VidCon 2015: Online Video is Changing the World As We Know It

I look forward to VidCon like a little kid at Christmas. So apparently does everyone else. I got a high-five from a young boy at the airport, excited to go to VidCon, just because I was traveling in a VidCon t-shirt. I heard more discussion on the plane and in the airport about VidCon that I’ve ever heard. And as much as it feels the same as last year, when the event just exploded in size, I can’t help but feel that VidCon has gone from being a part of the video culture, to mainstream culture now. That’s a good thing for online video.

Certainly the industry has arrived more than ever before, with big credit going to Jim Louderback and his team for their work on the Industry track. Wednesday is now the official kickoff for VidCon and it held events for both the community/creator pass holders in the form of the welcome party as well as the industry welcome reception. As I headed to the first keynote on Wednesday, I really had a sense that the con appreciated everyone who was here and was doing their best to have something for everyone.

Buzzfeed: Video NEEDS to be Inspiring

The highlight of the first day was without a doubt the Ze Frank interview, conducted by Katie Couric. How’s that for a marriage of new and old media? For how much the industry pounds the idea of content, Ze had a somewhat different approach that I hadn’t even heard him say in past conventions. Rather than thinking of content as a vehicle for entertainment and information, Ze spoke about making sure your video is more of a conversation starter. The idea is that your content is not actually the top 10 ways to bake a cake, but rather the video itself is relatable on some level, and that inspires the viewer to share it and use it as a vehicle to relate with and start a conversation with people they care about. It could be as simple as entertainment, but the diversity that new media celebrates truly allows that connection to be more than that, shedding light on topics that really stir emotions and help people relate in ways that aren’t traditionally available on TV.

ze frank buzzfeed and katie couric vidcon keynote 2015

I found it interesting that Katie Couric has actually moved from TV to internet. She cited her main reasons as having done everything on TV already and really enjoying the freedom that new media provides. It was a sentiment echoed by other people I spoke to who have crossed over into the corporate world from YouTube and miss the freedom and control they used to have.

The overriding message from the day was certainly the industry colliding with TV and the thought leaders that spoke on the day suggested that the two aren’t going to remain separate much longer. That really came as no major surprise, but what did strike me as interesting was the way in which they expect the two worlds to collide. While the TV industry is roughly 10x the 7 billion dollar online video industry, the speakers on Thursday’s industry track seemed to be advocating for equal treatment from advertisers. When that equal treatment comes, whether that be 5 or 20 years from now, they see media being not about which bundle you bought from your cable provider, but more about making content for the right device and people consuming what they connect with the most, on whichever device suits it best, at a price that works for them. As mobile devices continue to increase in usage, it’s clear that the industry is focusing on ways to maybe watching on mobile better and better.

John Green's Keynote Address

John Green, superstar author, and co-founder of VidCon gave an impassioned keynote address on the opening day. ReelSEO correspondent Greg Jarboe managed to get a copy for our readers - and here it is in full:

John Green Keynote Address Vidcon 2015Hi I’m John Green. I’m a novelist and videoblogger and I’m so excited to welcome you to Vidcon, which was created by my brother Hank and has been run entirely by him and his amazing team ever since, but because I was on a conference call in 2009, I am technically Vidcon’s cofounder. So if you have a great weekend, you’re welcome, and if anything goes wrong, it is Hank’s fault.

So I was a writer before I ever made videos; my first novel Looking for Alaska came out in 2005, one month before the first video was uploaded to YouTube. The intervening 10 years have been very good for online video of course; it’s also been very good for me. My book The Fault in Our Stars has spent 187 consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and was adapted into a successful film last year. The movie adaptation of my book Paper Towns comes out in theaters around the country tomorrow, which if I seem a bit tired…well that’s why.

None of this would’ve happened without YouTube. My brother and I have been making videos back and forth to each other since 2007, and since then the biggest lesson I have learned is that I suck at predicting the future. I could never have imagined, for instance, that our crash course videos would be used in tens of thousands of schools around the world. I couldn’t have imagined that YouTubers would be turning down traditional TV opportunities because, as a friend of mine recently said, “Why would I take a pay cut for the privilege of not owning my intellectual property?” And I could never have imagined that the phrase “online video” would be rendered redundant by the onlineness of all video, or that 20,000 people would show up to a conference about YouTube run by my brother.

