Why entrepreneurs should put down the business books and read fiction

Alicia Navarro is CEO & co-founder of Skimlinks. Since 2007, she has grown the business to 85 employees at offices around the world. Under her leadership, the content monetisation platform has driven annual retail sales of $775M for tens of thousands of publishers. Here we sit down with Navarro to quiz her on how brands can harness the power of storytelling online.

What tips would you give someone looking to make a story go viral?

The things that go viral are often distasteful or unpopular. They'd never pass a consensus vote. It takes boldness and courage of conviction, but if you have it, it can produce wonderful things.

In our case, our "story" is about the role that commerce-related content can play in helping publishers earn direct revenues through affiliate marketing. As well as indirect revenues through insights about their users' shopping behaviours, which drive ad, audience and content strategies... but it was a pain to talk about 'commerce-related content'. So we created a new word: "comtent". My investors hated it, half my team hated it or debated how it should be spelled. I held to my conviction. We now have all our clients using the term casually and commonly across their business, and its created a whole new marketing channel and given us an identify in a crowded and dull market. If I'd listened to the consensus, we'd still be talking about (and falling asleep over) "commerce-related content". 'Comtent' is much better!

What trends have you spotted in the way publishers tell stories?

As 'comtent' first started to take off with publishers, those early adopters achieved success just by writing great comtent. As more and more publishers adopted similar strategies, it became harder to stand out and win via SEO alone. So the savvy publishers decided to weave their editorial storytelling brand into their 'comtent' tales. Buzzfeed adopted their 'identity journalism' into their comtent, layering the same thing that worked when they wrote "15 ways you know you were a child of the 80s" to their comtent like "13 surprisingly cute shoes for women with wide feet". Gizmodo bought their cheeky tone of voice and deal-oriented focus to their Kinja Deals stories. Hearst brought quality journalism tone of voice to their Best Products sub-brand. The most successful publishers successfully weaved their editorial voice into their comtent voice, as a means of standing out and creating stickiness.

As a general principle, why is storytelling an important skill for entrepreneurs or brands to master?

Different people digest content in different ways. My co-founder uses diagrams: he can't talk without a whiteboard and marker, drawing layered boxes and arrows to visualise his thoughts. Other people are like me: using words and narrative to paint a picture, to create empathy, to create community and meaning.

The truth is that most people are never completely rational, and will display their emotions. Storytelling is a way you can appeal to the soul and emotions, which can be more powerful drivers of loyalty and community than logic or reason. I tend to read fiction books (rather than non-fiction or business books) because I love learning how words and narrative can be used to create meaning and substance.

What one piece of advice would you give to an entrepreneur or business leader looking to use storytelling as a way of communicating with their customers?

Read fiction - understand storytelling archetypes. You always need a beginning, a middle and an end. You need a villain. You need challenges that you overcome as a team. If you can communicate the journey you are on as a journey, you give genuine meaning and colour to the lives of people who have chosen to trust you with their careers and education. That is an incredibly important and special burden to take on, and storytelling is the means by which humanity can be unleashed from the experience.

What does the future hold for your industry?

I think storytelling will become even more important, as publishers increasingly take on comtent and native advertising as means of monetisation. The backbone of these means of monetisation is story-telling, and the more authentic, value-creating, and unique these tales are, the greater the success and longevity these publishers will achieve.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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