I find it interesting to look at successful businesses of any kind and examine what can be learned from them. TED is a great example.

We don’t have to especially consider the business TED is in (a nonprofit conference company, that started as a platform for ideas about technology, entertainment and design), we just need to look at the content and see what kind of impact it has.

TED is pretty exclusive. Tickets cost $6,000 a pop: but it’s invitation only. The good news is that all of the talks are available online, for nothing. There are over 1,400 of them to date – and growing. Collectively, they’ve been viewed more than a billion times. Not bad for something which started as a one-off event.

The videos get some serious traffic. The most-watched TED Talk, by Sir Ken Robinson, ‘schools kill creativity’ has been watched over thirteen million times. (It’s brilliant, by the way: take some time to watch it.)

That’s popular content. People aren’t watching this for any other reason than to absorb and enjoy the content. They share it because it’s smart. So, what makes it so good, and what can website owners and content strategists learn from it?


Great content is funny

Whatever the subject, speakers at TED Talks are comfortable with using humour to get their point across. There’s little that’s funny for its own sake and most of it is good-natured. When Bill Gates released a load of mosquitoes during a talk about malaria, some of the laughter was nervous – but the edgy humour contributed to a point well-made. There’s no slapstick – the humour has a point and it’s usually smart.


Great content is challenging

If there’s one thing TED Talks isn’t afraid of, it’s challenging content. There’s a reason for this: if people have heard it before, they’re not interested. If it’s challenging, it creates debate – that in itself encourages people to share the videos online. Take Dan Pallotta’s talk on charities: the way we think about charities is dead wrong. He says that the way we think about charities undermines the charities themselves: for example, beating them up when they spend money.


Great content teaches you something

It’s a given that TED Talks will teach you something. Many visitors don’t primarily go there to learn – but learn they do. People enjoy learning something new. They enjoy sharing it. So teach them: when they come away with new information, they feel rewarded. They remember it. They share it. Imagine your content is a training course, or a bit of advice. For example, Eli Pariser’s beware of online “filter bubbles” shows how the Internet can actually narrow our view of the world.


Great content is well-produced

Technically speaking, there’s not a lot going on in a TED Talk. But what is there is done very well. They’re professionally shot, usually from three or four camera angles, with impeccable audio. It’s not creatively amazing: long shot, close shot, medium shot, shot from the back. But there’s enough variety to ensure we don’t get bored. But they are always sharp and clean, shot using decent equipment. It does matter. Yes, you can run down to the high street and get a £70 HD camera. Yes, everyone will be able to tell that you’ve done exactly that.


Great content needs few bells and whistles

Fewer than half of all TED Talks use PowerPoint slides. Those which do often don’t use that many. Slides are most often used as a prop when they should be there to enhance key messages. Concentrate on the key messages first, add the odd bells and whistles later. Use charts and images where they are really needed, for example on Michael Dickinson's how a fly flies. A fly shot at 7,000 frames per second. Now that’s hard to describe.


Great content is focused

This seems an odd thing to say when looking at TED, because the talks are so very diverse. But are they? They may be diverse by topic, but they all meet the incredibly tight brief: “Ideas worth spreading”. The content falls into the categories: technology, entertainment, design, business, science and global issues. But how does TED measure it? By how jaw-dropping, persuasive, courageous, ingenious, fascinating, inspiring, beautiful, funny and informative they are. A wide remit, but a tight focus: and that focus is very human.


Great content is brave

Great content is honest and goes where topics may seem uncomfortable but can be enormously rewarding and inspiring. Schizophrenia sufferer Elyn Saks talks about mental illness “from the inside”. She takes us swifty and honestly into her unique issues and how they have shaped her life – and something most of us fear terribly.


People will sit around for great content

The perceived wisdom of the Internet is that videos need to be brief: just a few minutes. TED Talks proves that notion wrong, calls it for the tosh it is. In fact, TED’s most popular videos are among its longest – themselves twice as long as the less popular videos. TED’s not about sound bites, it’s about substance. Don’t kid yourselves that people avoid substance.


Great content grows

Well, not on its own, but with effort. TED started out small but now has over 1,400 talks. That’s a massive library of great content for visitors to discover, share and link back to. As the content grows, so do the visitors. Khan Academy has fewer than 200 million views, compared to TED’s billion plus. And Khan Academy’s not shoddy.


Great content is inspiring

Content shouldn’t endlessly promote you. It should inspire others – otherwise it doesn’t resonate, it just sells. Neil Pasricha’s the three As of awesome is rated as one of the most inspiring talks on TED. He talks about life today, faced by so many terrible things going on in the world, how do we keep a hold on the things that really make us feel good?


Great content is an investment worth making

Whatever the reason for their existence, TED Talks are some of the most popular videos on the Internet. This isn’t because of interest in the company behind it – it’s because of the content. Nothing else. The content. It creates traffic. Conversation. Social shares. And anyone who creates content should take notice of that – and learn from it.


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