The Future of Media

A conversation with: 

Mitchell Pavao

SVP of Digital Media
Leaf Group

Digital Assistants & Virtual Bubble Gum — Build Deep Relationships On The Right Channels

Serial entrepreneur and digital media executive, Mitchell Pavao, covers how to stand out in the crowded digital world, cut risk, and build sustainable customer relationships. He shares how today's static digital interactions will evolve over the next 10 years and how to keep up.

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Interview Key Points

  • Cultivating customer relationships is key to driving growth and staying relevant
  • Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon have set a high bar for product experience, and media companies need to stay aligned with those quality experiences
  • To stand out, your content needs to stay true to your brand and voice
  • Big tech platforms are a net benefit, but it’s still key to build user communication channels outside those platforms
  • Make it easy for your customers to directly interact with your brand, even offline
  • There will be a big shift to using digital assistants, just like there the shift to mobile
  • Efforts to break up big tech companies could harm consumer user experience and put companies in other industries at risk of break up too
  • The future is bright for brands with a niche focus
  • Consumer interaction with brands is gradually shifting away from static websites towards audio and virtual interactions
  • Augmented reality and virtual reality will play a big role in brand/consumer relationships
  • Stay curious with technology to keep up

Full Interview Transcript

Patrick Costello
Mitchell Pavao
Leaf Group

Patrick: Hey everyone. Today on the Future of Media Podcast, I've got Mitchell Pavao, Senior Vice President at Leaf Group. Thanks for joining us today, Mitchell.

Mitchell: Hey, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Patrick: Could you kick things off by sharing a little bit about your background?

Mitchell: Yeah,I was always a technically inclined individual, and right out of college I started an internet company with a couple of friends. We bootstrapped the whole thing, never took any investment, and created two digital brands. One was, which was a popular music platform for indie and pop artists during its time. This is around 2003 to 2008 or so. The other was, which was a social network targeted at creators with a strong site builder component.

I was the tech co-founder, but as the company grew, your role expands into product operations, back office, et cetera. When you're a startup person, you wear a lot of hats, as I know you know. Over the course of eight years, we sold both of those companies. We sold Virb to Media Temple, which is a GoDaddy company, and we sold Pure Volume to SpinMedia. Afterwards, at SpinMedia, I was the VP of product for about three and a half years. I headed up product for the company's portfolio of music properties.

After that I jumped to Myspace and its parent company Viant, as the SVP of Product and Technology. As you may or may not know, Viant was purchased by Time Inc. Myspace was an interesting challenge, in that the brand had lost a lot of momentum over the years, which is a surprise to no one. But they still had some really amazing assets, and they had residual brand equity with the entertainment industry. Over the course of the year, we grew the audience by 400%, as measured by Comscore, and finally got the business profitable. That was a very, very interesting challenge.

That brings us to where we are today, for almost the last four years, as you mentioned, I've been the SVP of Digital Media at Leaf Group. I oversee a good portion of our media business right now, including the product and engineering.

Patrick: That's pretty awesome experience. When you were starting those different companies, you obviously had to build some really good relationships with your target audience in order to drive growth and get acquired. How did you think about building relationships with customers?

Mitchell: Sure. If you're referring to my startup days, we were very naive. We were green, we were just out of college, no experience. It wasn't immediately clear to us how valuable cultivating relationships were. But it became apparent really quickly. Our first product, which was a music platform, becoming, if not friends, at least colleagues with our customers, the artists, the record labels; it was extremely important to gaining adoption for the platform.

I really can't overstate how important having relationships prior, or hiring someone with a Rolodex, to get some critical relationships in place to get the ball rolling. No matter how amazing your product might be, if no one's heard of it, it doesn't really help you much in terms of gaining traction. Even after people have heard of it, having active lines of communication between your users and clients, to learn what they love, what they don't love, what else they're hoping your product might do is vital.

You may or may not take all of those things and translate them exactly to your product, or translate them exactly to how you grow your business through business development means. But, it's super helpful for being a weather vane, on the direction you should be heading into. Creating relationships as you go along, aside from just helping inform your product; it's also super helpful for ensuring your product remains relevant. Because, let's say you start off in an area that is rather nascent, and other people haven't shown up yet, no doubt other businesses will pop up as time goes on.

