Since its inception in 2010, VidCon has become the world’s largest online video conference of its kind. No other event unites over 30,000 online video creators, fans, and businesses in physical space to celebrate video’s present and future.
Online video industry veteran and entrepreneur, Jim Louderback took over the role of VidCon CEO in September 2017. His resume is a dizzying one, with accomplishments that include starting, running, and selling multiple successful businesses. Previously he held the role of VidCon’s programming executive but now looks to shape the event to serve audiences worldwide.
We sat down with Louderback to discuss fascinating questions like, “What is the future of online video?” and “What will the next social video platforms look like?” See how he predicts influencer marketing will progress in the coming years and what’s in store for VidCon 2018 in our exclusive interview.
1.Tell me a bit about yourself and VidCon (e.g. brief company history and highlights, your role, how you got your start at VidCon, etc.).
I started in technology as a programmer and developer and then fell into media. I ended up working in magazines, TV networks, websites, and in 2007 started running a company called Revision3, which was an early online video network. I sold it in 2012 to Discovery and worked at Discovery for a couple years running their digital networks.
VidCon started in 2010, at the Hyatt in Century City across the street from CAA over a weekend (I don’t think anyone at CAA knew what was going on) with about 1,400 people in the basement. At Revision3, we had a couple of our talent there and we were there.
So VidCon grew as Revision3 grew, and I ended up speaking at each one and we sponsored. After I sold the company to Discovery, I worked a deal with VidCon where we brought a big 60-foot mechanical shark to VidCon, because Shark Week was right after VidCon that year.
After Discovery, I had a little bit of a non-compete, so I couldn’t work for a TV network or an online video company, but I could work at events. So I called up Hank and we chatted for a while. It turned out that VidCon was going from a two-track show, which was the community track (the fans) and the industry, and adding a creator track in the middle.
They needed someone to come in and take the industry track to the next level. I wasn’t doing anything and was very familiar with VidCon, so they asked me if I wanted to do it — I said sure! I thought it would just be for a year and then I would go back and do something else but it was so much fun I kept doing it.
Fast forward three VidCons in Anaheim, events in Europe and Australia, too — last summer Hank (founder of VidCon) said, “You know, VidCon is growing, we have all this stuff going on, I need to bring someone in to help run it. How would you like be CEO?” I had never thought about that and it took me about ten seconds to say yes. And now I’m CEO. I’ve been CEO since right after we got back from VidCon Australia.
2. How did Revision3 get started and how did you get involved?
Revision3 was founded by a couple guys I worked with at TechTV (a cable television company about technology launched in ’98 which I helped start), and they brought me in to be CEO as it started to grow. TechTV was pretty revolutionary, but a few years later, a couple of the guys working there decided to do Revision3.
At the same time, they decided to do this company, Digg. Digg ended going through the roof and Revision3 was trying to capitalize on our ability to do similar things to what we did at TechTV, except do it all online.
At that point we were posting through iTunes video, podcasting video, and a couple other ways, and we got on YouTube early as well. So they raised a bunch of money at both Digg and Revision3 and needed someone to come in and run Revision3 as CEO. I came in pretty early on and started working with the team there, built it up, did lots of great stuff, and then sold it.
3. How would you say your role at Revision3 prepared you for your current role at VidCon?
Revision3 started at about the same time YouTube started. As the online video business grew and matured in many different ways, we did as well. We were one of the early MCNs (multi-channel networks), one of the early networks that were very focused on individual niches, rather than trying to be everything to everybody.
As the industry grew, we grew with it. I got to know all the ins-and-outs of the industry and a lot of the players. It was a perfect way to start running the industry track at VidCon, because we had been in the industry, I had spoken at all these events, and knew all these people. And with a content background, I could help curate the content.
Running the industry track for three years helped me understand the rest of VidCon. I don’t know it as well as all the people who have been working on all three tracks, but I have learned a lot over the past three months on how other pieces of the event work.
