Stories about Software


Generative AI And Main Character Syndrome Fatigue

(Editorial note: I originally wrote this on the Hit Subscribe blog.)

Yesterday I was wasting a little time on LinkedIn between calls.  I ran across this post by April Dunford which resonated heavily with me and introduced me to a term I’d not previously heard: main character energy (or syndrome, I guess).

I rolled up my sleeves and waded into the comments as a thought-follower, offering a threat to steal the term (with attribution).


And today, I find myself making good on that threat sooner than anticipated.  While jogging this morning, I was listening to a podcast about how agencies can help their clients prove the ROI of using generative AI.  Begging the pardon of host and guest, I promptly spaced out and started to think instead about the last eighteen months of generative AI mania and just how much main character energy the entire zeitgeist has inflicted upon the world of commerce.

And today I’d like to riff on that a little and use it as food for thought for carving out a differentiated approach to marketing strategy.

Who’s the Hero of Your Brand’s Story?

Before 2024’s laws of physics force me to talk about AI, I’m going to talk a little bit about marketing philosophy.  This is one of my all-time favorite depictions of marketing, involving Mario.

The idea here is that your business acquisition process on the whole should focus less on the features of your offering and more on the outcome it will create for the customer.  Put another way, the customer is the hero (main character) of the story here.  You and your offering are supporting actors.

“Main character energy” is thus (at a risk of putting words in April’s mouth) inverting this wisdom and focusing on the flower, while ignoring Mario.

This is more common than you might think.  Technical founders do this constantly, since the natural impulse (that I once shared, myself) is that marketing is the discipline of lecturing your audience on the merits of your flower until they submit to your superior wisdom and give you money.

“Thought leaders” and influencers in marketing roles also do this, albeit in a different way.  With this style of marketing, you dress yourself up as the flower and dance around, casting Mario not even as a flower consumer, per se, but as an adoring member of your audience.

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Main Character Marketing Merits or Lack Thereof

Before going any further, I want to make something clear.  I’m not saying that casting a brand as the hero of the story is inherently wrong.

I mean, if you’re an influencer cultivating parasocial relationships among millions of followers who share only you in common, there’s really no other move.  And brands can take advantage of charismatic figures in their marketing to tell stories and win business on the strength of those stories.

But I would argue that casting the buyer as the main character is a much more blue-chip marketing approach.  (Accurately) telling Mario that your brand of flowers will allow him to smite his enemies with fireballs is a much more direct path to his wallet than dressing up as a flower and performing an opera for him.

So as we segue into the AI portion of this post, I’d like to draw a distinction.  “Main character syndrome” is a tendency to navel gaze and talk about yourself.  Hero marketing is a tendency to focus on a value proposition for the audience.

The Value Proposition of Generative AI

Alright, let’s have a little fun being blunt.  Right from the jump—from the second the public became aware of a bot seeming to pass the Turing Test—generative AI had an obvious value proposition that we all nervously danced around.

You can fire every human knowledge worker you’ve ever paid to do anything.

What a time to be alive!

No need to pay lawyers, CPAs, travel agents, life coaches, doctors, or dieticians anymore.  Think of all the money you’re going to save.

Of course, you’re going to need it, since your employer is going to fire you.  Content creators, editors, programmers, customer support agents, sales reps—all things of the past.  Taken to its logical (breathlessly hyped) conclusion, generative AI was a (theoretical) black swan event with an infinitely negative value proposition.

I For One Welcome Our New Chatbot Overlords

So what do you do if you’re a knowledge worker whose boss is about to eat a flower and gain the ability to fire you?

Simple.  You do a Kent Brockman: whip off a quick 180 and recast yourself as an expert in and fan of the thing about to replace you.

I’ve gotten SUPER into ChatGPT, and it turns out it can’t actually replace me.  But look how like, ROI or whatever I am when I’m using it!

You start talking about how you use the tech.  Talking about it a LOT.  In excruciating detail.