Those relationships that you establish, not only keep you on the pulse of what your customers are thinking, but they also give you a bit of an edge. When new players are coming up, you have an opportunity to take first crack at retaining your business, as opposed to someone being like, "Well I used this product. It was all right, I'm just going to try this one and see where it goes." Relationships really, really, really make a big difference.

Patrick: You're obviously looking at it from a product perspective, as well as just an overall business perspective. But with relationships mattering so much, how would you go about building relationships with a larger media organization like Leaf Group, where you've got a large portfolio of companies and a really diverse set of readers and customers?

Mitchell: You have to address it on multiple levels, and not every individual in the company needs to address it at the same level. For example, if you have a site like Well+Good, which is one of our brands. Well+Good's General Manager, Well+Good's SVP of Audience, they should be going out and having conversations with brands, and with consumers that are relevant to their brand.

Same thing with Cuteness, which is our pet brand. Cuteness' editors, Cuteness' General Manager should be going out and speaking to clients, speaking to consumers who are relevant to their audience.

Then on my level, I'm going out, and I'm looking to speak with companies that, from a strategic side, I feel that potentially we could provide mutual benefit to each other.

I think if you go out with a specific purpose like I do, “This is development for this brand." Or, "I run corporate development for this brand," it helps (1) make sure you're talking to the right people. And (2) it helps you develop those relationships as well. Whether you are meeting people through mutual connections, you're meeting people through industry events, you're reaching out to people cold through LinkedIn or other means. It's really important to have a clear reason why that individual's talking to you, why you are talking to that individual. Help them understand what you're about very quickly, so that you can establish a relationship that makes sense. You always want to be respectful of other people's time, as well as your own, to make sure that you're putting your efforts to where they are going to bear the most fruit.

Patrick: In terms of building relationships with consumers,. we've seen Facebook, Apple, Google, Amazon — the Big Four — have opened enormous opportunities to interact with consumers. But at the same time, they've disintermediated the traditional brand/consumer relationship.

Generally speaking, do you think the upside of the new opportunities to interact with consumers through those platforms is a net positive or negative, now that you're seeing this disintermediation continue to grow?

Mitchell: Facebook, Apple, Google and Amazon, they've done an incredible job of building up their companies and ingraining themselves into virtually everybody's daily life. Regardless of how much money they've spent to do that, you don't get to that level unless you figured out a way to provide real value to consumers across an array of touch points. Digital publishing is one of those touch points, and all four of those companies are not only interested in competing for consumers, but also providing a value to their users, while growing their own business's bottom line.

The Big Four are looking to drive terrific user experiences, which has an upside for the end user, which is good for all of us. They also drive companies like ours a lot of audience, so it's definitely a net win for us. That said, the challenge for us is to ensure we continue to be a part of the solution for the Big Four, and growing their businesses as well.

Leaf Group does a pretty good job, but we don't have access to all the same data that they do. Part of our success thus far, has been using our own intuition to determine what we feel will provide users with the best user experience, the best value for their time; so far, that's been leading to positive results. Net positive to answer your question, definitely a net benefit. But it's definitely something that you can't take for granted. Because at the end of the day, these businesses are going to keep moving forward and evolving. If you don't evolve with them, you're potentially in a tough situation.

Patrick: Have the Big Four influenced how you think about product experiences at all? For example, Zappos completely blew my mind in terms of how amazing customer support could be, and how great an online shopping experience could be. Obviously, Amazon picked them up, and have also had a great experience there. But, has it influenced how you think about product, whether it's introducing people to products through Hunker, or other experiences?

Mitchell: Absolutely. I've been here for about four years, and during that time, not only has what those companies are doing influenced how we create content, or position content, or our products themselves. But just because they have such a massive scale, the way that they deliver information definitely molds user behavior. We need to make sure that we continue to provide a consistent experience.

For example, 10 years ago on the Internet, you could have one site that was an expert in 10 different categories. That made sense back then, because the search engines were still relatively primitive. If you land on a source that you feel is authoritative, and you'll just take their word for everything. Now, today, Google for example, is always finding the best sources of data. You need to make sure that when someone goes to, let's say a home site like Hunker, you need to make sure that that has the absolute best DIY home design information that's on the Internet.

