Stephen King Could Use A Good Persona
Or the value of marketing personas
I recently finished Stephen King’s latest novel, Fairy Tale.
It’s been some time since I’ve read a King story. I used to devour his books when I was a high schooler. He’s a talented storyteller and a master of the horror genre, if that’s your thing.
Fairy Tale, however, is not a book of horror; it is, as might’ve guessed, a fantasy.
Against my better judgment, I feel obligated at this point to warn you that if you are currently reading Fairy Tale or intend to read it, you might want to skip this post. I won’t let slip any spoilers but what I’m about to say may affect your enjoyment of the story.
3 Criticism Of Fairy Tale
It was a fun read and good story but I have three criticisms and the first one is pretty mild.
The book is 598 pages long and King spends the first 200 or so pages on character development before getting to the real action. It was kinda like watching a movie from the 1970s. For my 2020s attention span, it was a bit of a burden.
But my main criticism is with the character development—if that’s what you can call it—of his protagonist, a 17-year-old boy named Charlie.
Charlie’s a responsible and fairly precocious kid. He plays sports, searches for how-to videos on YouTube, does well at school and is pretty level-headed. But that’s kind of where the believability of his character ends.
There are three characteristics of the kid that strain credulity.
First,the story takes place around 2011 and yet the only online sites Charlie uses are Google and YouTube. Really, a 17-year-old boy during that period in our history never uses Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr or Foursquare (remember that one?!?)? That’s not believable.
Second, Charlie is a fan of horror stories and has a horror-nerd friend who turns him on to H.P. Lovecraft. Can you imagine a teenager in 2011 being into Lovecraft? I don’t buy it.
I think King invents that relationship so he can wax poetic about Lovecraft’s Cthulhu monster during certain passages to create a sense of doom. Because Lovecraft is King’s cultural reference, not the kid’s.
Third, Charlie’s cultural references are always to movies from the 1930s to the 70s or 80s but none to movies or other cultural phenomena from 2011. But there’s a reason for Charlie’s old school preferences. He grew up watching the American Movie Classics channel with his father, back before AMC was producing Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and The Walking Dead.
But here again, old movies are King’s cultural touchstones, not the kid’s. The shared entertainment between Charlie and his father feels not primarily for developing our protagonist’s character so much as a tactic for King to avoid the research necessary to create a believable teenager.
The book required a herculean effort of suspension of disbelief to look past the lazy character development.
Look, King is 75 years old. He’s just not naturally capable of seeing the world through a 17-year-old’s eyes anymore.
It’s not like there isn’t a tool that would’ve helped King empathize with a teen character. (Pssst: There is. Read on.)
Paid subscribers: Watch for Chapter segment 1.3 to be published on Wednesday.
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Marketing Personas To The Rescue
It’s one we marketers use all the time: A customer persona. (But in King’s case we could call it a “protagonist persona.”)
I have had some strategic communication peers over the years tell me that they hate personas. Usually that sentiment is expressed from people who work for large organizations.
I think that is because personas tend to lose their value as they are distributed further down the corporate food chain. What happens is the persona gets baked into tools like content management systems and customer relationship management tools; as a result, the persona loses the richness and context that helps people see the world through the persona’s eyes.
That is a persona’s real value.
In the context of Stephen King’s novel, a little persona research to define his 17-year-old protagonist’s character would have paid enormous dividends in the believability of his story. And it wouldn’t have been that big of a lift.
One fairly easy way for King (or more likely, his research assistant) to develop a persona for Charlie would be to mine Wikipedia for cultural touchstones.
We know that Fairy Tale takes place in 2011 and that Charlie is 17 in the story, so that means he was born in 1994. That puts him at the tail end of the Millennial generation. The celebrities born in 1994 include:
Julia Garner of Ozark fame
Singers Harry Styles & Justin Bieber
Puerto Rican rapper Bad Bunny
NFL player Tyreek Hill
There are some cultural references King could’ve included.
Add five years and we know that Charlie was a kindergartener in 1999, so he may have had the alien egg toy as a child.
Charlie lives in Illinois, so in 2001 as a seven-year-old he would have been caught up in the Chicago Bears’ 13-3 Central Division championship, then again in 2005 and ultimately playing in Super Bowl XLI the following year. Linebacker Brian Urlacher and kick returner Devin Hester would undoubtedly been among Charlie’s favorite players.
The Harry Potter books and movies were published or released between 1997 and 2011 yet no Harry Potter references from Charlie, the protagonist of a book of fantasy?
A 17-year-old character yet no references to video games? Charlie would likely have been a fan of the Call of Duty franchise or, if King wanted to weave in some horror video game references, he could’ve had Charlie playing Dead Space 2.
By understanding the cultural wallpaper of Charlie’s world via the development of a character persona, King could’ve made that suspension of disbelief not quite so arduous.
Developing marketing personas are a common tool we use to fully understand the target audience a given client needs to reach with their communications and provide the references that help to secure their attention.