The future—especially the future of technology and media—is completely impossible to predict, and whenever I’ve tried to do it I’ve ended up looking like an idiot. It’s hard enough just to try to understand the present, so I’m just gonna focus on that. Here is the present as I understand it: Great video is being made off television—video about global poverty and about BASE jumping and about how coffee gets decaffeinated and why Mark Rothko is a good painter; videos about makeup and fashion and video games and we are even starting to figure out how to adapt the conventions of scripted video to the online world. But most of the people engaged in these viewing communities are young, and I’m sure you’re familiar with the narrative that young people are distracted and self-involved and disengaged.

Like, makeup is so superficial and silly, and who would watch other people play video games, and so on. But of course we know the truth—that while everyone talks about young people’s disinterest and solipsism, they are building communities through makeup tutorials and learning about selfacceptance and selfcare. Like, watch Ingrid Nilsen or Louise Pentland. And they’re building communities through gaming—pewdiepie’s viewers are not just watching him play video games; they’re also working with him to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Save the Children.

While my generation has been watching The Blacklist and congratulating ourselves on our intellectual sophistication, young people are building a vast and complex world of deep engagement online and off, in which they are not just passive viewers or listeners or readers but active community members creating comments and fanfiction and artwork that is pushing culture toward listening to traditionally marginalized voices, toward a more just and open social order—toward what I think of as engagement. So one of the reasons I watch YouTube—really, one of the reasons I do anything—is that I want to be distracted. I want to be distracted from my anxieties, from my responsibilities, from my real life. I like distractions, and I think they are important, but online video is not only about distractions; it’s also about engagement, and there’s the rub when it comes to our business, which has traditionally been funded primarily by advertising.

Advertising is really good at funding the distraction business, because the number of eyeballs a distraction attracts is a good way of judging its effectiveness as a diversion. But advertising sucks at valuing engagement, which is why ad rates on many online videos have never reflected the real value being created. Distraction is a good and noble business, but I think deep down most of us—creators, marketers, investors, agents—don’t really want to be just in the distraction business—especially now that we can see the value and awesomeness of being in the engagement business. It’s good to distract people from their problems; but it’s better to help solve those problems, whether it’s the problem of finding meaning in life or the problem of being unsure how to tie a bowtie.

So the kinds of video that mean the most to us online—the ones that help us to lead fuller and better connected lives—are dramatically undervalued by advertising. Hank and I have tried to address that by building a business that doesn’t rely much upon ads: Our educational channels crash course and scishow are funded mainly by viewers who voluntarily support the shows through Patreon, and selling posters and tshirts through DFTBA Records provides more revenue from merch than we’ve ever made from ads. Advertising still provides around 20% of our company’s revenue, but it’s shrinking every year. That’s true for many creators—they’re doing live events and publishing books; they’re crowdfunding and producing albums and selling tshirts and getting grants from nonprofits. In short, they’re building a world where they don’t have to depend on advertising.

And to be frank, I believe an Internet that answers to its users is healthier than an Internet that answers to brands. This year has seen the emergence of a big conversation about how to fund online video in the future: Should we build the future of online video around paid subscriptions, or advertising, or voluntary payments, or some hybrid model, or something I haven’t heard of yet?

I believe in advertising, but I also believe that to remain relevant it must change. The real opportunity for brands—which I don’t think marketers can find on TV or anywhere offline—is to help creators to build and foster better communities, so that those communities can bring better and more interesting stuff into the world. if brands interact with those communities authentically and don’t impose their values or messaging on them, they’ll win over those passionate and engaged communities—not for a quarter or for a campaign but for life. If a brand makes the minutephysics video that helps me to understand relativity possible, I’m not going to forget the gift that company has given me. But advertisers must learn that in the world of the engaged Internet, the less obtrusive they are, the more successful they’ll be. I also believe in voluntary payments—I think if you’re transparent with your viewers and they really care about your work, they’ll support it and help it grow. I’ve seen that in my own career.  And I believe in the promise of subscriptions, too. Although I’ve never seen a paywall grow anyone’s audience, I’d gladly pay to watch my favorite creators adfree.

In short, I have no idea what the answer is to the problem of monetization. But I hope that as we discuss it together, we’ll consider not just what will bring in the most immediate revenue, but also what kind of online video world we want to live in. How can we foster community, and grow the Internet of engagement? What business models will best allow the free flow of ideas and content between viewers and creators? What will help us to build a broader creator base that includes more diverse voices? I know those don’t seem like business questions, but I believe ultimately they are, because while we all must think month to month and year to year, my favorite thing about making original content online is that in the long run, what’s good for your community is always— always —good for your business. Thanks.

We'll bring you more news from the event over the next couple of days so stay turned!!