4. How has VidCon changed and evolved since 2010?
VidCon is a mirror to the online video industry. When it first started, there were 1,400 people and it was primarily a way for the early creators and their fans to get together in real time. The business aspect of online video was still emerging.
As the online video business started to kick off, people started to make money, media companies started to come in and wanted to spend time there, and brands and agencies started to get involved, VidCon naturally evolved to be a place where creators and fans could get together with each other and celebrate their love of the online video industry and the communities they were creating.
But it also became a place for business to get done and for companies to connect and make deals with each, and for brands and agencies to figure out what’s going on and meet and work with some of the top online creators and top networks.
Related Post: Not Just For Fans: VidCon From A Marketer’s Perspective
As the online video industry grew even further, it turned out that this whole model of working in online video, being a creator, honing your craft, building your subscriber list, and ultimately building a career in online video, was something that was aspirational for an entire demographic (that realized this was a real career choice). That’s why the creator track came in and it’s become one of the most active and interesting parts of VidCon.
VidCon is really three different conferences in one that coexist and intermingle.
The creators and the communities were the original part of it that we celebrate. It’s democratizing this entire creative economy, which is what we do across the board. The creator track is at the center of that. How do I leverage my peers? How do I get inspired by people who have been there and done that? How do I build my channel, audience, and community? And how do I make better videos?
On the industry side, the industry has grown to be a huge billion dollar industry.
Now it’s the number one industry conference focused on online video and it is the only industry conference anywhere that I know of where you can spend all day on weighty issues like monetization, demonetization, audience development, the future of online video, the future of media in general, and then walk out and see all the fans that enable this whole thing to happen who are so excited and passionate just to be there and experience it.
Most conferences are separate from the audiences they deal with.
Television, in many ways, is afraid of their audience and holds them at bay. Online video celebrates its audience. VidCon is such a great way to continue to do that. So that’s what we do. We’re for the people that make online video and for the people who love it. And we democratize the whole creative economy. That’s our mission.
5. What was your attendance at one of your conferences last year? Wasn’t it over 30K?
U.S. was over 30,000. We got close to 10,000 in Australia, and I think we’re in the 4,000 range in Europe. We reached a lot of people last year and we’re going to touch a lot more people this year.
6. What are some unique challenges you may not have expected that come with running a conference of that magnitude?
One of the interesting things about VidCon is its three tracks — we’ve got the community, creator, and the industry track. Those are three distinct audiences we need to appeal to and we need to think about creating magical experiences for each one (useful, entertaining, and educational).
But there’s a couple of other demographics that are also super important to us. Those are the Featured Creators: the top creators we bring in to do our content, meet and greets, and stage shows and performances. Those creators are another audience that we need to make sure have an amazingly great experience and are treated really well. We need to create experiences for them that are engaging, entertaining, inspiring, and fun.
And then there’s our sponsors. We have around one hundred sponsors, if not more, that create experiences for our attendees and creators. We love them and we need to make sure we’re great for them.
Finally, there’s parents. For the community track, the fans are roughly in the 13- 24-year-old range. A lot of those tickets are bought by parents. We need to make sure we’re talking to them and creating great experiences for them and giving them confidence that VidCon is a wonderful, safe place for their kids to be a part of, and to make sure we’re curating great experiences, information, and streams for parents.
It’s interesting — we’re a three-track show (three separate events in one), but we really have six distinct audience segments that we need to reach out to and make great experiences for.
7. As online video continues to grow, what trends do you expect to see in 2018 related to consumer behavior and marketing?
Let’s start out on the monetization side — there’s been a lot of things happening in monetization for creators, and VidCon is all about democratizing the creator economy. We are creator first. We are all about making sure that if you want to create, make videos, or be a part of the online video industry, we want to enable that. We want to enable you to do that as your vocation, your hobby, your career.
But monetization has taken interesting turns in the past few years.
