Over 18,000 speakers presented at TEDx events last year in venues ranging from large formal auditoriums to pop-up stages under expressway bridges.

A grassroots offshoot of the annual TED conference in Vancouver, the one-day TEDx events are organized by independent local community organizers in 170 countries to create a live and virtual forum for “Ideas Worth Sharing.”

Launched in 2009, TEDxUSC was the first TEDx event, with the added “x” implying “Ted to the power of x.”

Perhaps more than any other conference, the TED organization’s programming and digital distribution of TED Talks videos illustrates the potential of online content to drive audience exposure and brand reach globally.

It also emphasizes the shift in the very definition of what a conference is today, evolving from a live solitary event to the physical hub of a virtual media ecosystem.

There’s a long list of strict requirements for TEDx organizers to adhere to if they want to use the TEDx logo. One of them is that TEDx events are required to post videos of each speaker session online in a similar style as the mothership event to maintain brand cohesion from a consumer-facing perspective. By mandating the digital format for the community websites, TED strives for a clear synergy between the TED and TEDx online user experiences.

Today, there are over 70,000 TEDx videos on the internet, all of which posted originally at the individual event websites. TED’s corporate team mines those sites for the newest videos to find the best content for inclusion on TED.com.

Meaning, the TED organization has created a vast well of potential user-generated content through TEDx to feed its own brand.com website. That’s the key success story here. The ability to crowdsource content to co-create conference programming — with an organization’s community driving the content creation process — is the dream scenario for any conference organizer today.

“TEDx Talks have been viewed more than one billion times on TED.com, YouTube, China’s Youku video hosting site, and a variety of TED’s distribution partners,” says Jay Herratti, deputy director of TEDx, based at TED headquarters in New York. And, he told Skift, “We think there are still more opportunities down the road.”

Redefining The Modern Conference

TED and TEDx Talks are always 18 minutes or less, and they’re usually scripted into three distinct sections, much like a three-act play.

First, the speakers begin by explaining who they are and why they’re an appropriate expert to discuss a specific subject.

According to Lori Corpuz, the millennial-age lead organizer of TEDxBushwick in Brooklyn, TEDx audiences are often fascinated as much by the speakers as they are by the content. They want to know about the speaker’s personal story and how it led to that particular moment on stage.

“The first part is becoming vulnerable,” Corpuz said. “You’re uncovering to the audience who you are, what your story is, because then we’re all on the same page with you. We understand what your environment is, and kind of your frame of mind.”

The middle section of TEDx Talks focuses on the idea itself. This is where anyone has a chance to share their message on a global stage, especially if it’s picked up on TED.com because the idea was innovative and well-articulated with a clear story arc.

There are a three things coming together here. One, TEDx is the idea engine generating localized content from events in almost every corner of the earth. Two, TED provides the content strategy, distribution framework, and the legitimacy of a global media brand. Three, the audience, both live and virtual, promote the TED and TEDx brands when they share the videos online.

It’s the attractive collision of content cross-pollination where every component of the conference is helping promote every other component.

“TEDx’s mission is to provide communities the structure, identity, and guidance to organize events that connect people, spread ideas, and inspire positive impact at the local level,” explained Herratti. “Our work here is to discover and spread the best ideas that bubble up from TEDx communities around the globe.“

Which bring us to the question: Is TED/TEDx an event platform or a media platform?

“When you create a conference today, the takeaways from the experience are the anecdotes and the networking, but it’s also the online content that derives from that,” said Corpuz. “I think TEDx is about spreading awareness, so that’s why I think of it more as a media platform. I guess it’s kind of blurring the line about what conferences are nowadays.”

Merging live events and virtual media to increase brand exposure is at the forefront of TED strategy internally, mirroring the discussion among the larger conference industry at large.

“At TED we see community and content as two parts of the whole — inseparable and mutually dependent,” Herratti said. “Every great TED or TEDx Talk begins with an event with a stage and an engaged and attentive audience. This relationship between the speaker and the audience is what gives energy and authenticity to each talk. For this reason, we think of communities first and then content.“

The focus on community and content is designed to inspire action. That’s the focus of the third section that makes up most TED Talks. Speakers are encouraged to deliver a clear call to action at the end of their presentations to provide live audiences and online viewers a direction forward following the event.

The Business of TEDx

TEDx events must be based in a specific geographical community or within an academic institution, and the name of that neighborhood or school has to be referenced in the official event name.

Organizers apply for a one-year license to host a one-day TEDx event for a maximum of 100 attendees for no more than $100 per person. To re-apply each year, only TEDx organizers who have followed the TED guidelines as mandated can apply to re-up their license.

The exception to that rule applies to TEDx organizers who have attended the annual TED event in Vancouver as paid registrants. They can apply for licensure to create events exceeding the 100-person limit.

Organizers generally have a lot of passion for their community and the TED experience in general because these are expensive and labor-intensive events to create. Video production costs alone can eat up a third of the event budget.

To pay for venue rental, food and beverage, video production, website development and marketing campaigns, etc., TEDx organizers will often secure sponsorship from local businesses and organizations, which in turn are forbidden to speak at the events they sponsor.

In California, for example, TedxNapaValley attracted sponsors from a local winery and an accounting firm. Co-organizers Sandina Bailo and Andrew Healy also raise funds by charging for attendance at a speaker dinner following the event.

TEDxNapaValley is considered more of a destination TEDx event because the attractiveness of the region helps lure attendees from other states. So in this case, the emphasis is really on developing and marketing the overall TEDx experience as a live physical event that celebrates the local culture and much as the conference.

Bailo said most TEDx events have specific themes each year to help promote the programming. For TEDxNapaValley 2016, the overarching theme is “Go Figure,” where the word “figure” applies to everything from data to dance. The implication is that communities are made up of many different integral parts.

“We want to have a theme so you as an attendee can come and have an umbrella of the day,” said Bailo. “But we also want people from every walk of life to speak to it and surprise you when they do.”

“Some people have a more narrow theme like the recent Sonoma TEDx that focused on tech,” added Healy. “We tend to go for themes where someone from tech, someone from medicine, someone from education, someone from government potentially speak. That way you get a breadth of ideas that speak to the same theme.”

Like all TEDx organizers, Bailo and Healy are preoccupied with ensuring that speakers focus on the ideas they’re discussing versus promoting their own self-interests. Although, they said that can be difficult to discern sometimes because many speakers are promoting something they accomplished that also had a positive impact on the community. That’s when the line blurs between self-interest and community interest.

“People are savvy to the TEDx stage now, and that’s both a pro and a con,” said Bailo. “So when I started this years ago, I got blank stares, like, ‘Who’s Ted? Does he live in the Valley?’ Now it’s often, ‘I wrote a book. I need to be on your stage.'”

Healy added, “We have had to become more savvy to people who have an agenda. Nobody wants to listen to an infomercial.”

Both co-organizers reiterated that the attraction of speaking at TEDxNapaValley is the opportunity to be on a world stage because you have a globally recognizable brand and distribution network behind you.

“TED provides the bigger picture, the context around whatever theme you’re talking about,” said Bailo. “But I’ll contend that TED has grown because of all the work that TEDx organizers do. We’re like ambassadors for TED running all over around the world.”

Photo Credit: Jay Herratti, deputy director of TEDx, spoke at TED 2016 in Vancouver about the power of the global TEDx community to drive knowledge sharing. TED