By Mark Sherbin published October 5, 2012

The Static Website Is Dead — Long Live Personalized Content

Delivering the right message to the right person at the right time is tricky. But existing techniques and new technology are upping the ante in an emerging trend called content personalization. Your content marketing could benefit big time from it — especially if you cater to different audience segments.

Content personalization (or customization — take your pick) is a strategy that relies on visitor data to deliver relevant content based on audience interests and motivations. It ranges from a highly targeted call to action to a revolving landing page based on geographic or industry-specific segments. It’s a user experience shortcut that connects your audience with the information it needs more quickly, enhancing the chance of converting the lead.

For example, B2B marketers targeting professional service firms may use personalization to deliver unique content to attorneys and engineers, respectively. There are countless use case scenarios where the strategy comes in handy. As a content marketer, a thorough audience analysis will help you weigh the value of using the strategy. From placing cookies in a visitor’s browser to simply asking for visitor information, content marketers have a variety of options to help them get started with personalizing their content.

But first, content marketers must understand what makes segmentation thrive.

Which data points are important for delivering personalized content?

Dynamic websites, or websites that can automatically display different content based on predefined user profiles, are clearly the next phase in content management — even though we’ve had the capability for years (we’ve always been able to collect information from willing participants).

According to a recent survey performed by Econsultancy and Adobe, half of surveyed marketers espouse the importance of content personalization in their digital strategies. But only 32 percent of marketers say their CMS accelerates content personalization.

According to Loni Kao Stark, Director of Product and Industry Marketing for Adobe Digital Marketing Solutions, you shouldn’t count out your old platforms just yet: “Data in legacy CRM and ERP systems, when combined with analytics and insights on customer behavior from digital channels including web, mobile and social, provide a unified context that’s useful for content personalization,” she explains. “They’re important pieces of the puzzle. The trick now is to reveal visitor intent and react in real time.

Her company engineered Adobe CQ to do exactly that. The product is core to the Adobe Web Experience Management solution, which can deliver personalized content based on different personas. The solution works to understand visitor context, typically based on a combination of digital analytics combined with CRM data, before it delivers personalized content, making it a strong option for qualified leads and previous customers.

Content personalization takes a variety of forms — all of which come down to audience segmentation. Typically, marketers can pare down how they segment the audience through categories like:

  • Location: If clothing is your niche, you may want to deliver different types of content to a visitor from Florida than one from Alaska. While collecting locational data has gotten easier, sometimes you need confirmation for a long-term commitment. Groupon, for instance, asks you to confirm your location as soon as you visit the site so it can deliver accurate geo-targeted offerings.
  • Interest: If your content targets different industries, niches, or general interests, finding the visitor’s top-level motivation requires you to understand the goals of the category that visitor best fits into. Collecting this information may require asking for it on the landing page — or, in some lucky cases, sourcing it from social sign-in information.
  • Behavior: How has the visitor interacted with your website in the past? Behavioral data continues to evolve in real time. Delivering targeted email content relies on past data. But revolving web content may revolve around timely data collection —and that data begs the question, “What do you want the visitor to see next?
  • Referral: Watching where your traffic comes from is also a powerful way to help segment your audience. You might want to deliver different content to a visitor who clicked a Google Ad for a specific keyword than you would an inbound visitor who arrived through a guest blog post, for example.

Today, each of these data points can be measured with or without visitor opt-in:

  • With visitor opt-in: When visitors offer information willingly, it’s usually solicited through surveys or forms, as well as through social identification channels like Facebook Connect that give you access to profile information.
  • Without visitor opt-in: Predictive data points, on the other hand, don’t always require action on the part of the visitor. In fact, the Econsultancy/Adobe study mentioned above found that 42 percent of surveyed marketers claim they personalize using anonymous data. Marketers already track geographic data by IP address, cookies can track user behavior across your website, and analytics platforms can identify where referrals come from.

Collecting the data is one thing, but how do you use that data to deliver targeted content?

Active participation and automation: How to deliver personalized content

Using the collected data, content marketers can define different audience types, simplifying how they target with content. Your next step is actually delivering that content.

Research firm Forrester puts content customization into play from the second the visitor reaches the home page. The website asks visitors to choose their “role,” parsing out content based on the visitor’s preferences. Visitors can define themselves as “information technology professionals,” “technology industry professionals” or “marketing & strategy professionals.” From there, Forrester makes it simple to narrow your focus even further.

If you choose “marketing & strategy professionals,” for example, you’re prompted with seven more ways to narrow your experience, including niches around consumer product strategy, customer experience, and more. The next time the visitor logs in, she sees a home page vastly different from the original — shortening the path between her and her most sought-after content.

