t see your vision. Freeman pushes us to be better at what we do. And that’s invaluable.
Q: What’s your goal going forward?
Hank: Our goal is to give people a chance to pursue their passions while we stay true to our brand. We started off with 1,400 people in a hotel basement. And now we’re a 30,000-person event. I think we’re succeeding at that goal.