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How to Save the Internet: Op-ed from Curiosity's Gabe Vehovsky

It’s a sobering statistic that speaks volumes about technology’s impact on the human race – U.S. adults are spending nearly 6hrs daily with digital media, a figure that is only going to increase over time. Stop for a moment to think about how many things you do in front of a small glowing screen on a daily basis.

For most of us, it’s the first thing we do when we wake up and the last thing we do before we close our eyes. In many ways, digital media is allowing us to live out the promise of democratized access to information, education, entertainment, etc. – all at our fingertips and all on-demand.

That all seems like good news, but as is usually the case, there’s a catch. For many, there’s a sense of malaise associated with being online for hours a day; people are growing tired of the grind associated with flipping through an endless stream of virtual experiences. This digital fatigue among consumers has many causes, whether it's fake news, Facebook Live tragedies, online bullying or simply that tone deaf Facebook friend who you despise seeing in your newsfeed. It’s the perfect storm of discontent and anyone that depends on digital engagement to grow their business needs to stat tracking this escalating trend.

We get tremendous value from digital media, so how could we possibly grow tired of it? While there are undoubtedly many possible reasons, some of which were previously noted, there’s one I haven’t mentioned yet. The state of online advertising certainly can’t be helping encourage online engagement. Continually having to wade through, around and across streams of intrusive ads is incredibly frustrating. Even if the barrage of digital ads are relevant in some form or fashion, having them placed between a consumer and their intended experience almost always results in frustration. It’s 2017, isn’t there a better way for brands to become part of the digital experience without laying virtual speed bumps in our path?

Having spent my career in digital media, I’m empathetic to publishers. Anyone in the business of delighting consumers with digital experiences hates the thought of intrusive ads as much as end users do. That’s largely why you see so many premium players moving towards subscription based, ad free models (Netflix, Spotify, WSJ, etc.). To appreciate the state of affairs, consider this. To win in today’s digital media world, either you aggressively play the intrusive ad game at the detriment of your user experience, or, you eliminate ads all together and charge users a subscription. Tough choice, right?

Why can’t there be some form of middle ground? I have an idea that may offer a third option that favors both publisher and consumer. Digital media advertising is almost exclusively predicated on quantity. As a digital media platform or publisher, the more times you can intrude upon consumer experiences with ad placements, the more money you stand to earn. So to earn more money and be able to create more and better content, you ultimately get sucked into the temptation of pushing the envelope to do more ads, longer ads, ads with auto play, bigger ads that push down and take over your whole screen, etc. And with each step, you’re breeding the very digital fatigue that threatens the entire industry.

For this ideology to change, brands themselves, and more specifically, the people at brands who are responsible for digital budgets, should be pushing publishers to find better and more creative ways to engage consumers across digital experiences. And for that to be possible, there will have to be some compromise on quantity expectations to allow for better quality to truly flourish.

Imagine free digital media experiences where you come across brand messages only when you’ve opted into them? I know, I know…sounds idealistic. But it’s more believable if you’re open to expanding the definition of what “brand messages” are. Experience has taught us that brand messages are typically highly manufactured, often canned lines of copy that have been scrubbed over by marketers, copywriters and lawyers. In a marketing world where “authenticity” is what everyone is talking about, it’s ironic to think most brand messages are so painfully inauthentic.

The best brands have so many exceptional stories to tell. There are countless ways their messages to consumers could be truly engaging and even informative. Stories about things like their expertise, innovation, people or heritage. Stories that inspire consumers to understand and appreciate a brand's purpose and credibility. That approach may not look and feel like a traditional digital ad, but that’s ok…. it’s 2017, we’re all ready to move beyond traditional digital ads.

Like every good storyteller does, find that creative thread in your brand story and work with a publisher that can authentically put that story in front of audiences that will opt into wanting to hear about it. What would it be worth to have 50,000 people, enough to fill a big city stadium, spend meaningful time engaging with your brand story? The kind of multi-minute engagement that would inspire intellectual consideration and enable consumers to understand something related to your brand. How would the value of those types of consumer touch points compare to serving 1M canned ad impressions that are simply put in front of users who didn’t ask for them? Probably not an easy question to answer, but feels like it’s worth exploring. Finding better ways for brands to be part of digital experiences will allow us to clear consumer’s digital paths of those pesky virtual speed bumps, helping ease the onset of digital fatigue while making screen time more productive for everyone.


About Gabe Vehovsky

Gabe Vehovsky is the CEO of Curiosity, the leading media company inspiring everyday learning. Serving up a daily dose of knowledge on subjects ranging from the future of driving and animal IQ to planet earth and life lessons, Vehovsky founded Curiosity to combine the desire for lifelong learning with a busy lifestyle in a digital format. With more than 100 new articles created each week, reaching 50M people in North America, Curiosity is a daily news resource for consumers fatigued by the glut of media available today. As an ardent lifelong learner, the concept of curiosity has driven Vehovsky for as long as he can remember. Having spent nearly 20 years working in digital media, he always found himself working on projects that inspired consumers to engage with learning experiences. His first foray was, where he was an integral member of the leadership team that grew the company to reach tens of millions of monthly users, successfully selling to Discovery Communications in 2007. After joining Discovery through the acquisition, Vehovsky led several initiatives while executive vice president of digital strategy, including leading Client Solutions across the sales organization - where he drove 60% growth in revenues over the course of 2 years and served as liaison between Discovery and the Venture Capital community - focused on establishing commercial arrangements and investment opportunities with promising young companies. While in the VC liaison role, he identified an opportunity to create a digital platform that developed new ways to engage consumers with non-fiction media content that entertains audiences through intrigue, enabling them to learn along the way. And thus, Curiosity was born. After successfully divesting the initial seed behind the idea of Curiosity from Discovery Communications, Vehovsky raised a $6M Series A and has been running the company as a fully independent, venture-backed company since 2014. By leveraging all the best that digital has to offer, Curiosity has become a positive catalyst for change that encourages people to engage in the act of growing their mind regularly as they engage with pop culture, sports, games and news. Focused on encouraging a tiny habits approach to making curiosity-based inquiry and discovery a bigger part of people's digital diet, Vehovsky is driven by the idea of leveraging digital media to inspire a more vibrant culture of learning. When not working on Curiosity, Vehovsky enjoys spending time with his wife and kids, being active outdoors and enjoying all forms of fishing. And for those last few remaining moments of his free time, Vehovsky teaches a New Venture Development course at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management.

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