Advertising is changing pretty rapidly. The idea that media is proxy for audiences is changing as well. YouTube monetization is changing with demonization and what’s a safe video and what isn’t.
Creators need to think about, “How do I make money?” in others ways.
It would be awesome if every single person who watched one of your videos gave you a dollar, but that’s not going to happen. There are things that are coming out that are really interesting, like Patreon and merchandise, and other ways to monetize your audience.
Beyond that, I’m super fascinated by the promise of Blockchain to rewrite the rules and the commercial arrangements between creators and their community. We’re still in the early days of that.
If you think about Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat, these are all intermediaries that get between a creator and their audience. When there’s a commercial aspect, they’ll take a cut (a portion of that to run their platform) which they should.
But there are other ways, emerging ways, for that economy between creators and their audiences to be consummated and I think Blockchain has potential there. I’m not talking about Bitcoin. It’s more about creating a way for value to accrue and flow between creators and their audiences, and the other way around. I think we’re going to see some interesting developments there this year.
Also, what is the future of television? What is the future of linear media?
I’ve thought on this for a long time — I think that the traditional TV model is going to decline and when it happens, it’s going to be rapid. I originally thought it was going to be within three years of when Discovery bought us. I missed that by a couple years, but it’s happening right now.
The number of subs for traditional television are declining rapidly. New models are coming up that are being brought up, tried, and discarded in many ways.
YouTube is now trying to be television. Facebook, with Facebook Watch, is going down the same path in a way that may be more native to the way people consume media online. There’s so much experimentation going on about how visual media is going to be delivered and consumed. The traditional models won’t go away, but they’re declining. So what does that look like?
Another is, the next big social video platforms, what are they?
Musical.ly certainly has entered the area where people look at it and say, “I don’t understand it.” But clearly something’s happening there and brands are going in.
LinkedIn is growing as a great creator and community-led video platform. I don’t know how it’ll look like in a year, but I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening on the LinkedIn side and if you’re sleeping on LinkedIn, you shouldn’t.
Pinterest — I don’t know what Pinterest is going to do with video but they need to do something. That could be another area that we see evolve.
Then there’s the more single format video platforms that are emerging — Musical.ly was a big one, HQ Trivia is one, and there are others coming out as well.
Twitch is an example of a single format platform that spread out and is starting to do more. All of those things I think are really interesting too.
Then, the changing pace of social video in general. Facebook deciding (for whatever reason) it wants to spend more time surfacing friends and family in your feed and less time surfacing viral videos. That’s going to have a big impact on the audience.
Snapchat trying to figure out if it can broaden its audience or if it’s just going to be a Twitter-like service that’s more messaging than media-based. All of those things I think are fascinating that we’ll be talking about and watching evolve in 2018, and we’ll be talking about at VidCon a lot.
8. How do you think YouTube Reels will affect the influencer marketing community?
It remains to be seen.
YouTube in many ways is everything to everybody and a number of other platforms are more focused on individual formats that work for them. Instagram has had great success with Stories.
I just spent some time with a bunch of college students in the media space at UNC (University of North Carolina) lecturing at a friend’s class. I had lunch with about 15 of them and every one of them are spending more time on Instagram, and particularly around Stories. Which is really interesting.
YouTube has tried to add social before — I remember when they tried to add Google+ as the social for YouTube and it didn’t really work out for them. They’ve tried to move from this model where you hunt for what you want to the serendipitous discovery of content (like you do in Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds). They’ve actually seen some major success there, they’ve done a good job. But there’s more to come there, too. I think it’s good that they’re trying.
I think the Stories format is one that we’ve really seen the audience really accepts and we’ll see what happens. I think it’s great they’re [YouTube] doing it, they have awesome product people there, and have shown that they’ve been able to transform themselves. So we’ll see. I’m just excited that we have new stuff to talk about and we have new ways to engage audiences.
9. With the UNC students, did you get a ballpark on how much time they’re spending on Instagram, or in particular Instagram Stories?
