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Cooking up community, without a trained chef?

January 11, 2012

TED’s exclusive “ideas worth spreading” gathering in Long Beach is now so popular that people are willing to pay just shy of $4000 for the privilege of viewing a live simulcast together in the desert resort of Palm Springs. You read that right; the draw to be part of this TED community is so strong people will pay to watch the inner circle on TV.

How are the organizers of TED able to pull this off? They broke all the rules of branding and built a community around their core purpose instead.

In February 2009, TED organizers decided to expand the universe of “ideas worth spreading” to include independent TEDx events organized by people much like you and me. Not only did they believe we could pull off our own community-centric TEDs, but they gave us what amounts to a cookbook on the TED website, with step-by-step instructions. The ingredients and recipes are right there for you to take so long as you meet the rules of the license to call your event TEDx.

We’ve organized over 2,500 TEDx events since TED showed us how.

What intrigues me about this “cookbook” model is how it serves to both satisfy the wants of our own communities while simultaneously increasing the desirability of the main TED events themselves. If you’ve got a successful restaurant (TED), why bother to give away your recipes to the public at large (TEDx)?

Let’s look at The French Laundry. Thomas Keller has done a fantastic job of creating what many consider to be the ultimate dining experience at his Michelin-starred restaurant in Yountville, California. Along with opening up other well-received, less exclusive restaurants around the country, Keller has published large-format cookbooks with pictures and recipes and anecdotes so detailed that anyone can copy him.

But of course they can’t.

I fancy myself a good cook, and I have a signed copy of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry cookbook on my shelf, but there’s no way I can replicate the experience of actually traveling to Yountville to sit down at the white linen table for the real deal. Keller obviously makes a little money from each cookbook sold, but the meals prepared from those recipes only serve as a stark reminder of how good the real deal in Yountville actually is.

The same close-but-no-cigar concept holds for TEDx, too. No matter how good a local organizer is in selecting speakers and wooing an audience and choosing the most appropriate TED Talks to screen, their TEDxSomething is simply no substitute for the gathering of minds and personalities orchestrated every spring in Long Beach and, now, Palm Springs.

I imagine the initial suggestion to launch the TEDx brand was likely greeted with a chorus of concerns about diluting the value of the TED brand. But the results show that TEDx has actually served to drive demand for the real deal while crystallizing their ownership of the meme “ideas worth spreading.” They’ve transcended the lucrative real-world community of once-yearly participants and grown to become a global and even grassroots community dedicated to spreading world-changing ideas.

– Thomas Kriese

Cooking up community, without a trained chef?

Charlie Brown

CEO & Founder

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