As VidCon lore goes, the first year of the video creators conference was so small that the 1,200 or so attendees fit into the basement of the Hyatt in Century City, Calif. Eight years, one ferris wheel and a mechanical shark later, VidCon will welcome more than 30,000 people at the Anaheim Convention Center on June 20.
When VidCon started, the idea that creators could make a living — or even become as famous as a traditional movie star — by putting their videos online, wasn’t yet a reality. But as social media and technology advanced, videos went viral with the click of a button. A generation of stars who became famous for doing everything from unwrapping toys to applying makeup to doing mind-blowing stunts was born. And VidCon became the annual networking event for them and their fans.
Access to that powerful digital world is partly why Viacom purchased VidCon in February. Another reason: to bolster its live event business.
Like online video itself, VidCon spread through word of mouth. And brands took notice. Each year, their activations get more over-the-top to compete for the attention of VidCon’s highly desirable young, vocal audience.
This year there will be more than 80 sponsors. The sponsor hall has become such a must-see part of Vidcon, that organizers shut it down to general attendees for a night so the talent has an exclusive opportunity to visit and engage.
Among the hottest attractions at VidCon this year: The Awesomeness and Invisalign-branded Ferris wheel and tickets to the YouTube-sponsored EDM DJ Marshmello concert. (Attendees get tickets through a lottery.)
However, for many attendees, the highlight of VidCon is the chance to interact in real life with the creators they follow. We recently talked to CEO Jim Louderback about what VidCon looked like in its early years and how it evolved into an event the size of a small city.
V by Viacom: Refresh our memories — what was going on in the culture back in 2010 when VidCon started?
Jim Louderback: YouTube had been around for about five years by then, and online video was moving from the nascent stage to people making a bit of money and building audiences. But it still fell under radar.
V: Give us a sense of who attended in those early years.
JL: A lot of the old guard of YouTubers. Hank and John Green. Dan Brown, the guy who solves the Rubix cube in two minutes on YouYube. Early-on people like Meekaitty, the Fine brothers from the Kids React series. Maker Studios. Phil DeFranco. The Annoying Orange. It was a total fan fest. It was designed as a way for new, online video creators to get together in real life. The whole goal was, ‘Hey, there’s great connection between creators and fans. Let’s share the love with emerging creators. The industry stuff built over time.
V: When did sponsors come into the picture?
JL: There were always some sponsors. My former company, Revision3 had a booth. The Orabrush –you brush your tongue with it–was at the second VidCon. I remember some guy dressed up as a tongue next to it.
V: Why would a brand like Orabrush want to be at a conference for video creators? How much of VidCon is getting a highly curated audience in front of brands?
JL: Think about brands. Why do they put their names on race cars? Brands go to make connections with high-level creators. But it’s also that VidCon has 20,000 14-to-20-year-olds. It’s a hard to reach, savvy audience. They’re all making videos and posting. It’s the most media-savvy group in world. You’re getting in the back of all these videos online. The brand magnification that goes on, is amazing. And it all gets amplified through social media. Advertisers keep coming back year after year, so it’s working for them.
“It’s been getting bigger and bigger and more ‘corporate’ but that’s not necessarily a bad thing … People don’t not go to Disneyland because it’s corporate. They go because it’s a great thing.”
V: Can you address the concern among some critics that Viacom’s purchase of VidCon will make it feel too corporate?
JL: The first couple VidCons were very organic. Sponsors came along because they wanted to be part of it. If it weren’t for sponsors you couldn’t have a VidCon. It’s expensive to rent a convention center, bring in top creators, build stages and rent out arenas so people can listen to their favorite stars. Ticket prices don’t cover the cost. Brands enable it to happen. For creators to make a living somebody has to pay.
Yes, it’s been getting bigger and bigger and more ‘corporate’ but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As long as we’re making a great event that allows fans to make friends and reconnect with old ones that’s a great thing. People don’t not go to Disneyland because it’s corporate. They go because it’s a great thing.
V: When did it move from the hotel basement to the convention center and start to look like the massive event that it has become?
JL: Year three was the first time in the Anaheim Convention Center. That was the beginning of putting in bigger booths and people dressing up in costumes. Years four and five was when brands came in doing major activiations. I was at Discovery for year four and we brought in a 60-foot mechanical shark, in honor of Shark Week, which was the week after. It crushed things. There was a schedule that listed the things it would crush like a beer can and a surfboard so people could watch.
Last year Invisalign brought an actual Ferris Wheel. It was extremely popular and they’re doing it again this year. Last year for American Ninja Warrior NBC had a setup where participants train to be a ninja and climb up a big climbing wall. Despicable Me 3 debuted at VidCon last year. The year before that The Secret Life of Pets debuted and they gave light-up cat ears.
V: How do you keep the momentum from year-to-year?
JL: You have to keep doing new stuff. Next year I have big plans for new things. Doug the Pug will be there. He has 3.4 million followers. JoJo Siwa has a super cute Yorkie named Bow Bow. I suggested we should do a track of celebrity pets…sort of, an internet dog and cat festival. And we’re doing VidCon in London this year too.
V: Who is your competition in this space?
JL: We’re the only event in the world the combines a robust community and fan-focused festival with an in-depth creator conference focused on learning and personal development with an insightful and powerful industry summit that brings all the online video ecosystem together.