Individual contributors start talking to bosses about it to avoid pink slips.  Founders start talking to investors about it and rolling out value-free features to demonstrate that they’re staying current.  Mark Zuckerburg abandons the weird Meta world that he’s creating to get in on the action.

And suddenly, nobody can hear a value proposition anywhere over the deafening sound of our collective AI main character syndrome.

Just this morning I read an article in the Washington Post about generative AI starting the plunge toward the trough of disillusionment.  In it, I saw an interesting quote from a “corporate vice president of AI” (emphasis mine):

“We’re finding that AI requires a paradigm shift,” said Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of AI at Work. “It’s not like a traditional technology deployment where IT flips a switch. Businesses need to identify areas where AI can make a real impact and strategically deploy AI there.”

We’re eighteen months into the fever dream of generative AI, and apparently, businesses have to go searching for value propositions.  It’s not like a traditional deployment, in the sense that traditional deployments are purpose-built to solve problems.  Here we have a solution in search of a problem (which is probably comforting to all of the crypto hype refugees).

Solutions in Search of Problems Are the Epitome of Main Character Syndrome

How did we get here, exactly?  And what does this have to do with main character syndrome?

Well, think about your conversations over the last eighteen months.

How have I been using generative AI?  I’m glad you asked!

I’ve been earning my prompt engineering certification, and I’ve been using that knowledge to really refine how I email my accountant.  Sometimes I’ll ask for a content strategy for my blog, and the results are mostly even usable.

Or think about the wave of features suddenly cropping up.  Just the other day, Facebook (or Meta, or whatever) unveiled some kind of “ask Meta” blue circle that I wish I could figure out how to hide.  Every SaaS under the sun has some kind of thing that will now type a sentence for me nearly as efficiently as I could have typed it myself, and for only $3 per month.

Did anyone ask for that?  Nope, but it exists!  And that brand can now technically tell its investors it’s an AI company, even if they are still hunting for, as Spataro puts it, an area where AI can make a real impact.

(As a brief aside, I’m a hype skeptic, not an AI skeptic.  I’ve found some truly killer use cases for generative AI in my life, such as contract review and finding what I’m doing slightly wrong in SQL queries.  I just happen to think anthropomorphizing the tech badly misses the point, and we’ll be much better off when we stop doing that.)

In the corporate and tech worlds, the last eighteen months have been a collective tidal wave of main character energy.  We’re all talking about the gagedty things we do with AI and what we all know about it, and what we’re all up to lately, without any discussion of “Who cares?” let alone “Who benefits?”

A Return to Hero Marketing

I personally try to stay out of the business of predicting the future.  Instead, I prefer to contingency plan and cautiously extrapolate.  And the latter suggests that, like every tech before it, generative AI is headed for the trough of disillusionment before eventually finding its plateau of productivity.

If that’s true, it means that humans may actually continue to have jobs, and they may not even need to earn “prompt engineering” certifications to keep them.  The demand to vomit all the excruciating tactical details of how you’re using ChatGPT may fade, making all of the main character energy around it increasingly awkward.

I think this presents an opportunity.  You can stop strutting and fretting this hour upon the stage and return to the fundamentally sound principles of hero marketing.  You can stop talking about yourself and listen to your buyers.

Because hype aside, they’re still out there, living their lives.  They still have practical needs, concerns, and pains, and if you listen to them and help them, you can probably win their business.  Doubly so if your competitors are all focused on rolling out blue circles and “ask AI” widgets that your buyers didn’t ask for.

So maybe take a deep breath, reintroduce yourself to your audience, listen to what they need, and help them.  I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of future I could sure go for.

Interested in More Content Like This?

I’m Erik, and I approved this rant…which was easy to do since I wrote it.  If you happened to enjoy this, I’ve recently created a Substack where I curate all of the marketing related content I create on different sites.

Totally free, permanently non-monetized, and you’re welcome to sign up.

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