In addition to the cultural touchstones marketing persona development can unearth, you’ll also compile data that can help inform how algorithms are serving content to your target audience.
Our process is much deeper than the sketch I’ve drawn for Mr. King’s character, but you get the idea. Marketing personas help us strategic communicators to see through our target audience’s eyes.
What I’m Reading
Search Engine Land - A content marketing strategy that includes targeted personas can improve your results drastically. One case study found with this strategy, website traffic grew by 210% and leads increased by 97%. Using personas can make your website 2-5x more effective and lift email click-through rates by 14%. Read the full article.
So why do using marketing personas have such a pronounced effect on such important key performance indicators? One word: Empathy.
National Public Radio - Not only do we read a lot of reviews before we purchase anything these days, we also believe them: 49 percent of consumers say they trust reviews as much as they do personal recommendations from friends and family members. And younger people are particularly fond of reviews: 91 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds say they trust online reviews every bit as much as they do personal recommendations…the study authors wanted to see whether there was a certain type of person that was more susceptible, or more capable of detecting fakes. So they selected participants that conformed to the Big Five personality types: extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. It turns out that people who display openness, and tend to be adventurous and intellectually curious, are better at spotting fake reviews than other personality types. Extroverted people, on the other hand, tend to have a harder time identifying a fake review. [Emphasis mine.] Read the full article.
Understanding personality types is a crucial part of my persona development process. In order to effectively communicate with someone, you first need to know whether they will be psychologically attuned to receive a message, that they won’t just tune you out because you’ve inadvertently trippped a psychological trigger. Here’s the study referenced in the article.
Wired - …unconscious processes use the same brain regions in the same ways as conscious processes. Our unconscious mind is primed all the time through regular stimuli (rather than hidden and subliminal ones). Think of the popcorn and soda advertisements before a movie begins. They are hardly hidden, but they play to our baked-in desires. Advertisers and tech giants have just gotten much better at identifying and targeting them. Indeed, social psychologists have argued for decades that people are unaware of the powerful influences that are brought to bear on their choices and behavior. Which is why it’s critical that we understand what others can and can’t do to change our minds as neurotechnology enables newfound ways to track and hack the human brain…It’s much easier to prime us to act in ways that are consistent with our existing goals…Priming us with cues that are related to our goals will focus our “selective attention” on “goal-relevant features of the environment,” which can shape our choices that follow…Professors of marketing and psychology Gráinne Fitzsimons, Tanya Chartrand, and Gavan Fitzsimons found compelling evidence of this effect when they subliminally primed study participants with Apple and IBM brand logos. The Apple logo prime led people to act more creatively on subsequent study tasks compared to subliminal IBM logo priming—but only when creativity was a part of the participants’ self-descriptions. Apple evoked in these participants an association of creativity, leading those with a prior stated goal of being creative to act more creatively on subsequent tasks. Because IBM didn’t evoke the same association, even those with creativity as a stated goal didn’t act more creatively when primed with IBM instead. Read the full article.
A fascinating discussion about the ethics of “neuromarketing” and the degree to which we are capable of congitive liberty.
Gizmodo - A TikTok executive admits the company sometimes overrides the app’s algorithm at a South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) on Saturday. Major content included the World Cup and Taylor Swift’s entrance onto the platform, and Jeff Louisma, head of cyber and data defense for TikTok’s US Data Security division compared to the company’s decision to push content to that of Netflix’s streaming recommendations…The executive’s comments follow earlier reports that TikTok employees are able to manually push certain content on TikTok, known as “heating,” and former and current TikTok and ByteDance employees said that the heated content “accounts for a large portion of the daily total video views, around 1-2%,” according to an internal document, Forbes reported. Read the full article.
Netflix movie or TV show recommendations are a world of difference from a company controlled by an adversarial nation manipulating its algorithm for American content consumption. Not that there’s anything nefarious with boosting World Cup or Taylor Swift content per se, but it does represent another precedent that ByteDance is willing to manipulate users via its algorithm. Look no further than the Cambridge Analytical scandal for evidence of the damage such social media manipulation can do to democracies.
- ...a [TikTok] ban would let the Biden administration and Congress move on from the issue without addressing the huge number of other cases in which Americans’ data privacy is at risk…you could almost certainly do much more to protect Americans by passing national privacy legislation than by banning one app, no matter how popular. Read the full article.
As usual,'s takes on the TikTok story are well worth the read but on this point, I think he misses the larger issue as do most of the media covering the TikTok story. The main issue is not TikTok user's privacy, it's TikTok's algorithm that poses the threat to our national security. It is TikTok's sophisticated algorithm's application to that user data that could potentially radicalize Americans and destabilize democracy. ICYMI: The Case For Banning TikTok Just Got A Lot Stronger.
