Thousands of teens journeyed to this year’s VidCon conference in Anaheim to catch a glimpse of their favorite YouTube stars, and maybe even get a selfie with one of their idols.
Nicole Rose had a different mission in mind. The 16-year-old made the nearly 1,000-mile trek from her home near Portland, Ore., to the Anaheim Convention Center to learn how to become a digital entrepreneur.
Nicole, an aspiring singer who had glittering cat ears perched on her mane of pink hair, attended panels on “Building an Empire” and “How to Stand Out in a Sea of Saturation.” She carried a pink notebook with pages of scribbled observations, and handed out business cards and light-purple plastic bracelets emblazoned with the name of her YouTube channel.
“Right now, I think my channel could go any which way as I try to discover my own style and establish my own brand,” she said. “I would love to make this my job.”
For most of the 20,000 fans who flocked to VidCon, the youthful YouTube stars of fashion, music and lifestyle videos may be the big draw. But many of the teenagers here are looking for something else: hardheaded business advice.
VidCon began in 2010 when a mere 1,400 attended to trade tips on how to post YouTube videos, meet new friends and talk about the best digital cameras to use. Since then, it has grown into a serious convention that draws major corporate sponsors and top digital industry executives looking to build their businesses.
YouTube Chief Executive Susan Wojcicki gave the event’s keynote speech to a crowded ballroom on Thursday. Newer competitors like Vessel, an online network that sells subscriptions for access to videos, also made the rounds. The convention wrapped up Saturday.
There were industry-heavy panels to help creators navigate the corporate world, like one on how to decipher a contract or how to work with advertisers to better monetize content. At “Building an Empire,” seasoned content creators advised attendees on how to expand their professional footprint in the industry.
“The best competitive advantage you can have is being super-obsessed about what you do and accepting that other people will call it silly,” VidCon co-founder Hank Green said during the panel. “It’s all about believing in your obsession.”
Green and his brother John, author of popular a young adult book, “The Fault in Our Stars,” came up with the idea for the convention after going on a small tour around the U.S. for their YouTube fans. The duo, known for their “VlogBrothers” channel, didn’t know they had a fervent fan following until about 80 people showed up at a library in Michigan to hear them speak.
Six years later, the conference had thousands of attendees, more than 300 creators and 145 speakers.
There are still typical convention hallmarks: booths organized by number, bowls of free candy, lots of tote bags. But instead of bland freebies, VidCon souvenirs are of the selfie variety, with photo booth setups ranging from a “Jimmy Kimmel Live” GIF-maker to an Instagram emoji ball pit.
There are no bleary-eyed suits to be found, only young fans (and their hovering parents) clutching iPhones and documenting their experience on Snapchat and Periscope, two of the most popular social media platforms.
Organizers are also learning how to better accommodate the conference’s growth. The event’s biggest names were shuttled to the convention center in black SUVs with tinted windows. (Golf carts, coordinators had found, were easily intercepted by eager fans.)
“Last year, fans were knocking on your door because they were all on the same floor as you, so you couldn’t sleep,” said GloZell Green, 42, who has 3.8 million followers on YouTube and was attending VidCon for the fifth time. “People lose their minds because they feel so physically close to you after watching you on their phones.”
That connection with young fans is also drawing companies who see VidCon as a marketing tool. Teenage years are when people decide what brands they like, so it’s a great time to win customers for life.
There is Canon, here to hawk its YouTube-friendly video creator kit, and Taco Bell, trying to prove itself as a digitally savvy company. Other exhibitors include Nickelodeon, Panasonic and NBCUniversal.
Even automaker Kia got in on the action, sponsoring a “Parents’ Lounge,” an oasis for adults hidden behind a wall of white curtains.
“It’s nice and quiet and cold,” said Charles Ross of Riverside. His daughters, ages 13 and 18, left their dad behind.
Basic booth setups began at $2,500 and went as high as $70,000 for more tricked-out layouts, according to some of the exhibitors. One of the biggest setups in the exhibitor’s hall belonged to CoverGirl, which had a video studio decorated with a flat-screen TV and orchids.
The makeup giant came to VidCon to find its new “Glam Guru,” a YouTube personality paid to give millennials beauty tips. That’s what lured in Marisa Trezza, an 18-year-old camped out next to the booth waiting for her turn to audition. “Hopefully I won’t mess up,” Trezza said while practicing drawing the perfect “cat eye” with an eyeliner pen.
She was just one of the hundreds of people here vying for the nod. But for CoverGirl, this is a chance to establish itself as a brand hip enough to be at VidCon. It’s a chance to earn some street cred, and new customers.
“The company is really looking to immerse itself more in the digital space,” said Tracey Richman, whose marketing agency represents CoverGirl. “We’ve seen the success, in terms of engagement and sales, when we target the millennial fan base on YouTube. How important that is has really opened the brand’s eyes.”
But for Nicole Rose, the aspiring YouTube singer, it was all about building her fan base. She has already racked up nearly 800 subscribers and about 30 videos, including “Pokemon Theme Song Cover” and a video blog upload called “Inspirations Within the YouTube Community.” Her biggest hit is a video she calls “My (emotional) Ariana Grande Experience” that has racked up 17,557 clicks.
By the end of the second day of VidCon, she had filled six pages with tips from her favorite seasoned creators.
“I mean, look at all these notes,” she said. “I think there’s a ton of things I can take away.”
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