For your content personalization strategy to perform well, you’ll need to follow a few critical paths. Loni Stark of Adobe shared some insights with us that content marketers can use to start shaping their own content personalization strategies:

  • Be transparent: For content marketing, what’s more important than trust? It’s probably one of the goals of your strategy in the first place. Abusing that trust could transform content personalization from helper to hazard.

“Transparency is key to any content personalization strategy,” Loni explains. “If you’re using the personal data of your visitor, be explicit: Tell them why you need their data and what they get in turn. Visitors are so much more open to sharing data if it provides value.”

  • Think small: Content personalization doesn’t have to be complicated. Why would you need hundreds of different audience segments? Think small and you’ll avoid a convoluted nightmare.

“Personas should be limited to a handful, especially in the beginning,” Loni says. “Simple segmentation makes it easier to align your content strategy across the board. If you aren’t changing your content for each of your fifty attributes, why do you need them? Stick with the five major ones.”

  • Localize assets: We covered the importance of form-agnostic content a few weeks ago. It’s even more important for content personalization, which may require you to feature the same content in different presentations.

According to Loni, “GM has more than a hundred microsites. Some of the sites use the same digital assets — videos of cars, for instance. These assets are localized but simple to distribute over different channels — or, in a content marketer’s case, to different personas.”

  • Integrate your CRM: To simplify how you identify visitors, hook everything together with your CRM processes. After all, it’s easier to deliver personalized content to existing customers.

With this road map in hand, now you need a few practical tips to get your content personalization strategy up and running.

Getting started with content personalization

If all of this is starting to sound pretty daunting, take a deep breath, and step back from your content marketing strategy for just a minute. You can do this — you’ll just need to evaluate your web platforms and, in most cases, perhaps add a few new tools to help make everything more manageable. When you are ready to get started with content personalization, the following four steps can help ease the process:

  • Step 1: Find out if your CMS already has the capability: OpenText is an example of a CMS with built-in customization capabilities. Check with your CMS provider to find out whether or not these capabilities are available or in the works. If your website is personalization-ready, you may need to do some configuring. But it’s likely you won’t have to invest in more tools.
  • Step 2: Define your audience segments: Taking into account Loni’s suggestions on keeping things simple, choose your audience segments — start with your top two or three, at first. Make sure that each segment is different enough to warrant its own personalized set of content. Remember: The more segments you define, the more content you’ll have to create overall.
  • Step 3: Integrate a personalization platform: Find the right tool to get your content personalization up and running. Tools like Smart Content and Gravity are very easy to use and only require an embed code to weave them into your website. They run on their own data collection and analysis platforms. All you need to do is…
  • Step 4: Configure rules and create segmented content: The personalization tool you choose will require you to create rules based on your audience segments. And, of course, you’ll have to do what you do best as a content marketer: create high-value content for each of your user profiles.

What other tips do you have for content personalization? Share them with us in the comments.

Learn which tactics your peers are turning to for more effective content marketing creation and delivery. Read our eBook, Building the Perfect Content Marketing Mix: Execution Tactics.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Mark Sherbin

Mark Sherbin is a freelance writer specializing in technology and content marketing. He shares occasionally insightful information at Copywriting Is Dead, where he promotes authentic communication between organizations and their audiences. Contact him at msherbin@gmail.com.

Other posts by Mark Sherbin

Join Over 170,000 of your Peers!

Get daily articles and news delivered to your email inbox and get CMI’s exclusive e-book Get Inspired: 75 (More) Content Marketing Examples FREE!

  • Rob Yoegel

    Great post, Mark. Anyone interested in this topic should check out what we are doing at Monetate. Tons of great resources on delivering the right message, to the right person at the right time and ending the “one-size-fits-all” website (http://monetate.com/resources)

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Thanks for sharing, Rob!

  • Chris

    I hope you do not stop writing these great articles!

    http://ordertermpaper.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/loki.scribus Loki Scribus

    As a copywriter I can see the job getting easier with more info at hand to target more accurately. But as a consumer I must say I’m getting tired of having no choice but to give my personal details so that the website in question can provide me with personalised content (which is often not the content I want to see). And it’s always a case of “you have to allow us to collect and use your data before we allow you to create an account”. /rant.

    One place I feel content personalization fails horribly is on YouTube, for example. Their recommended videos on the right now display a collection of videos related to those I’ve watched in the past – across different genres, categories, etc. – limiting the videos related to what I’m watching right now. Don’t know if you can change it – if you can, it’s not apparent. The result is that you have to keep the search results open in a separate tab. #personalization_fail.

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      I definitely get that consumer fatigue. Right now, I think the technology works best for B2B. Then again, Amazon and Netflix use customer data better than anyone out there.

      YouTube relies heavily on user-defined data that describes the videos themselves. So, instead of just having to examine user behavior, they have to trust users to provide descriptions of the content, too. This can get sticky.

