It all comes back to stories, according to Ziv Navoth.
Ziv is sitting in his New York office (AOL’s headquarters on Broadway), chatting to me on Skype.
“Leaders see opportunity where other people see difficulties or challenges…then what you have to do as a leader is convince other people; make them think they can win. The ability to do that requires the ability to tell stories.
“Look at where Barack Obama was 21 months ago. Watching his campaign has been mind-boggling. [The US] is a country that doesn’t like change. The thought of voting for a black person is anathema to some people. But Obama can paint a picture of what the future could look like.”
Ziv works for Bebo, the world’s third biggest social network (45m registered users), which was acquired by AOL for $850m in March 2008. As Senior VP, Marketing & Partnerships, Ziv is part of “People Networks” – a business unit at AOL which includes Bebo, AIM, ICQ and Socialthing.
Ziv should know all about stories. In February 2007, the same week he started at Bebo, (as VP of marketing and business development), he published his first book, Nanotales, a collection of 83 short stories.
Inspired by the book, Bebo ran a competition encouraging users to write their own ‘nanotales’ – short stories of under 1000 words. The stories were uploaded to the web where they could be reviewed and rated by other users.
The contest was a perfect reflection of the potential ambitions of Bebo’s core 16 – 24 year old demographic, and a great way of harnessing the viral power of the internet. Shortlisted writers such as Tolu Ogunlesi, Richard Mooney and Shirley Davenport promoted the competition on their sites, asking readers to vote for them, and spread the word.
“Social media enables you to cross barriers of space and time,” says Ziv. “You can broadcast your story with zero investment and the only thing that will effect how far it spreads is the power of your story. Before there were barriers and hierarchy, now it’s just up to you.”
Whether it’s teenagers on Bebo, or CEOs of multinational companies, the internet is a great leveller. Craft your message in the right way, touch a chord, and your words will spread like wildfire.
Scott Monty, Ford’s head of social media, stresses the importance of simplistic story telling. To succeed in the digital world, he says, you need to decide your story and repeat it again and again. Polish up your story-telling talents, and you’re more likely to be on to a winner.
The Oxford academic Keith Grint praises imaginative story-telling in his book, “The Arts of Leadership”. He compares leadership to a series of artistic disciplines – and defines the effective portrayal of a strategic vision as the ‘fine art’ of leadership.
“This art is most appropriately considered as the one responsible for constructing the strategic vision of an organisation – that is, its future destination, its current direction, and its past deployment. It is, in effect, the world of the artist’s studio, for here the fine artist/leader must draw or paint or sculpt the future…the imaginative vision can be crucial in explaining the success or failure of a leader.” (p.16)
Add network effects to an appropriate imaginative vision, and you have a virtuous circle. But if you allow them to amplify a mistaken vision, you have a public relations disaster, as brands such as Virgin, Kryptonite and Cillit Bang have found to their cost.
AOL is a media giant “beginning to get its groove back”. It’ll be interesting to see which stories Ziv will weave to ensure his brand regains maximum respect in cyberspace.