Fans Versus Finance in the Future of Vidcon

/ Jul 31, 2013

VidCon1

VidCon and YouTube have been inextricably linked ever since brothers Hank and John Green held the first annual gathering of online video creators, executives, and fans at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel in Los Angeles in 2010. In fact, YouTube is one of the sponsors for this year and next year’s conference, having signed a deal for an undisclosed price back in April.

The reason — for the relationship and the sponsorship — is obvious to anyone familiar with online video. YouTube is welcoming to all. The site provides the world’s biggest video sandbox for any creative type, from an individual with a unique idea to a large media company looking to try something new. What’s more, YouTube offers an infrastructure that enables these creators and companies to build a community around their personality, brand, and content.

It’s this community that shows up to VidCon every year (projected 10,000+ attendees over the next three days) and has made the conference into what has been described to me, on multiple occasions, as the Comic-Con of the YouTube world.

“VidCon is the Mecca for web video creators and fans to celebrate what we have mutually created together, which is a burgeoning industry,” says Benny Fine, adding that the conference exists for creators “to give back to the fans of online video.”

And by creating this space for creators and fans to meet each other, Hank and John Green have also opened a window for others to see what’s actually happening on YouTube.

“For me, the best thing about VidCon — and I say this to advertisers, agents, people I know in linear, really anyone in the media business who hasn’t gone to VidCon and should go — is the emotional connection between the creators and the audience. It’s so big,” says Jim Louderback, CEO of Revision3, which has sponsored the conference since day one. “I love seeing that dynamic and being a part of it. This is a brand new type of media and world that has not been replicated elsewhere.”

“It’s the one moment where traditional media gets the chance to see what YouTube looks like in real life,” says Fullscreen COO Ezra Cooperstein. “There is this entire behavior change that is happening around the consumption of content, but if you’re a Fortune 500 Brand exec, you don’t know it’s happening unless you see it in your kid’s bedroom. At VidCon, you see what this massive change looks like first hand.”

But is there a future for VidCon beyond being a “fan-fest” for the online video community; does the community even want that to happen?

“[VidCon] is not like Comic-Con, which has been co-opted by traditional media companies that use what was a fan-fest to now promote their tentpole properties,” says Cooperstein. “[VidCon] is still really about the creators and their fans.”

Though that doesn’t mean VidCon won’t pick up some of the more business-minded elements of Comic-Con as the years go by. “I think over time, [VidCon] will become about how media leverages this incredible gathering to talk about bigger projects and announcements — that feels like the next phase,” says Cooperstein. This makes a lot of sense, media companies big and small have never been one to shy away from using a promotional tool, especially one that could provide as big and laser-focused access to a young and highly-engaged audience as VidCon already does.

That said, there is very much an anti-traditional-media-way-of-doing-things vibe to VidCon and the YouTube creator community. In fact, Hank and John Green recently launched Subbable, which is designed to help creators forego the traditional business model of ad-supported content creation and instead connect directly with their fanbase to fund projects.

“So many [conferences] that stem from traditional media have become very much a ‘we’re here to promote this’ or ‘pay me to sign that’ — at VidCon, the creators want to be there and meet the fans as much as the fans want to meet the creators,” says Benny Fine. “From our perspective, this is a celebration for all of us together versus it being a business decision.”

Though that’s not to say the use of VidCon as a promotional vehicle isn’t already underway. If you look at the conference’s list of sponsors, you’ll notice a couple of “big media” names like Bravo and NBC (for its upcoming fall drama, “The Blacklist”). The Fine Brothers are also screening the first episodes of their YouTube-funded web series, “MyMusic,” for fans at VidCon before publishing them online. But this move is couched in the creator-fan relationship — the brothers are rewarding those who have supported their stuff on YouTube for years.

It took some time for Comic-Con to go from being a major “fan-fest” to its current industry/promotional focus. The wheels are already in motion at VidCon. There is too much of an opportunity for networks, brands, and, yes, even creators, for VidCon not to go down a similar path — even if it’s solely used by creators to tout their new and upcoming projects to their fans.

Part Two: A VidCon Beyond YouTube

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