      There are always concerns with this kind of technology. For example, you don’t want to put people in a vacuum by only showing them content they already know they like. It could stifle innovation. But I trust that content personalization technology will evolve, eventually allaying many of these concerns. For now, it’s definitely something to pay attention to and can be helpful based on your audience and objectives.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503934642 Trevor Rasmussen

      You raise a point…I’d be curious to hear customer feedback on this approach. Personally I’d rather give up this kind of information to get customized information than I would my name, email, company, title, etc. as you see most often with forms.

  • PeterJ42

    This is a classic push marketer’s approach.

    It assumes that we know who the recipient is and what they want.

    But a lot of research now is done by underlings asked to research for a boss. Do we feed them what is relevant to them or cajole them into revealing who it is really for?

    Buying decisions are now collaborative. It used to be that you present to one person and that one person pushed it through. Now you put it on an agenda and by the time the meeting rolls round everyone has solutions, vendors, reviews and even prices. So whose personalised content prevails?

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Hi Peter. From my perspective, the winner is whoever is doing it better, just like with any marketing strategy. Keep in mind that this article is really about content marketing, not your product-centric content — although companies are surely making arguments for both.

      In general though, I think you have to examine your sales process. When you get new customers, who tends to open the relationship? If it’s a primary beneficiary who isn’t a decision-maker, then yes, you have to deal with that ages-old question of how to target the decision-maker, too. I believe you can accomplish what you need to through testing and experimentation and modeling your sales funnel.

      I think I’m understanding your question correctly. If my answer was off base, feel free to clarify.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503934642 Trevor Rasmussen

      I think that this actually helps with that process. So you just put it all out there, and you get two different people looking at it they get frustrated because they have to sort through all the crap they don’t care about. If you personalize the content to the right person/persona, you are able to get the information out there to the company but in the hands of the person that will care about it. So the people that want to read all the data and statistics are going to see it and the guy that just wants big picture with testimonials will also see it! When they come together they will each be able to share information that is relevant to them.

  • http://twitter.com/kylehsf Kyle Hayes

    Great post! Enhancing the user experience by delivering relevant content quickly and in a compelling way is key to converting leads. Thanks for the great post Mark!

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      You’re welcome, Kyle.

  • Al

    Great stuff. My company is not up to this level yet, but you present a strong case for accelerating the timeframe to getting there. Keep the great articles coming please. I always look for your pieces!

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Thanks Al! Much appreciated.

  • The300

    Does this specific type of marketing lead to your clients never being exposed to new ideas outside their profile?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=503934642 Trevor Rasmussen

      That is a valid point. I think there is still room to have other services listed but maybe just not in depth with some kind of a link. That would also allow you to learn if maybe you aren’t presenting all of the information people in that persona are looking for.

  • The300

    Also, are you really so confident that the majority of society will go online for everything in future?

  • David Cohn

    This is a great article. It relates to what we are seeing at hiconversion.com. We’ve seen that personalization doesn’t only apply to content, but it also relates to how people prefer to engage with the site (user experience). Also, different times like hours of the day and days of the week will see a shift in interaction of different elements on different pages within the sales funnel. If you are able to view your real-time analytics, you can see there is not a steady state of user behavior and setting up static rules can leave money on the table.

  • Mickey Alon

    Great post Mark, considering that in B2B 98% choose to remain anonymous when checking out your products/offering, you have to personalize (auto-engage) in real-time. we do it based on industry, location and actual behavior http://www.insightera.com/

  • Mickey Alon

    Here is our top 5 real-time inbound marketing campaigns http://www.insightera.com/blog/top-5-real-time-inbound-marketing-campaigns/

  • Nirel

    Excellent post!
    The future of CRM is automation- predefined segments that automatically receive the right message, to the targeted prospect as they enter your site. Einstein said “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex, it takes a touch of genius … to move in the opposite direction.”
    By using direct, automated software you can avoid all the other vigorous and futile inbound and outbound marketing attempts that take so much effort and reach so few.
    This article outlines the reasons why Insightera created its real-time technology!

    Cheers,
    Nirel
    http://www.insightera.com

  • http://makethemclick.com.au/library Mark @ Make Them Click

    I very much doubt that the static website is dead. The personalization tools that are currently available are way out of reach of most site owners. Until they become affordable for everyone (free?) then static websites are going to be with us for a long time to come.

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Hi Mark,

      I highly suggest you take a look at the tools mentioned in the article. Gravity, for one, is free.

      • http://makethemclick.com.au/library Mark @ Make Them Click

        OpenText is Enterprise grade and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, which really proves my point about being out of reach of small business.

        Get Smart Content starts from $500 a month. While that is not that much, when you add it to all the other things an online business owner has to pay for each month it all adds up.

        It just becomes another thing the business owner doesn’t want to pay for. Plus there’s the time and cost involved to create the extra content.