Source: Hunker

Otherwise, a site like Google will not put you up in their search listings very high. Then you ultimately be able to drive audience back to your site. Their focus on quality has definitely had a big impact on the way we do stuff. Certain things, like common UI elements, whether it's likes, or favoriting, or whatnot, and the iconography that goes with that, absolutely has had an impact on how we look at our own product. It's not just us, right? This goes across the Internet.

When Facebook’s News Feed first came out, it really changed the conversation of people going from a brand, to people going to a collection of pieces of content from various brands. The way your content had to stand out, had to be not only true to your brand and true to your voice. But it also had to stand on its own, devoid of your branding, devoid of your audience.

When they're looking through the content, they may or may not know right away that it's your site. If I go to CNN, I know I'm going to get a certain piece of content. If I go to Fox News I'm going to get a certain voice, certain piece of content. Within Facebook, it's much harder to convey that in a snapshot. We definitely work to make sure that our brand voice, our aesthetic, our logos, our photography definitely have a certain personality.

So that, at a glance, "Oh, I get it. That's from Hunker." Oh, I get it. That's from Well+Good." This has definitely had a big impact on how we look at our own product, and the content that we produce as well.

Patrick: Consistent branding makes a lot of sense as a way to stand out in a place where there can be lots of noise. Are there other approaches that you think digital-focused companies can take to build and control their customer relationships at a time when they are increasingly seen with a collection of other brands all in one place?

Mitchell: I think it's incredibly important to have established alternative forms of communications with your users, as soon as your brand has the credibility to support it. For example, for a digital publisher, the lowest hanging fruit are newsletters, right? They're a fantastic way to continue to direct relationship with your users. But, you need to prove first, what you have to say is interesting enough to justify a user welcoming you into their personal space. I would make the argument that your email, your text messages or whatever, that's part of your personal space, right?

Community development also, both digital and offline, are also really, really powerful tools to grow goodwill with your brand, and your consumers will be interacting with your band directly. I don't think that there is a scenario, where you completely sidestep the major platforms. I think that they will always be a source of audience acquisition; I think that's a great thing.

But I do think that you, as a digital brand, you need to spend time understanding how you can engage your users, your audience, in a way that doesn't always have to go through those sources. That can be memberships, that can be subscriptions. We talked about newsletters, events, communities. I think that's really, really important, to have a channel that is direct to that consumer.

Patrick: That makes a lot of sense, to make investments in diversifying your communication channels, and how you're engaging in acquiring audience. In terms of Facebook, we have seen a lot of Facebook dependent companies falter, due to algorithm changes, which seem to never really stop. Even this week we had Facebook introduce the new Click-Gap algorithm change. A lot of really interesting things happening there, but it can hurt folks who are overly dependent. Are there any developments with the other three big tech companies, that you think folks should be wary of or looking out for?

Facebook Introduces New Steps to Manage Problematic Content — Facebook blog post by Guy Rosen, Facebook’s VP of Integrity, and Tessa Lyons, Head of News Feed Integrity

Mitchell: The first thing I would say to that, is diversification is the key to a successful digital business, particularly publishers. Being leveraged hard against one platform like Facebook, can be really tough. You mentioned it, we saw with Little Things last year closing their doors.

It's really important to keep in mind that while a single platform could be 90% of your business, you're likely not even 1% of theirs, right? They're going to continue to change their algorithms, and continue to do what's best for their users and their business. With the others, like Google for example, they're continuing to convert more publisher content into those Google AMP result cards that show up at the top of a Google search.

I read this stat, that when something becomes a Google AMP card, I think a publisher will get about 60% less traffic from that search result as opposed to just no card. Being the top result. Again, not necessarily great for the publisher from a monetization standpoint. But you can't really argue that it's a better user experience, in most cases for the users. You can see that by the stat, because they're voting with their cliques.

Apple News Plus is another interesting issue. Apple is now deciding who is worthy being paid for in their uber subscription, who is not, as a publisher in general. They're also deciding, what the economics of that relationship is now. That'll be really interesting to see over the coming months, how that plays out. If publishers are cannibalizing their direct relationships with consumers to use Apple's product. Which I'm sure Apple's product is a great product, I haven't tried it yet myself. But, it definitely is taking a lot more control from the users.