Forgeign Affairs - Americans need a new model, one they can trust to ensure the safety and integrity of the technology that they use every hour of every day. Problems should be fixed at the earliest possible stage—when technology is designed rather than when it is being used. Under this new model, cybersecurity would ultimately be the responsibility of every CEO and every board. Collaboration would be a prerequisite to self-preservation. Such a culture shift requires the recognition that a cyberthreat to one organization is a threat to all organizations. To get there, incentives need to favor long-term investments in the safety and resilience of the cyberspace ecosystem, and the responsibility for defending that ecosystem must be redistributed to favor those most capable and best positioned to do so. Read the full article.
Yes, the onus on cybersecurity should never have been the burden of individuals, when it is the tools individuals use—and pay for—that are insecure by default.
Neuroscience News - Expanding on his notion that chatbots mirror their users, Sejnowski draws a literary comparison: the Mirror of Erised in the first Harry Potter book. The Mirror of Erised reflects the deepest desires of those that look into it, never yielding knowledge or truth, only reflecting what it believes the onlooker wants to see. Chatbots act similarly, Sejnowski says, willing to bend truths with no regard to differentiating fact from fiction—all to effectively reflect the user. Read the full article.
This is kinda what I’ve been saying to explain the techopanic over AI with the release of ChatGPT. People are freaking out over the technology because it sounds human.
The Verge - Google has announced a suite of upcoming generative AI features for its various Workspace apps, including Google Docs, Gmail, Sheets, and Slides…The announcement shows Google’s eagerness to catch up to competitors in the new AI race. Ever since the arrival of ChatGPT last year and Microsoft’s launch of its chatbot-enabled Bing this February, the search giant has been scrambling to launch similar AI features. Read the full article.
While this is a transparently me-too announcement from Google, integrating AI into Gmail and Google Drive can’t come soon enough for me. Same for Microsoft Outlook. My biggest complaint about email from the beginning is that it is where knowledge goes to die.
Every week, I share my knowledge and expertise with clients and colleagues but the value of that knowledge has a very short shelf life because it gets buried in my sent folder, rarely to be shared with anyone beyond the original recipients.
Asking an AI bot to pull out everything I’ve ever told anyone about search engine optimization, for example, would be a fairly effortless way to consolidate, summarize and repurpose that content for a wider audience.
And the time AI would save me by summarizing email threads involving numerous people would be significant.
Search Engine Journal - Microsoft Germany CTO, Andreas Braun, confirmed that GPT-4 is coming within a week of March 9, 2023 and that it will be multimodal. Multimodal AI means that it will be able to operate within multiple kinds of input, like video, images and sound. Read the full article.
To date, the most popular generative AI tools have been monomodal. ChatGPT, DALL-E and Midjourney accept text inputs for the most part. Having a single tool that accepts a variety of input formats could profoundly expand the power of these tools.
engadget - Any images that are produced by giving a text prompt to current generative AI models, such as Midjourney or Stable Diffusion, cannot be copyrighted in the US. That's according to the US Copyright Office (USCO), which has equated such prompts to a buyer giving directions to a commissioned artist…It noted that the level of human creativity involved in a work is a significant consideration as to whether it will grant copyright protection. It suggested that current AI models can't generate copyrightable work. "Based on the Office's understanding of the generative AI technologies currently available, users do not exercise ultimate creative control over how such systems interpret prompts and generate material," the USCO said. "In the Office’s view, it is well-established that copyright can protect only material that is the product of human creativity."…However, the office has left the door open to granting copyright protections to work with AI-generated elements. Read the full article.
The legalities of generative AI continue to sort themselves out. ICYMI: What Is An AI Artist?
- BuzzFeed is less bellwether, more avatar of the many hacks digital media has relied on over the past decade. Now that it’s public, we get to see its — and by extension the publishing industry’s — dirty laundry...If you...think that AI is a potential savior, you focus your tech efforts here, away from managing complex content management systems designed to ferry text and images across the open web. You deprioritize adtech. If you are ambitious you might try to build new AI applications that blend self expression, gaming and media. BuzzFeed took a swing at its first next gen AI experience. It's an auspicious start but not very entertaining. You definitely leverage AI to explore content creation efficiencies. So pull way back to see things for what they are. The web starts to look different, half chat box, half vertical video. Read the full article.
A fascinating take on the future of media companies in the generative AI era.
NewScientist - Some cougars in the Pacific Northwest may routinely brave frigid saltwater to reach islands. Based on an analysis of island cougar sightings, these cats may be swimming up to 2 kilometres to reach new territory, food and mates. Read the full article.
Wait, wut?!? Next we’ll discover land sharks actually exist!
What I’m Watching
What I’m Listening To
Social Media Examiner - Subtle changes of just a few letters can transform the effect our words have. The right language can influence other people, get their attention, make meaningful connections, and persuade them toward a sale or another desired action. Listen to the episode.
This interview with Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the Wharton School and author of Contagious, The Catalyst, and Magic Words: What to Say to Get Your Way, is a fascinating exploration of how simple word choices and erect psychological barriers or secure an audience’s attention.