        Gravity, while interesting, is just a “You Might Also Like” widget that puts other companies’ content on your website.

        As I said, I think we’re a long way from seeing personalised content on all websites.

        • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

          Hi Mark,

          I apologize if the title of the article misled you, but I think you’re missing the bigger point: companies are already doing this and doing it well.

          Even what Forrester does is as simple as planting a cookie and redirecting visitors the next time they visit. I’m covering this as an emerging trend — something that is well within reach for a lot of marketers.

          And yes, this strategy comes with challenges and consumes resources, just like any other. But it also comes with rewards. I mean, if you’re targeting different audience segments, you may already produce content for each one. You’re eliminating a step or two from the user experience — navigating to the most relevant content. That could be crucial for keeping your lead’s interest.

          I’m not saying you HAVE to do this. Like any strategy, you want to weigh the costs against the benefits. But it’s certainly something for content marketers to be aware of, especially as the technology gets less expensive.

          • http://makethemclick.com.au/library Mark @ Make Them Click

            Hi Mark,

            oh I get it, I even like the idea, it’s just that in talking with a lot of business owners lately they’ve made it abundantly clear that the last thing they need is something more to do.

            They are actually quite angry, with and dismissive of online practitioners of all ilks pushing yet another new strategy.

          • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

            Yeah, I definitely understand that. Even a writer like myself feels faded keeping an eye on all of the new strategies. However, considering the speed with which technology evolves these days, it’s tough to get around. Difficult to keep up with? Yes. Nice to have options? Also yes.

  • Lyndon NA

    I can see some potentially serious flaws here.

    The first set is of course Search Engine based.
    You must supply a “default” set of content – obviously failing to do that could result in nothing to be indexed.
    Then you have to look at things like Cloaking – and make sure the practices you use won’t be seen as such.
    Another aspect is that of limited pages. Because you are now serving the variant content from a single URL rather than 2+ for the different user-bases, you may end up with fewer pages and less relevancy … less internal links, prominence and relational values passing around.

    Then you have the User aspects.
    The biggest issue I see is that of inconsistency – You must have a system in place that not only tailors the content to the current user – but remembers those measurements/datapoints for repeat/later visits. Returning to a page a few days later … possibly on a different machine, and seeing a different page/different bulelt points for features etc., could be a let down.
    Then you have the inconsistent reference – you send me a link to URL A mentioning Item 1 … and yet when I get to URL A, I see nothing about Item 1 at all … only Item 2. Pretty sure that may be somewhat irritating.

    Then you have the the all important Trust issue for existing Members/Clients.
    Do you really (really!) trust the data they have supplied?
    I can list on one hand the number of times I’ve supplied 100% correct/accurate information to a website. My entire family doesn’t have enough fingers to count the times I’ve provided partially incorrect – through to wholly false – information to a site.
    Do you expect all your customers/members to be “real” and “honest”?
    What sort of impact can you see that having on your personalised approach?

    I’m not against teh idea itself – I’ve advocated segmented and purposed content for years … but it’s far from simple in many cases. Adding a dynamic layer to it seems quite risky, and with some potential “losses” in regards to ranking etc. too :(

    • http://twitter.com/MarkSherbin Mark Sherbin

      Hi Lyndon,

      Thanks for the input. I don’t think I’m making the argument that this is a simple process — just trying to provide some insights as to getting started on the right course.

      Like personalization itself, this article isn’t advocating a one-size-fits-all approach; marketers always need to consider the potential impact on their audiences. While some of these are valid concerns, they may hold more or less weight depending on your market.

      As for the search flaws, I think that depends on your approach. I don’t see why you couldn’t have unique URLs for each page and redirect users when they visit or login. Does that make sense?

      Even a pure SEO approach to web content has its flaws. Personalization technology may only make sense for a certain portion of enterprise marketers at this point, but I definitely believe it should be on everyone’s radar as it becomes more refined.

  • Alex Housley

    Interesting article, and great to see personalisation highlighted as a key trend. If you’re interested in leveraging social data to further increase the relevance of content and prevent the “cold start problem” (where it takes longer to gather enough useful activity data to personalise content), then check out Rummble Labs – http://rummblelabs.com (Disclaimer: I’m COO there). To settle any arguments on the effectiveness of personalisation: we A/B test all integrations with and without personalised content, and with various configurations of algorithms, and it’s not uncommon to see CTR increase by over 130%.

  • Robert Connor

    Great stuff Mark. Thanks for the post – and the fun part about a website is putting your personality on it- Have a great day on purpose!

  • http://www.facebook.com/vaibhav.gupta.142892 Vaibhav Gupta

    Thanks for this post. Its really very helpful. By signing in through Facebook and posting this comment i am getting an opportunity to get listed in database of people who viewed this article and raising the comment count to +1.