Then beyond what's going on today, the Big Four, and you can throw Microsoft in there too. They're creating these amazing digital assistants, right? Which can be accessed through your phone, your smart speaker, or even your headphones. With the AI behind these services getting better and better, every day, I have no doubt that, similar to how user behavior moved from desktop to mobile, user behavior is going to shift to these digital assistants, as well.

Photo From Unsplash

With the shift to mobile, that's a real challenge for digital publishers to understand what their places in that world, and how to create quality content that provides a positive ROI.. These products, whether they're strictly digital, or digital combined with physical products, they're going to keep coming up. It's our job to continuously evolve, as the technology and the services evolve.

Patrick: That's a lot to think about.

Mitchell: But it's true, though. They are trying to make our lives easier, which I appreciate. As a consumer. I love it. But it does create a lot of unique challenges for digital publishers, for retailers, for pretty much any digital service to continue to reinvent their brands for these new mediums.It's an awesome thing, it's an exciting thing. But to your point, it's definitely something that should be on everyone's radar, and they should be spending time thinking about how do they address this as these come up.

Patrick: Yeah, absolutely. We're even seeing that these companies themselves are going through some painful transitions. With Apple, for example, needing to figure out how do we become more of a services company, than relying on a legacy hardware lines. What they release, and how we interact with them is going to continue to change.

Keeping in mind all the points you've made around the Big Four having significant influence over our lives, we have seen movement from folks suggesting that there should be a reduction of power from these major tech companies. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently noted that, "Today's big tech companies have too much power, and have tilted the playing field against everyone else." That's a quote from her. What are your thoughts on that perspective?

TechCrunch: Elizabeth Warren wants to break up Google, Amazon and Facebook

Mitchell: Yeah, that's a really interesting question. I watched this documentary, I don't know, like four months ago. It was about Rockefeller and Standard Oil, and how the government decided it was a monopoly, and they broke it up. I'm going to totally over simplify the thing. But, for the end user, that result in really matter that much. Instead of going to a gas station X, they went to gas station Y or Z. Right? The gas was the same, the pump was the same, the location was the same. It didn't really affect how the user interacted with that product.

In the case of companies like Facebook and Google, it becomes a lot more complicated. You can't really fragment, say, and divide the users into multiple social networks. Because inevitably, many of the relationships between those uses would be broken. As you try to pull features out like Messenger, they don't really work without the whole audience being available as well. Even though it may feel like "Oh well, hasn't Facebook abstracted Messenger from the Facebook App, and shouldn't that be separate?"

Without the user base, it doesn't really work. And, that user base is really, in my opinion, where the value comes from, and where that thinking of these companies are too big comes from. Now, even if you look at it differently where it's possible to break up from, let's say Instagram or WhatsApp or Oculus, which they own. But, I think that leaves behind the heart of what the Senator's trying to achieve.

By no means am I a legal scholar. This is just my opinion, being in the industry. But, I'd make the argument that because Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, Amazon, et cetera, they exist and they're all competing against each other on so many fronts. In my opinion, it goes against the idea that these companies are monopolies in a traditional sense.

If the feeling is, "Well if companies get too big, they should just get broken up regardless of their monopolies." Then I think you have to start looking at, not just tech, but you need to look at other industries. You have to look at industries with Boeing, or Walmart, or Target, or other companies that are also huge within their space. I don't think it's a fair argument to say that, Facebook's not competing with Google. I don't think it's fair to say that Google is not competing with Amazon. They're all competing with each other, on a variety of different touch points. I don't know necessarily the right answer, but I don't see any legal precedent that I'm aware of, to say that these companies are in need of breaking up.

Patrick: There also seems to be a lack of clarity around what the proposed approach would be to even doing so. That's certainly part of the challenge. Anything that isn't a cohesive, well thought out plan, will probably have some pretty significant ramifications for everything from user experience, to e-commerce and information systems. Are there any potential side effects you can think of, that could come about due to a poorly architected breakup?

