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John Green (New York Times bestselling author, vlogbrother, and co-founder of VidCon) gives an Industry keynote speech at VidCon 2014, discussing a variety of his projects, the quality of engagement, and what metrics don’t tell us about audience development.

VidCon is a yearly convention for people who love online video! For more information, visit http://vidcon.com.

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John Green: My name is John Green. My brother, Hank, founded, uh, VidCon. I, uh- Hank and I make- make a lot of content across many channels. We started with the Vlogbrothers channel, but now, we have a lot of, uh, educational initiatives including The Art Assignment and CrashCourse and many others. Um, I also write novels and my most recent book is called The Fault in Our Stars.

[audience cheers]

I think that's all the background that you need for my talk. I wrote this down because I am a writer and I'm not one of these people who gets up and, like, talks as if they know what they're talking about without reading from a piece of paper. I will try to make eye contact periodically to give you the illusion that I am not reading.

So, I want to talk today about, uh, different models of success in online video and how good we've gotten at measuring certain kinds of success and how bad we are at measuring other kinds, but I want to begin by sharing with you my brother and my's overall view of, like, business or whatever, which is pretty simple: what's good for your community is good for your business, and what's bad for your community is ultimately bad for your business, even if, in the short run, it brings in a lot of money. Like, Hank was able to found companies like VidCon and his merch company DFTBA Records because creators and viewers trust him, and that is a trust that he built by focusing 100% and for many years on what he though would be good for the community and never considering business separately from the health and productivity of what we call "Nerdfighteria".

So, with that noted, thanks. I wrote this book. I already told you about it. I'm going to tell you about it again. It's called The Fault in Our Stars. It's been on The New York Times' best seller list now, not to brag, for 130 consecutive weeks, and the book was adapted into a $12 million movie by Fox 2000 that, in its opening weekend, was the number one movie in America, beating out a $185 million Tom Cruise sci-fi spectacular.

[audience cheers]

Um, thanks. I didn't make it, but thank you. Um, it's now made more than $100 million at the box office domestically, more than $170 million worldwide, and the story of the movie's success, I have to say, is very complicated. Like, I would like to take credit for it, but I- I can't for most of it. For one thing, it's a good movie. I had absolutely nothing to do with that. For another, it was marketed brilliantly by the people at Fox, but there's no question in anyone's mind, if you ask someone at Fox, if you ask me, if you ask the director of the movie, if you ask the stars, there's no question in any of our minds that without Nerdfighteria, neither the book nor the movie would have found such a broad audience and- so this has led lots of people to ask me, "How do you build an authentic community online that will buy lots of movie tickets?"

The answer is what no one wants to hear, uh, including, likely, many of you: you build it authentically. [laughs] But I also think there's more to it. So, Hank and I started making YouTube videos on the Vlogbrothers channel back in 2007 and we discussed topics ranging from the astonishingly strange mating habits of the giraffe to the conflict in the Central African Republic, but even back in 2007 when we only had a couple hundred viewers, the most interesting stuff that we've done has always been community projects. We have a book club and a Minecraft server; a Kiva group that has now loaned more than $4 million to entrepreneurs in the developing world; we organize The Project for Awesome, an annual YouTube charity event that, this year, raised over $800,000 for organizations like Save the Children and http://water.org; and our video launching The Project for Awesome, which raised over $800,000 in 48 hours, was our least-viewed video of the last twelve months.

In fact, if you judge by any traditional metrics: ad revenue, video views, comments, etc., our project videos are consistently our least popular stuff, because people comment about it off of YouTube, which is where most of the real action happens, and they make the least money, but they're our most important videos in terms of building community, which is the actual work that we are actually doing. We don't have good metrics to measure that kind of engagement.