The question I asked is, “What video platforms are you using these days?” and there was a lot of YouTube as you can imagine. There was less Snapchat, and everybody said Instagram.
All of them said Instagram which I thought was really interesting.
10. How do you foresee the relationship between brands and online creators transforming in 2018?
I think we’re going to see a backlash on influencer marketing this year.
I think we’re already starting to see it because bad actors have come in, fake creators have come in. Some influencers deliver great ROI. Many other influencers and influencer platforms have not been able to show that they deliver an ROI that’s worthwhile.
Look, at Revision3 we brought great creators in who had great, honest communities, and we showed great ROI. A lot of it was performance-based stuff, but a lot of it was more brand building as well.
We have a lot of hype, and now we’re moving down into a little bit of an influencer marketing crash this year. But I believe strongly that it is going to be such a great part of the marketing that’s going forward.
If you’re familiar with Gartner’s Hype Cycle — where things get hyped up, they reach the peak, then they go into the trough of despair, and then from the trough of despair we go to the plateau of productivity — I think influencer marketing is headed to the trough of despair this year and if you look at 2019, ’20 and beyond, it’ll start going up that slope of productivity. And it will just get better and better.
Short term, people are going to get a little burned out and you guys [Mediakix] have done a bunch of work on fake influencers, how to spot them, and how to weather this.
Influencer marketing is not going away and it is such a great way to reach audiences in a natural and authentic way, but you have to do it right. And some of these people don’t do it right.
I think a lot of is about finding the right partners and creators to work with and not just going with somebody because they’re big or going with somebody because somebody says they would be great.
You really have to figure out who are the right influencers that match with your brand. Do they have the right message, do they have the right audience, are they the right type? And then when you work with them, you can’t just go in and do traditional media buy, where you go in and spray your money around for a week or two and then you go away until the next campaign.
We need to change the way people think about it.
You need to go in, become a part of that community, and become a trusted member of that community for six months or a year. You have to commit to it and help the community do things they couldn’t otherwise do — become a valuable member of it. And let yourself, your message and your brand go to be shaped by the creator and the communities.
And for the influencers out there that are trying to work with brands that don’t really have a viable community around them, it’s going to be more and more obvious because there will be no reaction.
If you don’t look at it as a multi-month or preferably a year or more relationship, partnership, or connection with one of these influencers and their communities, then you shouldn’t be doing it anyway.
If you do it that way and you let yourself go and become part of it, but enable the community to do things they couldn’t otherwise do, in many ways that’s where you’re going to find the true value.
Too many companies right now think of influencer marketing as just another check mark on their media buy list — we’re going to buy ads on television, we’re going to buy pre-rolls, and then we’re going to go to a couple influencers and we’re going to do run that campaign for a month and it’s going to be great and then we’re not going to do anything for another six months.
No! It’s an entirely different way to think about marketing and getting your message out.
11. Any exciting details about VidCon you can share?
The Anaheim convention center added 200,000 square feet of space to their building in the last couple years. It’s allowing us to expand what we’re doing, particularly on the creator track.
We’re increasing our attendees by about 40% (on the creator track). We’re going to be adding a lot more hands-on and how-tos. We’re really excited about the expanded creator track this year. VidCon’s just going to be awesome, can’t wait to see everyone there.
12. Anything else you’d like to add?
The last thing I’ll say is, this is the end of the beginning of the online video industry’s growth. Not the beginning of the end. There’s a lot of challenges. The industry’s growing up.
We’re confronting a lot of issues that I think are important to confront and deal with, and we’re moving forward in a lot of ways with a lot of stops and starts. But this is the most important, and most powerful, and the most exciting thing happening in media and it’s going to remain that way for the next 20 years. I couldn’t imagine being in a better spot with VidCon and I couldn’t imagine being in a more exciting industry anywhere in the world.
It’s going to be fun!
This interview has been edited for clarity.