500M views in 5 years: How TEDTalks did it

It’s not the type of thing you would watch for mindless entertainment, but with nearly 1,000 videos from various events posted to the site, TEDTalks has attracted a large — and growing — audience. In just five years, it has racked up more than 500 million views and counting.

In many ways, what TEDTalks has done seems pretty unlikely: It has taken conversations and lectures from ultra-exclusive events and made the videos available to everyone online. TED events cost thousands of dollars to attend and sell out a year in advance, with the largest conference attracting about 1,000 attendees. But on the Internet, anyone can watch the talks for free.

The popularity of the talks online might seem even more improbable, considering they were considered too smart for TV. Director of TED Media June Cohen told Mashable that the organization was turned down when it pitched the BBC on creating a TV show out of the content.

“When the BBC told me that TED talks were too intellectual for them, I thought it was time to change strategies,” she said.

Anyone that’s watched a TEDTalks video knows it’s not the type of boob tube fare you tune into and zone out from. They’re videos designed to make you think. Talks can run up to 18 minutes, which shows viewers are actually engaged with the videos they’re watching.

That hasn’t stopped the organization from reaching critical mass online. Since they first began appearing online five years ago, TEDTalks have been on a hockey stick-like growth curve. The site had only about 2 million views by the end of 2006, which was surely considered a success at the time. By the end of 2009, TEDTalks had served up more than 200 million views. And in the 18 months since, it’s served up another 300 million views, bringing total view count to more than 500 million.

Part of the recent explosion in viewership might have to do with TED’s open strategy to distribution. In addition to TED.com, the videos can also be viewed on YouTube, (s GOOG) iTunes (s aapl), Hulu and other sites. And part of it might have to do with TEDTalks expanding onto new platforms, like the iPad and Roku media streaming box. TEDTalks are also increasingly accessible to viewers. Since launching a crowdsourced subtitle program in 2009, talks are now being translated into dozens of languages to ensure that viewers around the globe. The organization also just published its first non-English talk.

While no one single talk has attracted the type of view totals as, say, a Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber music video, the 500 million view milestone also shows the importance of the long tail. The most popular video on the site, Sir Ken Robinson’s “Schools kill creativity” talk from 2006, has less than 10 million views by itself. But with nearly 1,000 videos to choose from, TEDTalks ensures that there’s always something of interest for viewers looking for brain food.