Rohit Bhargava, social media strategist and author most recently of Likeonomics, has a philosophy of business books that is based on the simple notion that such books need to be useful.

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"There's a difference between the moment when you buy a book that you think might be useful and when you actually open it," he told me during the most recent episode of Marketing Smarts, "And I think that the moment when they actually open it, usually people have some sort of challenge that they're trying to solve."

If you are reading a book with a specific challenge or problem in mind, then you are reading it "with a personal agenda for what you want to try and get out of it." Accordingly, the book has to speak to you from the get-go, draw you in, and convince you that it's going to help you solve your problem.

And the best way to do all that is to start off by telling a story.

A Composer of Laughing

Naturally, then, Likeonomics starts with a story, specifically a story about a time when Rohit was on a pitch team that lost because its members were less likable than their competition.

The stories don't stop there, of course. In fact that book is full of stories about people you've probably heard of (John D. Rockefeller and Nelson Mandela, for example) and many more about people you have never heard of (such as Ivy Ledbetter Lee, the father of modern PR).

These obscure stories are often the most interesting ones, and the one that I brought up with Rohit during our conversation was that of Charley Douglass, the man who invented the laugh track.

The context for Douglass's invention was the advent of the sitcom. As Rohit points out, watching a "live" comedy in the privacy of your home is quite different from the experience of watching one in a theater.

In the theater, he said, "the audience would laugh and so you knew what was funny. Now, all of a sudden, when they started producing these sitcoms without the audience, you wouldn't know when to laugh."

The solution was to add a laugh track that cued people into the funny; and Douglass, who Rohit describes as "like John Williams but for laughing," was the man who first did that, using a "laugh box" of his own invention that contained hundreds of recordings of people laughing.

From the Laugh Track to Content Curation

Saying that he is a "big fan of taking what happened in history and then relating it back to today," Rohit finds a parallel to the laugh track in the contemporary content curation model.

Given the inherently isolated nature of life online (we may be connected to friends, but we are probably at home or hiding behind earbuds when actually online), we need help "knowing what to think or feel," and that's where the content curator comes in.

In Rohit's view, content creation is simply "people with an expertise or passion saying, 'Hey! I love shoelaces and here's the three things that you got to read about shoelaces because I spend my whole day thinking about shoelaces'."

"That's how we're making sense of this expanding Web," he went on to say, "because there's so much stuff out there and the almighty algorithm isn't doing it for us search on Google and you get millions of pages of results."

To make sense of the massive amounts of data with which we are confronted on a daily basis, we need a guide, someone to help filter and interpret it for us. The content curator does just that by exploring the data and coming back to tell us what she found.

And, as it turns out, telling such a story is actually critical to making sense of any kind of data that we need to collect, synthesize, and use.

The ROI Story

Rohit makes this point in a chapter on the "The ROI of Likeability," a chapter, as I pointed out to him, that was kind of a dodge. I say that because rather than actually demonstrating the ROI of likeability, he instead tells the story of ROI itself.

Though every marketer is now familiar with the need to demonstrate the return on investment of marketing activities, the concept of ROI was first developed by a man named Jack J. Phillips who was charged with demonstrating the financial impact of training programs at Lockheed-Martin.

We all believe that training has value, Rohit explained, "but very rarely can you take training and say, 'We sold a hundred units of our product because of the training we did six months earlier.' It's a very tough connection to make a lot of times."

ROI, in Rohit's words, is "a way of describing the value of something intangible to a tangible result." That such a description is a kind of story linking the intangible to the tangible is one point that Rohit is making.

The other point, however, is that many activities that are critical to business, especially in the contemporary context, possess an intangible value and are only indirectly connected to things like increasing sales. 

Accordingly, you have to be ready to accept, on the one hand, that something like "likeability" may be critical to the success of your business, but that you will only be able to capture its value by inference—and, moreover, that value may only express itself over the long term, as we see with the "intangible, overall reputational lift" provided by social media.

On the other hand, you need to accept that in calculating ROI for any business activity—and, frankly, even for understanding "hard" activities like sales—you can't do so just by looking at the numbers.

Because, in the end, the numbers have to tell a story.

If you would like to hear my entire conversation with Rohit, you may listen above or download the mp3 and listen at your leisure. Of course, you can also subscribe to the Marketing Smarts podcast in iTunes or via RSS and never miss an episode!

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