Mitchell: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, if I'm being selfish, a poorly architected breakup would definitely have serious ramifications for our business. Meaning, if you took a business like Google or Facebook, and you cut it up in a way that user connections were broken. Or, the consumer's experience, going to Google and they search for something, now they're only getting a third of the search results; they have to use a different search engine to get the other search results. That could absolutely be disruptive and harmful to all of our businesses.

There's certainly ways that this could happen, that could be not ideal professionally from a personal standpoint. What these companies are trying to do, and I really can't emphasize this enough, of course they're focused on growing their businesses, and profits, and EBITDA and all that. But they're going about that by trying to provide what you mentioned earlier with the Zappos example. They're trying to provide superior user experiences.

I think that when you arbitrarily force a break, where these things are designed to work together and interoperate, I think that you pretty much throw the whole thing out of balance. For the consumer as well, it's going to be a difficult road ahead. Because, they want their lives to be easier. They want their lives to be, "Hey, I ask something, it gives me the answer I'm looking for without me having to do a bunch of research." That's where we're trying to get to.

That, I would make the argument, definitely disrupts the journey that these brands are taking to creating a lot of value within people's lives.

Patrick: Could be a real shock of a change. Hopefully, if it does happen, it will be very well thought out. Well, taking a step back to something we were discussing a little bit earlier, around control and building relationships. You noted that it does make sense to continue to invest in playing on the Big Four, the platforms that they provide; there is some risk/reward balance. Of the Big Four tech companies, which of them do you think right now, merit ongoing investment? Starting with the Leaf Group perspective.

Mitchell: Gotcha. I mean, that's a good question. I think, honestly all these platforms we discussed, as well as others like Flipboard and Pinterest, they're absolutely worth everyone's attention — Leaf Group, anybody else who's a publisher, e-commerce companies, whatever. The real question for me is, what fits best for your brand? For example, we have a home brand, Hunker, which has a lot of inspiring visuals and Pinterest, being primarily an image search engine, compliments our content really well.

Source: Pinterest, Hunker

As opposed to say Twitter, which obviously there is a photo component to it, and a media component to it, but it doesn't let you organize it into boards. That's not the main focus of Twitter. Depending on the brand, we lean more on Google, or we might lean more on Instagram, or we might lean more on Pinterest. It really depends on where you feel your audiences align best with what platform. Then, by measuring and testing, and seeing what produces the best results.

If you were, let's say a new company starting out, I would emphasize that literally try every channel that you feel might be worth your time. You've got to just really be cognizant that, as you start developing these relationships, as you start developing these user expectations, where your content services on other platforms. Similar to the point made earlier, you have to be cognizant that you might be experiencing heartache down the road, if you don't engage with your audiences directly, as well as engaging with those other brands.

I think that, taking a detour a little bit in the conversation, if you look at brands HBO and Netflix, I think they're great examples of this. Where, they created their own platform based off of other people's businesses. But then they found a way to create a reason why people would come to them directly, that was no longer dependent on the original content that they started off with. Netflix, obviously they had movies, they were like an HBO thing.

But by creating these original series that were super high quality, they started establishing a direct relationship with their audience. It made them far less dependent on other people's content. Doesn't mean that it doesn't matter. Just like for any digital publisher commerce site, Google, or Pinterest, or Facebook or what have you, it always mattered to your core business. But if you can establish a reason why people want to see you directly, aside from coming through a different door, that's when you really have a brand that can stand up for itself.

Patrick: Looking across the variety of ways that you can make money as a media company, which are the revenue channels that Leaf Group primarily focuses on today, and how has it changed in recent years?

Mitchell: Sure. Wow. If you could go back, let's say 10 years, we were a really different company. It was very focused on digital publishing, where today we are a digital publishing and commerce as well. One of our main sites at the time, this is before my time,, it was monetizing really well, had a lot of traffic and it was very programmatic. Over the last decade, Leaf's really diversified its offering to consumers by one, going into commerce with brands including Society6 and Saatchi Art, are basically brands that enable creators to monetize their craft. It's really provided us with a strong direct to consumer business, that we continue to grow.

