TED Goes Corporate

April 24, 2017, 3:00 PM UTC
Chris Anderson speaks with Kevin Rudd at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 1, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Chris Anderson speaks with Kevin Rudd at TED2015 - Truth and Dare, Session 1, March 16-20, 2015, Vancouver Convention Center, Vancouver, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash/TED
Ryan Lash/TED

It’s hard to escape TED these days. What began as an annual conference of ideas about technology, entertainment, and design (hence the acronym) is now the intellectual equivalent of kale: nutritious, oddly addictive, and part of the shared consciousness among a certain set. TED Talks have been viewed online 6.1 billion times—okay, that’s way more beloved than kale—and they’ve popularized ideas relating to everything from body language to the power of introverts.

Lately, though, the nonprofit has been expanding in a different realm: providing services to Fortune 500 companies. TED began creating co-branded conferences for the likes of IBM, Intel, Unilever, and UPS a few years ago. More recently, its corporate services have broadened to include on-demand talks, in which TED brings in several of its speakers to address employees at company events, public-speaking classes taught by TED coaches, and residencies that allow companies to rent space at TED’s sleek New York City headquarters to get an up-close view of its creativity and vigor.

Mainstream corporations crave the aura of innovation that a TED Talk can impart. Some want to learn how to apply TED’s distinctive style to internal and external communications. For its part, TED is looking to boost its revenues to fund CEO Chris Anderson’s ambitious goals: to spread ideas around the globe. Still, the strategy presents risks. If TED comes to be seen as a marketing firm, it could erode the credibility that makes its brand valuable.

Anderson, an Oxford-educated media entrepreneur, has steadily expanded TED since he bought what was then a single conference in 2001. Today it’s a global brand with two annual conferences, a library of educational videos (TED-Ed), free online TED Talks, a network of independent TED-like events (TEDx), and a Fellows program.

“We’re on a quest for ideas, and if it’s a choice between taking the money or maintaining that principle,” Anderson says, “we wouldn’t take the money.”

But Anderson doesn’t want to speak only to the educated elite. As billions more people in the developing world connect to the Internet, he says, the definition of what a TED Talk is and who it’s for needs to expand. When a “teenage boy in the slums of Nairobi” picks up a $25 mobile device, for example, Anderson wants TED to be ready to engage. This means hosting talks in multiple languages (there’s already a robust translation service in place) and expanding the format beyond its trademark Talk. Recently the organization hired a three-person team to develop new ways of spreading ideas online.

All of this costs money, and TED’s revenue growth from conference sponsorships and ticket sales has flattened. In 2015, the most recent year for which it has filed a tax return, TED generated $66.2 million in revenues (and eked out a few hundred thousand dollars in “profits”). Donations accounted for 35% of the revenues. Ticket sales made up another slice (attendance costs between $8,500 and $17,000 per person). The largest piece of revenues, some 40%, came from corporate sponsorships, according to Anderson.

See more: 5 TED Talks Every Business Owner Needs to Watch

If TED wants to continue growing, it needs to find additional funding sources. That job falls to Lisa Choi Owens, who was hired in late 2015 as chief revenue officer. She hopes to expand the TED Institute, which was founded in 2013. For $1.5 million or more, it will prepare a one-day conference for a corporation. TED’s team starts by identifying developments or ideas at the company worthy of a talk. “It’s the same curatorial process we do for any of our events,” says Anderson. TED selects the venue, coaches the speakers, helps plan the event and strategy, and then hosts, produces, and videotapes it. (It posts the resulting videos on a branded portion of TED’s website; the best ones are featured on the site’s main page.) In 2015 the Institute generated some $5 million in revenues, a figure expected to rise to $7 million this year.

The corporate conferences look and feel like the originals. At IBM’s event in San Francisco last year, for example, TED’s logo was ubiquitous. An IBM materials scientist named George Tulevski talked about how the next computing breakthrough will come from compelling carbon nanotubes to form themselves into useful structures. (The presentation employed a TED-style metaphor. Statues are built from stone, Tulevski began, “but what if you worked in the opposite direction, not from a block of stone, but from a pile of dust?”)

Employees loved it. “There were people lined up around the block before the doors opened,” says Michela Stribling, a creative director at IBM. “The positive reviews were unanimous.”

Owens is experimenting with new ideas, including a less expensive digital-only version of its private conferences. TED has set up an in-house advertising agency to create small-batch video campaigns for brands. It has also selected customized assortments of existing talks on topics such as curiosity and innovation, primarily for Marriott hotel guests to watch in their rooms. The chain has also incorporated TED Talks into internal operations; at some hotels, staffers are shown a “quick TED video” before their shift to consider what it means to “think more creatively, more laterally, and problem-solve,” says Matthew Carroll, vice president of global brand management.

See more: Watch Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani Give the Most Inspiring TED Talk Ever

TED is also partnering with Marriott on a series of salon-style events in Seattle, London, Dubai, Bangkok, and Santiago, Chile, in which TED Fellows speak to guests and employees. And brands can hire the organization to throw a 90-minute session at TED’s headquarters. Public-speaking courses, taught on occasion by Anderson himself, are also available. These offerings are so new that it’s too early to gauge their success.

TED acknowledges that its corporate services seem at odds with its educational mission. “We talk about that a lot,” says Anderson. If TED becomes a platform to hawk products or fluffy ideas, that could tarnish its reputation. And what of the clients? Would TED create videos for, say, tobacco companies? “We’re on a quest for ideas, and if it’s a choice between taking the money or maintaining that principle,” the CEO responds, “we wouldn’t take the money.” Anderson says TED is upholding its standards on content too. Client executives can suggest topics and speakers for Institute events, but TED has the final word. The initiative’s future success may resemble that of a new tourist destination. Having customers is great—but having too many spoils the very treasure they’re trying to celebrate.

A version of this article appears in the May 1, 2017 issue of Fortune.