TED – A Company Worth Spreading

How a conference company is democratizing the way we get access to knowledge?

Founded in February 1984, TED is a non-profit organization that is devoted to spread ideas to the world, usually in the form of talks[1]. From its origin, TED business model was simple, generate value by spreading new ideas that seek a deeper understanding of the world. TED believed that “ideas have the power to change attitudes, lives and ultimately the world”[2], so it is worth spreading them around an influential community that can continue spreading them around the world. Its initial emphasis was technology, entertainment and design (actually that is the origin of the acronym “TED”), but it has since broadened its focus to include talks on many scientific, cultural, academic and many other topics.

Its initial operating model was to create a conference that every year would bring together influential people from different backgrounds to listen and debate over new ideas, presented by scientists, philosophers, musicians, business and religious leaders, philanthropists and many others in an 18-minute talk format[3]. The conference was by invitation only and each assistant had to pay the entrance fee, which by 2007 was around $6,000[4].

It was only in 2007, after 24 years of operations, that Chris Anderson, TED CEO, saw an opportunity in the digital world to expand its mission: to broadcast each Talk and broaden the conference’s reach. After being rejected several times when trying to make a TV show based on TED lectures, Anderson finally decided to launch its own website, Ted.com, featuring free videos of the most interesting TED Talks so far. In so doing, TED positioned at the vanguard of a trend in the conference industry. Before TED.com, speakers would only talk one time and after that their message would disappear, only reaching a limited amount of people, whereas now all Talks could be captured and preserved. TED.com immediately exposed TED’s content to millions of people who otherwise would have never attended to the physical event. In addition to this, the site generated more advertising revenue for TED.

With this, TED developed a “freemium” pricing model, in which in the free tier would allow users to watch all the Talks, read the authors biographies, make comments and interact as a community. On the paid tier, users could buy the annual membership, which would allow them to attend to the conference, receive Talks in DVD, Book Club and other benefits[5]. Image 1, shows the evolution of views in TED.com.

Image 1: TED.com received 1 million visits in the first three months, 100 million by 2009 and 1 billion by 2012.

By 2015 TED had more than 2,000 Talks posted. Advertising revenue allowed TED to, invested in better quality videos and new products such as TED Active, a simulcast version TED Conference; TED Global, an international version of the conference; TEDx, independent TED-like events created by individuals, communities or worldwide organizations; TED Radio, bringing ideas and stories from TED Talks to public radio listeners; TED-Ed, animated video lessons; TED Books, original books that expanded TED Talks topics; TED Prize, a US$1m award, given annually to an exceptional individuals; TED Fellows, an global network of people that collaborates across disciplines to create positive change; and TED Institute, helping organizations unlock institutional knowledge. TED also expanded its video broadcasting to the mobile world, creating a TED app for smartphones and tablets. Image 2 shows the different products that TED has created.

Image 2: TED Operating model

TED is currently funded through a combination of conference ticket, sponsorships, advertisements, private donations and book sales. Sponsors varied from companies like Google to General Electric and Goldman Sachs[6]. There are also partnerships with brands like Apple and Netflix, making TED Talks even more accessible.

As we can see, TED chose the perfect moment to embrace its digital transformation, which allowed them to go beyond their initial mission and really foster the spread of great ideas[7]. It is clear the impact that TED has over the democratization of knowledge and information, but what else can they do? Can TED go further in its purpose? Can they take the next step from knowledge distribution to knowledge creation? One alternative could be to invest more funds in the creation of knowledge through more initiatives like TED Prize or giving scholarships to researchers. Another alternative could be to go further and integrate its distribution service with learning institutions (i.e. Teach for America). Can TED help the less-developed communities to move forward by making information and education more accessible?[8]. The role of free and accessible information can be crucial for the development of economically underprivileged communities and TED could leverage on its platform to enable the way for a more educated world. It is clear that the impact so far has been enormous, but now, TED has the opportunity to achieve an even greater impact in its mission to spread knowledge in the world.

(Words: 777)



[1] https://www.ted.com/about/our-organization

[2] http://ed.ted.com/about

[3] https://www.ted.com/about/our-organization/history-of-ted

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/16/technology/16ecom.html?_r=1&ref=technology

[5] https://www.ted.com/attend/conferences

[6] Ochoa, Rosmari. “Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED): A case study on how complimentary on- and off-line approaches can build community and cultivate platformsfor innovation and creativity” . American University School of Communication. American University.