We've also evolved as our users' behavior has evolved, from a digital media perspective. We no longer look to create and maintain these one size fit all brands, and currently have multiple brands which are in Comscore's top 10 for their respective categories. The reason why they're performing so well is because we're focusing on certain categories that people are really passionate about.

Whether it's wellness, whether it's home, whether it's personal finance, whether it's pets, we find something that people are really passionate about. Then we provide content that informs them, delights them. As opposed to focusing on what will this platform like, or that platform like? We keep that in mind, but we focus on what will our audience first, and then the rest comes from there.

Also, the great side effect of that, as a result of focusing on these brands and them doing well in their specific categories, we're able to grow monetization by no small means, through direct sales as well. It's really important that, when you're talking to an agency, you're talking to a brand, and they're like, "Oh yeah, we've heard of you. Oh yeah, that's really cool. I hadn't heard of you, but somebody else here had, and they said we had to talk to you." I mean obviously, makes the conversations a lot easier with the brand.

But they trust you, to take their brand message and put it in front of your audience. Because they understand that, you know how your audience will receive that message. They understand that you are great storytellers to craft what they're trying to communicate, which is often goodwill and awareness around their product, to your audience, which they want to reach. It's not only a good thing for the consumer, but it's also a good thing from a revenue standpoint as well.

Then obviously, there is a trickling effect there for programmatic, because they've heard you, whether it's private marketplaces, programmatic, guaranteed, whatever. But yeah, I think that focusing on brands that are around passion points has been the biggest thing that we've changed over the last decade or so. As well as expanding into commerce, and the rewards for that have been pretty great.

Patrick: That dovetails nicely with, actually a conversation I had with Michael Wertheim, the Chief Operating Officer at Fatherly, recently. He was really focused on how the future of media is niche. Do you think that there is room for folks who don't have a specialized vertical focus?

Mitchell: I absolutely agree with Michael. I believe as we move forward over the next five to 10 years, digital media is going to be divided basically into two types of companies. One, major players like the Turners, Netflixes, Merediths, et cetera of the world.

Or you're going to have much smaller niche interest brands, which won't come in big enough dollars for the major players to pay attention to. I believe as the platforms — meaning the Big Four — continue to refine their products, more and more, they're going to be the gateway for content discovery. I think that, unless you are super passionate about something on the niche side, or you can just produce content at a scale like some of the major media players, I think honestly as time goes on, you're going to have a difficult time competing in the marketplace.

I would totally agree with your statement, and just add that, I think big players will also play a big role with the platforms. Because they will have the scale to engage in meaningful conversations with Facebook, or with Google, or with Amazon. And work with them closely, to make sure that the content they're providing is being delivered in a way that is optimized for these devices that they are creating.

One of the number one issues with, like the Amazon Echo Show, which was basically the Amazon Echo with the screen, was that there was no content built to interact with it right at launch. For the consumer, that's a real big thing. It's like if you buy a video game system, what are the games for it? I think that, as time goes on, and Google and Amazon are always getting better at this, Facebook as well. They're going to need to talk to players that are fewer in number, with the deeper benches and resources. To produce content for these user experiences they're trying to drive to consumers.

Source, TechCrunch: The Smart Display Wars

What's going to be left, is basically just smaller players who are focused on passion topics that aren't quite big enough to merit the attention there. I think there will be more lifestyle brands in my opinion.

Patrick: If you were to pick three niche passion topic areas to build a business around right now, which would you pick?

Mitchell: For me, the niche brands or communities, you really need to be fiercely passionate about it. Because, I believe that the only brands who win at this level, they need to be really sincere and really credible. To me, and I'm not by any means advising anybody to start these, necessarily. But I'd probably throw myself into something like a Lego builder brand. I'm a big Lego fan, I know that doesn't sound very grown up.

But, I really like building these dioramas, these scenes, there's a huge community around it. Being able to provide a platform where, people can connect to other people in this, share designs, share ideas, I think would be really awesome. Also, from a monetization standpoint, it lends itself well to creating kits, to creating a marketplace. Something where I could see an economic model, but I'm also really passionate about. I think it's really important.

