Michael Tennant, Founder and CEO, Curiosity Lab

Michael Tennant is an author, keynote speaker, freelance brand strategist, entrepreneur, and the creator of Actually Curious™ the empathy conversation game, Values Exercise™, and the Five Phases of Empathy™.

Michael is the Founder, and CEO of Curiosity Lab, a purpose-driven venture studio and consultancy that builds products and experiences that teach empathy, and author of The Power Empathy coming October 2023. In his role as CEO, Michael creates and incubates businesses to help values-aligned individuals and organizations use empathy to live happier and healthier lives, and to nurture productive and inclusive environments. In 2022, Curiosity Lab received an investment from Pharrell and the Black Ambition Prize.

In 2017, Michael founded Curiosity Lab and in 2018, he created the viral conversation card game Actually Curious, which is designed to bring people closer together and teach tools for empathy and has been featured by the New York Times, Oprah and the TODAY Show. Michael’s long-term ambition is to turn teaching empathy into a thriving ecosystem that advocates for diversity, mental health, and well-being through products, content, workshops, and technology.

Prior to founding Curiosity Lab, Michael served as the head of branded content in the US for PHD Media, an Omnicom Agency, where he helped the agency win Ad Age’s 2017 Media Agency of the Year, leading content strategy and execution for brands like Google, Delta Airlines, and the Volkswagen portfolio. Prior to that, he led branded content for the Coca-Cola company and various brands in the P&G portfolio. Michael began his career in youth entertainment where he held various content, marketing, and partnership development roles for MTV and VICE.

Q: Tell us a little about your approach to marketing.

Our approach borrows from political and philanthropic community building, with a focus on building engaged communities over time and for the long haul. We start with assuring we have a strong sense of the brand’s authentic values – that is the overlap of the most resonant values of the brand’s constituents values (employees, partners, consumers) and the business’ values. From there, the goal is to ensure that anything the brand does or says, adds value to the lives of its constituents.

Q: How has your marketing changed over the past few years?

The biggest change we’ve made is to get highly critical of any paid media marketing. We’ve found that the shifts in Facebook and Amazon’s algorithms not only made it challenging to find audiences with accuracy, it highlighted the risk that any future changes leave us in a similar chase pattern. With this awareness, we’ve gone back to old-school thinking. Own your audience, even if it’s harder to find, attract, and retain them on owned channels, it’s imperative for the long-term health of the brand and business.

Q: We’ve heard a lot about the rising role of A.I. in marketing in the past year. How much or how little are you using A.I. or automation in your marketing efforts?

Presently it’s an area we are experimenting with, learning about, and looking for opportunities to get involved in. Over the years I’ve learned to take a fast-follower approach both to consuming and building in new tech categories. As a small company, we don’t have the luxury of dedicated research hours unless we make a specific bet on that area. Where we are most curious is about how to combine AI with our efforts to make practicing empathy more mainstream, to scale and improve the effectiveness of efforts to teach empathy skills to current and future business leaders.

Q: In 2023, marketers have more channels to utilize than ever, from shoppable social to CTV to the traditional. Which channels are you using? Where are you seeing the most success?

In 2023 we’ve really honed our focus on point of sale, from Amazon and our Shopify site to social commerce on IG and TikTok. Where we’ve historically put more energy and excitement into brand and community building, we’ve focused on growing our skill sets as growth and commerce marketers.

Q: What challenges do you anticipate facing in 2024? How do you plan on meeting those challenges?

The two biggest challenges we face as a business are fighting empathy fatigue, and selling our suite of products to their respective consumers. Since 2020, the empathetic leaders out there have been expending a lot of energy while increased instances of divisiveness and global violence have seemingly validated the cynics out there. One question is, how do we maintain and grow enthusiasm around learning and practicing empathy? The second becomes, now that we have the Actually Curious conversation game, The Power of Empathy Book, The Five Phases of Empathy self-guided courses, our live workshops, and our consulting practice – how do we drive demand for it all with a lean team? Ultimately, we will have to make hard choices and focus on the parts of our business that give us the best opportunities for sustainable scale.

Q: What is something you’ve learned in your career that you would like to share with young SMB marketers entering the industry?

The biggest lesson that I’ve learned that helps me to be happy and fulfilled as an SMB marketer is to know your worth. Your time and energy are valuable. Pick clients that behave in a way that honors and respects the mutual relationship. Meanwhile, diversify your income. Be wary of one client making up too heavy of a percentage of your revenue, and venture to have client services not make up over 75% of your business revenue. Diversity of income means more choice as to where to focus or pivot your business if experiencing unexpected headwinds and shocks.