[7] http://www.forbes.com/sites/nickmorgan/2014/07/10/whats-the-problem-with-ted/#6d1875d425b7

[8] Raza, Ahmad; Hasan Sohaib Murad. Knowledge democracy and the implications to information access. Multicultural Education & Technology Journal 2.1


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Student comments on TED – A Company Worth Spreading

  1. I’d be very interested in looking at YouTube’s role in helping make TED Talks more accessible. While partnerships with Netflix and Apple may have helped with incremental views, Netflix, for example, is still behind a paywall so the information isn’t completely democratized. However, TED’s YouTube videos are all free (ad-supported) and the most popular videos have an upwards of 11M views. An interesting analyses to find (if it exists) is, for each video, compare how many views were on the TED website vs. YouTube. I suspect YouTube views may make up large proportion of the total which makes me question whether the TED website itself really served as a platform for exposing individuals to TED content.

  2. I am a huge fan of TED. Its short and powerful talks form a great way to spreading ideas around some of the most important topics in the world, ranging from science to education to politics. I agree that as a next step TED should also focus on knowledge creation, but I think that the organization has been making some efforts towards this goal. For example, the TEDx events help share ideas in diverse and multiple communities around the world, having their local people as protagonists.
    However, I think that TED could provide a more dynamic iteration between the speakers and the fans around the world. For example, I think that the company should foster a debate around the top watched videos, capturing the ideas and perspectives of the public. This feedback would enrich the discussion at a large scale.

  3. This is a really interesting article around TED. I appreciate the diagram that links each of the different channels in which TED is trying to pursue. As an avid TED Talk podcast listener, I think that there’s a lot of value in the way they are providing the content in different channels. While you may not be able to get the same experience as an in-person conference, more people are able to be reached through podcasts and videos.

    To push on your next steps more, I think TED could be a lot more focused on how “what can we do as a community.” It’s great to spread the word on interesting ideas and passions, but what now? How can someone interested in the space participate or contribute? They have a very captive audience that they can unite using their online platforms to truly make the world a better place using these ideas they are trying to spread.

  4. Great article on an organisation that I feel huge affinity for!

    TED is a really interesting example of a player that is successfully combing the off and online worlds to create the best of both: best in-class physical experiences for the few that can be shared digitally with the many. I love the fact that their core product – key note talks – is something so ‘radically un-radical’ on the face of it. This simplicity is part of the reason it has the potential to be so powerful.

    Similar to some of the thoughts above, I wonder if they can go even more ‘radically un-radical’ by pushing harder on good old-fashioned community engagement programmes. TedX is a start, but is there an angle to be pursued around going into schools and community centres to get young people in engaged in the learning process, for instance? They have the brand to pull people in and the sponsors to fund it. It could be a great way to get people from disadvantaged backgrounds exposure to new ways of thinking, catalyse information-sharing and democratize the learning process.

  5. While I completely appreciate TED’s efforts to “democratize” knowledge and information, I am also a bit wary of the downsides associated with rapid over-proliferation of TED content. TEDx is a wonderful way to tap into communities and individuals around the world, but it lacks the “curation” element of the original TED talks, which vetted, screened and evaluated the quality of the content presented. Because of the greater variability in the quality of TEDx talks, I have found that content to be less valuable and brand-eroding. In that vein of thought, I wonder if Carlos’s suggestion of “dynamic iteration” between speakers and audience can help maintain a certain level of quality, especially in community generated content. Perhaps TED can explore other elements of “crowd-sourcing” to improve access and quality of their content moving forwards.

  6. As a TED fan, I experienced the transformation of TED from a local knowledge distributor to a global knowledge network. With internet distribution, TED can push its content to any place in the world. With technology development, non-English speakers are able to watch the video with real-time translation. Knowledge-sharing on TED is not subjective to the constraints of location and language any more. To push that a bit further, it is possible for TED to facilitate a two-way knowledge exchange instead of one-way distribution by connecting viewers from anywhere in the world to the speaker and facilitating real-time communication. In a way, it’s kind of similar to HBX, which enables discussion and though-exchange to help viewers learn better.

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