I should be vlogging this. I know. Seems wrong to be typing words to describe VidCon, the world’s largest conference devoted to the art, science, business and fandoms of online video. Founded in 2010 by the Vlogbrothers (top YA author John Green and his entrepreneur brother Hank) this three day convention is more like a music festival where popular YouTubers (Creators) come together with their fans (Community).
But there is another side to VidCon. The Industry Track is devoted to the commercial side of online video, while the Creator and the Community Tracks celebrate the culture. And the difference between the two mirrors the marketing industry’s obsession with the reach of social influencers as a substitute for mainstream media channels, verses understanding the personality-led ecosystem as a continent worth exploring in its own right.
VidCon Europe 2017
This was the first convention held outside of California. Hank, the VidCon CEO, adopts a bit of the hayseed mid-west American persona, but he is a smart businessman, activist, and new media impresario. He chose beautiful Amsterdam, he said, because there were conferences for YouTubers in the UK already, and he was drawn to the open, welcoming, multi-lingual nature of the city.
If the size of the cavernous RAI venue is an indication, they expected more people. But the fans there didn’t care. Meet & Greets, where fans and creators share a selfie, are the ‘killer app’ of VidCon and shorter lines makes everyone happy.
Sadly for my inaugural VidCon experience, the first thing I noticed is that the speaker roster for day one (Industry Day) was over 80% pale, male. So disappointing that this new(ish) industry is so old school. And odd, because the Creator and Community side is so diverse.
The whole power of YouTube — and the Internet in general — is that anyone who doesn’t see themselves reflected in the mainstream media, can start their own channel and share their voice and point of view. The Creator and Community panels were a lesson in gender balance and diversity. And, unlike Industry delegates, attendees on the C+C side were overwhelmingly female.
Industry sessions ranged from the hardcore and informative Reverse Engineering the YouTube Algorithm Expanded with a single presenter, to the more generic Looking into the Future with a panel of “some of Europe’s smartest visionaries” from a range of companies (but not any creators).
As contrast, Creator and Community top sessions included Creating Social Change Through Online Video, led by Rosianna Halse Rojas (our friend and former H+K D2 speaker), Being True to Your Voice and Kickass Women Doing Kickass Things, my winner for best title.
One of the most interesting Industry sessions looking into the numbers behind online video consumption was Social Video Trends and Insights Across Europe from Tubular Labs (a popular H+K Tech Speculators guest) which showed how much video is exported from different countries, meaning how many views come from outside a content creator’s native land. The UK was a clear leader here at 78%. Nice bragging rights for British creators perhaps, but a watch-out if you are a local market brand manager who doesn’t want to pay for influencer reach on the other side of the world.
Over on the other side, this would have paired beautifully with The Pros and Cons of Making Videos in a Different Language. For Vidcon Europe 2018, I’d love to see some collaboration between the Industry and the Creator Tracks. Collabs are a tried and true best practice, after all.
One of the joys of the content programing for VidCon is that it is not all beauty vloggers and cute pranksters. Oh they are there, but so are the Booktubers, animators, directors, and smaller channels learning from their peers.
Followers of Hank Green know his love of science and the success of the SciShow. So no surprise, but still a treat, to see the Community Track kick-off with a panel called “Let Me Explain You a Thing” featuring Dr. Shini Somara, Sally le Page and Brady Haran (another past H+K D2 speaker).
The Women in Science session was lauded as “the #VidConEU panel with the highest combined IQ” and it was illuminating to meet these EDU YouTubers in the fields of science, technology, and engineering. While YouTube is a big tent, the stereotypes are still in force in society. One panelist, Hana Shoib, said “when I tell people I am on YouTube, they assume I have a beauty channel.” Here’s hoping GE discovers Hana before L’Oreal does.
The elephant not in the room was YouTube itself. Surprisingly, given their title sponsor status for VidCon US, YouTube was not a sponsor of VidCon Europe. There was a platform exec sprinkled in among the speakers, but not the huge presence I’d assumed would be there, given YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki’s keynote in Anaheim last year. Did it matter? Well, not much to the crowd on Saturday and Sunday, who were there to get close to their favorite vloggers. But yeah, on Industry Day, they were missed.
Facebook/Instagram showed up on day two pushing live streaming in the Creators Lounge. Snap didn’t attend, but Snapchat was talked about. A lot. Twitter not so much.
In fact, Snapchat was the clear winner as the backchannel to the event. Except for the lack of search, hashtags and discoverability on the platform. No matter to the fans, who are following their friends and favorite creators already. But otherwise there was no easy way to experience the behind the scenes content all the creators were sharing without manually finding and following them individually.
I was quite surprised not to see a Snapchat Live Story (which would have been awesome) or even an official VidConEU geofilter. Several of the exhibitors had geofilters you could unlock, like one for the Wonder Woman movie (which really really should have been a lens).
And two famous Snapchatters were only speakers (besides the Green brothers) that seemed to travel seamlessly between Industry and Creator Tracks. Travel vlogger Cailin O’Neil, who was rocking a pair of Spectacles) and Rasmus Kolbe, Denmark’s King of Snapchat, were articulate, personable and relaxed about their success in quite an appealing way.
Rasmus gave a big shout-out to Musical.ly, which was the official sponsor of VidCon Europe that I most wanted to see. The Shanghai based app (claiming over 200 million users and 12 million video uploads per day) had a fun activation stage over in the main hall (complete with a unicorn beach toy). Musical.ly brought some of their top musers, like the twin phenoms Lisa and Lena from Germany, who were seen charming their fans, hanging with Rasmus, and generally having a ball living the future of online video. Meanwhile the Industry trackers were still looking at algorithm charts far away in the not so sparkly Emerald Room.
Reminded of the cliché about blind men describing an elephant, I can’t help but think that the Industry is trying so hard to dissect the brain of the powerful online video beast, it is missing the chance to examine the heart. Meanwhile, the target audience we seek to understand is right there in the next room dancing. So download Live.ly (the live stream side app that Musical.ly promoted at the last VidCon in Anaheim) and skip the Industry panels you can hear anywhere.
For me, VidCon Europe was a valuable industry conference, but an invaluable live focus group. If the two sides were more intertwined, it would be amazing. Group hug.