Also, an idea that I've been kicking around in the back of my head for a while now. Creating a platform that connects entrepreneurs and startup founders to each other. I think that one or two of these already exists, to be totally honest. But I feel that, there's this educational gap sometimes. When people are like, "I have an idea and I want to start a company," and there is a structural gap. Meaning that, "All right, I've got the idea, I think I've got the talent, but how do I actually go about this?"

I think it's something that, having a platform that provides tools, provides community, provides access to connections within your local area. Or, gives you the opportunity to reach out to people who've done this before, who are somewhere in your space, and gives you the opportunity to talk to them. Obviously, there's a revenue component to this, but I think that would be really interesting. Then the other thing that I think would be really great, and again, this isn't necessarily an original thing. But I think that weddings in that space, there is a huge, huge opportunity to create a platform that creates a very easy to use experience for the bride and groom. Organizing the logistics among their families and friends, and making that whole experience, let's say 50% less stressful.

For me, and again, this is me personally. This is not me representing Leaf Group. Those would be the things that I think are really interesting to go into. I think whenever you can create a business where individuals and businesses can grow themselves through your platform, around something they're both passionate about, you're always going to have a home run. As long as your passion shines through on whatever you're working on, and you're enabling others to rise with your business, I think that's always going to be a big success.

Patrick: I love to get your thoughts on how you think brands, including those in niche verticals, might engage with consumers in five to 10 years from now. Whether it's for a Lego community, or something that's established like Hunker, how do you think the people will primarily interact with these brands? Imagining that someday, there won't be necessarily a focus on a website. What else is there?

Mitchell: Yeah. You know, I think if you're talking about the next five years, I think conversation with the brands, if that makes any sense, and the communities is where you're going to see things headed to. I think you're going to see less time with eyes focused on a screen, and more time with people having conversations around ideas that these brands embody. Whether that's through these digital assistants we spoke about, or through some other means. I think that the idea that I go to a webpage, I have a static response to the thing I'm looking into, that definitely works now. But, I think that you're going to see more and more, with the bots, AI.

I don't know if you saw, but Google at last year's I/O, they released that amazingly believable Google assistant. Who could call and make haircut reservations, or restaurant reservations for you. I think that, taking the collective wisdom of your community and your content, I think that it's going to start becoming more of a conversation, however that may shape up in the next five years.

I think in the next 10 years, and again, this is my opinion. But, I think that that conversation evolves into a more virtual space. Now, whether that's augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR), I'm not sure what ends up winning. It depends on how quickly the technology evolves, and then when people start adopting. But I think that this feeling of, "Okay, I want to go to," let's say Hunker, right? I'm going to put on my glasses, or VR set, or whatever it might be.

Now I'm engaging with that brand, and that brand may be providing, "Okay, let me look at your room. I see where you're doing here. So, what are you thinking? Okay. You're thinking you want something Bohemian looking. Well here, checkout" if this is AR, for the sake of argument, "Here's what I'm thinking would go great in your room. The reason why I think this is what's great is because, this is what's trending right now." Or, "This is really classic".

But basically, a site Hunker or Wayfair, whomever, they will come up with ways to have a more natural dialogue with the consumer, and help them make those decisions. Then basically, it's like, "Okay, you like this throw, you like this pillow, I'll just have that shipped to your house. Don't even worry about it." Removing all the friction from the financial transactions that may occur on a webpage today, would be a big part of it. But making it just feel more familiar. Continuing to grow positive feelings towards a brand, by making the brand more human. Personally, I believe that's where we go in the next five to 10 years.

I don't know if that's awesome or scary, but I think that's where it's headed.

Patrick: I think it can be both. I mean, if Black Mirror inspired it's going to be scary. But, otherwise, I mean, that doesn't have to be the only way.

Mitchell: Right. Right.

Patrick: I can just imagine Lego in 10 years paired with version 15 of Snap Spectacles. Then, have a Sid Meier's Civilization game, where the Lego community that you've created in your living room is alive with the Snap Spectacles. You get to have this really in-depth interaction with people in the future.

Mitchell: Honestly, that exists. Again, right now not with the Snap Spectacles. But you literally, a lot of these sets now, you put your phone and they come to life in front of you, right? Your phone is basically your viewport to the augmented reality scene. But yeah, adventures happen. I think that, my personal opinion, I know Google and Facebook are working towards this.

