One thing I love about life post-COVID is that I get to go to conferences and see lots of people, many of whom have become family after 25 years.

If you get an opportunity to attend an industry conference, I hope you go. Connect with friends. Share drinks together and catch up. It can be just as enriching as what you learn in the official sessions.

On the agenda: AI-driven content

While at the show, I sat through a lot of sessions that were powerful for their insights into email, omnichannel and the connective tissue that runs between email marketing and everything else we do in digital marketing.

A common thread among these sessions was chatter about ChatGPT, the language model that promises to be to 2023 what Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection feature was to 2021 and Gmail’s Tabs introduction to 2013.

I’ve also seen a lot of talk in the industry press about AI and ChatGPT and what they mean. We’re still trying to dive into the implications of AI-driven content in our messaging, and the truth is nobody knows just yet.

So, at this early stage of development, I want to share my perspective from the inside looking out. Will my insights age well? Having lived through many email-related earth shattering kabooms, I believe they will.


What are we missing about ChatGPT?

As an aside: No, I’m not going to trick you at the end and say ChatGPT wrote this for me, as some writers have done.

I’m going to put a stake in the ground here and now to say it will never write my material for me. The reasons why incorporate the elements that are missing in the discussions that claim it will either solve all our problems or bring on the zombie apocalypse:

1. Authenticity

Authenticity and its connection to the consumer – to our customers – has always been critical to messaging success, especially during and after the most intense days of COVID-19.

Authenticity is an emotion – a convoluted one, because we’re talking about authenticity to a brand and authenticity to a person. But at its core, authenticity is a human emotion, one that helps us connect with people on an emotional level.

Machine learning, AI, and ChatGPT can emulate authenticity, but they can’t replicate it the way a human can. That’s the key point – at a human level.

Empathy is connected to authenticity. Both are essential for marketing success, another lesson we learned during the COVID disruptions.

As a marketer, you have to have genuine empathy and authenticity. Sure, you have to know how to sell. But you can learn that.

I can’t teach someone to be empathetic and authentic. I can teach them how to break down the barriers to let empathy and authenticity come into their mindsets. The best marketers have these qualities and know how to act on them.

You know you have empathy and authenticity when you’re creating an email campaign, writing a blog post or a tweet, and you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach that something’s not right.

That feeling comes from your innate understanding that what you’re doing might exceed your brand or the customer relationship.

We can ask ChatGPT to write a first draft – something we can read through and adjust. But reading is different from writing. I have a hard time understanding how we can capture that innate emotion of empathy or authenticity.

2. Connection and extrapolation

Another reason why I would not let ChatGPT or one of its sister or brother models write my articles or presentations: My brain works goofy. That’s a direct quote from my wife. She’s not wrong.

One of my writing powers is being able to connect something I did in financial services with something I’m going to do in retail. Or, I can call on something I did over the last 25 years of my career and relate it to a challenge a marketer is facing today.

One example: I can call on groundbreaking research that changed the way we structure abandoned-cart reminders – that sending a first reminder email within an hour after abandonment was more effective than waiting 24 hours – to help a marketer design a more effective program.

Extrapolating from my personal experience informs how my brain works and how I communicate it in a venue like this article or in a presentation to 200 people. That kind of abstract connection doesn’t come from any database other than the one in my head.

It’s hard for me to understand how people’s reaction to language models like ChatGPT misses the point not just in authenticity but also that we’re all brilliant people making abstract connections like this in order to help the industry and lift all boats.

We can make it easy for one audience to understand a concept and then dive into the complexities for a more knowledgeable or experienced audience.

At this last conference, where ChatGPT was either on the agenda of many presentations or brought up by audience members, it was clear to me that several speakers didn’t read the room right. They seemed to aim their presentations to executives and not to the operations people who were in the room with them. They over-complicated things.

Gauging your audience’s reactions and changing up if you detect a lack of engagement – that’s something a content database can’t do.

In my case, that extrapolation of history combined with my opinions, plus chance and dumb luck drives a lot of my content.

3. Inspiration

Among people in my industry, I’m known as the email preacher. Reading something I write, or attending my stage presentations, is like going to church and hearing a sermon. That comes naturally to me after a long history of this kind of speaking.

But the underlying current of my work is inspiration. How can I inspire people to do better? How can I call on empathy to understand their position and then thoughtfully push them in the right direction?

If you look back at my writing for MarTech, you’ll find I use my end-of-the-year post to inspire marketers for the next year and review the events of the passing year.

Inspiration can be captured and defined, but you have to have lived the experience to give it the impact that informs and engages your audience. In other words, to communicate the authenticity that makes your words worth reading or hearing.

A language model or some other kind of technology can’t capture or replicate that lived experience.

That inspiration is a personal desire many of us in the email industry share to teach, show or motivate people to do great things, to rise above their own skill sets and abilities to better and do more.


Wrapping up, Part 1

Many of the reasons why I say ChatGPT and models like it won’t write my articles for me are based in emotion. That’s the principal reason why I fight against people who say content is dead. That’s a foolish notion – that one technology still in its infancy will kill off an entire realm.

It’s foolish to say that copywriting is dead now that we can call on a bot to do it for us. How fast we go from living to dead in this world!

Direct mail isn’t dead. Email isn’t dead. Let’s focus instead on what lives, changes and evolves. What expands our understanding?

ChatGPT has been around less than a year, but some want to use it to condemn an entire profession? The baby was just born, and now we’ve decided it’s going to be President? Nonsense!

How about we look at it from this perspective: “What could it be?” Not “What will it be?” Let’s ask, “How can it enhance what we do?” Could chatGPT and other natural-language models write copy to appeal to a specific persona or model data? Sure.

People are floating a lot of ideas and use cases, but not functional applications. Let’s be patient and have fun with the possibilities, not the doomsday predictions. Heck, we don’t even have pricing yet.

Natural language models like ChatGPT are still the latest shiny new toy in the digital playground. Let’s watch to see whether they evolve into tools instead of gleefully predicting what it could kill.


Wrapping up, Part 2

At my conference, I received the Thought Leader of the Year award from my industry. I was incredibly touched and humbled by the whole experience. A number of people who reached out to congratulate me have become dear friends over the last 25 years. To be recognized like this is overwhelming.

Thanks to all of my friends and the people whom I’ve never met for bestowing this honor on me. But I’d also like to relate it to what I wrote about in this column and how my writings for MarTech reflect my goals as a thought leader.

My career has been based on that inspiration, that connection, that empathy, and ChatGPT can’t replace that. Great thought leadership comes from understanding your audience – your readers, your end users, the whole industry – inspiring them and lifting up individuals in a selfless manner.

We’re all thought leaders in our own right. I appreciate the honor and the award. But I’ll be damned if ChatGPT takes anything away from my writing and commentary because I’m not going to let the zombies win.


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