I'm a bit strange at conferences, in that I try to walk around and talk to all the vendors, asking them about their product/service, who their target customer is, and how they intend to change their customer's lives. And, yes, I do ask vendors how they approach their content strategy, how they're using content to engage their customers, and whether they need help from a great storyteller (here, I'll hand them my business card). MarTech was filled with friendly people who were happy to talk with me.
Back to my question about robots as storytellers and marketers. Many vendors displaying at MarTech are seeking to automate marketing for their clients. They can help you "engage" with visitors to your website with a friendly chatbot (a robot that asks and answers questions); they can help you reach out to old prospects with automated emails that use artificial intelligence to customize messages (again, robot-driven engagement -- "Long time no speak. Mr. Robot's gotta ask: how ya been doin' buddy?"); a few vendors even used artificial intelligence to set up meetings with potential customers, leading me to ask, "hey, Mr. Robot, can I talk to your boss please?"
Perhaps unsurprisingly, MarTech vendors are in love with automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithms, and robots. I get it, and I'm not against technology at all. In fact, I use a lot of digital tools in my work as a storyteller -- these tools make my work better. I use them judiciously, thinking deeply about what I need to do manually and what I can do with technology.
If you want to exasperate a MarTech vendor, ask them "how should I analyze what marketing activities and functions I should automate and which ones I should do myself?" Not one vendor was able to provide a coherent answer, or had even considered this most basic question. They wanted me to automate everything, including the writing of my stories.
I described to one MarTech vendor, because he asked me to, how I craft stories. I explained how I carefully access and assemble sources and story materials (interviewing experts, researching online, etc.), then look at each component to decide how they might be optimally integrated into a narrative/story, then build that story and analyze whether it's "working" or not, and then tweak and revise (and sleep on it) until I'm happy with the whole thing. The vendor was shocked by the complexity and subjective nature of each step in the process. "I'm the filter, the one making these tough calls as choices emerge," I told him, "and every story is different because every storyteller has a different filter created by his or her life experience and that filter shapes every decision I make. My story architecture will be different from yours." He paused for a moment, and I think (or hope) he learned something about crafting stories.
You can't automate everything, you can't allow an algorithm, however brilliantly designed, to make the most important creative decisions in marketing. People matter, because they bring surprise, emotion, deep human connection, and the mysteries of creative expression. Every story represents a mystery, a puzzle, a long journey to find meaning and resonance and beauty and purpose. The goal of story is connection. Hard stuff, all of that.
I don't want to automate the creative side of my work. I don't want to read a story assembled, structured, and crafted by a robot that's been designed by a team of engineers and mathematicians, no matter how brilliant those scientists are. Stories are the most deeply human interactions we have, not just as the storyteller confronts the story material and expresses meaning through his or her own filter, but also the interaction between the "finished" story and the reader who interacts with that story. The reader brings a unique filter too, and creates the "meaning" of that story through his or her own filter as it interacts with the storyteller's. No scientist will ever be able to design a machine to create the mysterious and wonderful interactions people (storyteller and reader) have with stories
I heard none of these thoughts at MarTech 2017, except when hearing my own voice speaking into a wilderness of vendors handing out keychains. Perhaps I am being too harsh on them -- they are obviously brilliant, cutting-edge technical minds, but some things can't be hacked or automated or made subject to an algorithm.
I am a deeply human and emotional person and, by the way, a marketer. I have only one function as a marketer, to tell stories. That may sound simple but it's actually the most complicated job in the world. After my three hours roaming around MarTech 2017, I'm not worried that a robot or algorithm will steal my job. Quite the opposite, I now view my job as more important, vital, and deeply-human than ever. And I apologize to the robot readers I may have offended writing this, but you're not quite human enough yet, which is okay with me.