I think in the next 10 years, everybody's wearing glasses, whether you need them or not. Just regular glasses, they look like they ... just fashionable. But there's augmented reality built in. Probably, something like a phone is still...something in your pocket is still powering the experience just from a battery life standpoint. But, I honestly think that's where life's going.

Patrick wearing Snap Spectacles circa early 2017. Still limited to novelty status, but has significant potential.

If I go to a conference and I see someone who I kind of remember, but I don't recall their name, facial recognition is a huge thing now and I'll get everything. Here's your name, here's where you met them, here's the last thing you talked about. I honestly do think that's coming roughly in the next decade or so. I think that brands that figure out how to integrate with this new consumer experience, are the ones that ended up succeeding.

Patrick: 10 years. All right, we'll have to keep an eye on that one. Hopefully, it'll be a great experience, and not the experience described in Netflix’s Black Mirror episode, The Entire History of You.

Netflix: The Entire History of You

Mitchell: I love Black Mirror.

Patrick: Well, one last question for you on the future predictions side. We all know that it's really common, for kids to help their parents with technology as they get older. What technology do you think, that your child will help you with later in life?

Mitchell: You know, I hope that never becomes me. Because, I know how tough that can be, being a child myself. I think whatever technology where I might need my daughter’s help in the future, it's probably one whose value that, it wouldn't be immediately apparent to me. I missed the boat on shifting, while everybody else does. Technology keeps making our lives easier, right? It's never been easier to communicate with someone across great distances. It's never been easier to access information about pretty much any topic. It's never been easier to feel connected, even if you are physically alone. Right?

These new devices, whether it's super advanced VR, like we talked about, humanoid robots, self driving cars. I think the key is to keep up with them as they come out, because they're designed to be as easy as possible. That said, the ease of use is typically predicated on past user interfaces. If you miss a generation or two, it's going to be harder to catch up. My mom was pretty anti-smartphone, "Why do I need this? "

We finally forced one on her, and she loves it now. She takes pictures of her grandkids, she messages her family over in Europe, she does the whole thing. But it took her a minute to understand how the UI worked, how the UI existed. Not because she's not an intelligent human being, but because she hadn't kept up with these things over the years. I think that, for me it's really about making sure I stay interested and stay curious about the things that come out. Because once you miss a step or two, that's when it becomes really difficult.

Let's pretend virtual bubblegum comes out. I'm like, "Why do I want virtual bubblegum? That's dumb. Back in my day we had regular bubblegum," but then it's super cool. I need to now catch up, because virtual bubble gum 2.0 has come out. Or maybe virtual food is out now, and I'm so far behind and I don't understand the concept behind this anymore. I think that's what it comes down to, is really just making sure you keep up with things, and making sure you stay curious and interested. Otherwise, that's when you start getting that technical gap.

Source: Seeker, Virtual Food Has a Real Taste Now

Patrick: I think that's great advice for everyone. Stay curious.

Mitchell: Yeah.

Patrick: That covers everything I wanted to ask you today. Mitchell. I really appreciate your time.

Mitchell: Yeah, no, thank you so much for having me, Patrick. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Mitchell Pavao

Mitchell Pavao is a three-time entrepreneur and hands-on Product leader with 15 years experience building products and teams in the digital space.

His career began as the tech co-founder of PureVolume Inc, an online startup which founded and operated, a popular music platform for indie & pop artists; and, a social network targeted at creators. He successfully sold Virb and PureVolume to Media Temple (a GoDaddy company) and SpinMedia, respectively. He also co-founded, a home design inspiration site, which was acquired by Demand Media.

Pavao went on to become the VP of Product at SpinMedia, where he headed up product for the company's entire portfolio of media properties, reaching over 40MM unique visitors a month.

Pavao then went on to be SVP of Product & Technology at Myspace & its parent company Viant. While there, he led Myspace's evolution, increasing visits to the site 460% year over year (comScore, Dec 2014).

Mitchell is currently SVP of Digital Media at Leaf Group, and a Digital Advisory Board Member at Innovation Enterprise. When time allows he likes to consult for tech startups, including a Y Combinator startup acquired by Google.