So, we also have an educational channel, CrashCourse, where a group of educators and animators and video editors work with us to introduce important concepts in history and biology, chemistry, and other subjects. CrashCourse is used in thousands of schools around the world. It has more than 1.8 million subscribers. It's financially sustainable thanks to a mix of advertising revenue and voluntary monthly subscriptions from over 8,000 paying subscribers at https://subbable.com, but it would be a lot more lucrative if we stopped making videos about science, because our videos about AP World History get, on average, five times more views than our videos about AP Chemistry. The history views get more comments. They have better engagement metrics because, you know, they're not about, like, non-polar molecules or whatever, so does that mean that we should stop making videos about AP Chemistry and focus just on World History? That would, of course, be an awful idea, because the chemistry videos are tremendously helpful to chemistry students, and they're good for the community even if they lose money.

Alright, I- I want to, um, also compare two of our most recent video projects: Mental Floss and The Art Assignment. So, Mental Floss is this amazing magazine. Uh, it's devoted to helping readers feel smart again. It's got lots of trivia and knowledge stuff, um, and last year, we started making online video with them, and by any measure, it's been very successful. The average Mental Floss video is watched more than 837,000 times. They have amazing watch-through, extremely high average ratings, tons of sharing across social media, lots of great conversation in the comments. The videos feature lots of trivia, so people walk away with at least a couple tidbits that they didn't know going in, something that they enjoy sharing with their friends or family, and this has allowed Mental Floss to become very, very successful. It's led to partnerships with big corporations and all that stuff.

But Mental Floss videos are primarily something that you watch. The Art Assignment, on the other hand, is a show that you have to participate in. It's a co-production of PBS Digital Studios. The Art Assignment's a show about contemporary art in which viewers are introduced to a successful artist and their work, and then that artist gives the viewer an art assignment. This may involve, like, traditional art-making techniques like creating a painting, or, uh, it might be making a GIF, like, uh, Toyin Odutola's art assignment. The Art Assignment gets, on average, about 40,000 views, 5% of what Mental Floss gets. It has fewer likes, fewer shares, etc., but for the people who watch it, it's absolutely transformative. Thousands of people are discovering the insular world of contemporary art. They're engaging directly with working artists. They're making their own art in response to the assignments. Twice a month, people spend thousands of hours completing their art assignments. All the time, we see comments like this one that I just found today: "I find The Art Assignment to be the best YouTube channel ever to have existed."

Now, without outside funding or foundation support, The Art Assignment is utterly financially unsustainable, but it's providing arts education in a world that sorely lacks it and it's my hope that we're doing so in a way that's both accessible, but not, you know, like, dumbed down. I'm very proud of both Mental Floss and The Art Assignment. I'm very proud of CrashCourse History. I'm even reasonably proud of my videos about giraffe sex, but in my experience, success on the scale of The Fault in Our Stars film happens by following The Art Assignment path, or the CrashCourse Chemistry path, or The Project for Awesome path. If you ask a lot of your viewers, you are going to have fewer viewers, but they will want to be part of your journey, whether it's about chemistry or art or the novel they've watched you struggle with for years.

Vi Hart may not get a million views a video but she taught me that math can be beautiful. Akilah Hughes doesn't get millions of views, but she helped me to think more complexly about all kinds of things from race to makeup. Henry Reich and CGP Grey explain the world to me. These are not things that I watch. They are communities that I'm part of, communities that help me to live a more engaged and fulfilling life, and I'm going to follow those people to the ends of the Earth, and if their movies have a midnight screening, I will be there.

But the economic incentives in online video right now run completely counter to encouraging creators to focus on community. The incentives tell us that more views is always good, that uncomplicated measures of engagement are the only ones that really matter, and that the ultimate end is to sell advertisements rather than to build video projects that encourage people to connect and to collaborate.

Thirty years, Bob Ross began teaching people how to paint on PBS. The show was never a ratings juggernaut like, say, Falcon Crest, which aired at the same time, but it changed people's lives in a way that, I would submit, maybe Falcon Crest didn't. The same is true of Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street. These shows would never have existed in a television world driven entirely by advertising, but they continue to matter to us and they continue to be valuable precisely because their audiences were more passionate than they were large.

So, how do you build a community like the one that made The Fault in Our Stars so successful? More Bob Ross, less Falcon Crest. That's my advice, anyway. I know it's hard in a world of perverse incentives, but I would encourage you not to worry so much about how many people watch what you make. Worry about how many people love what you make. Thank you.

[audience applauds]

Thanks very much!