By Kristen Hicks published November 16, 2014

Why Content Creators Should Care About Adaptive Content

CMI_11.16_Adaptive-01Whether or not you’ve heard the term, you’ve probably seen adaptive content at work. By its very nature, adaptive content can be hard for an individual to spot, but chances are, it worked.

Businesses that have embraced adaptive content have seen huge returns. Website visitors who see content based on what the business already knows about them convert three to 10 times more than average. Those are the kinds of numbers of which all marketers dream.

At Content Marketing World this year, Jenny Magic and Melissa Breker discussed how adaptive content is changing content marketing, and what strategists and tech teams need to know about it. But a growth in adaptive content doesn’t just influence the work of strategists and tech specialists, it should cause meaningful change for content creators as well.

What is adaptive content?

Adaptive content was recently defined by Noz Urbina as being “a content strategy technique designed to support meaningful, personalized interactions across all channels.”

For marketers, the term often is used interchangeably with “personalized content,” as the end result is a more customized user experience that accounts for who is consuming the content and that individual’s prior relationship with the company.

A website is using adaptive content when it delivers different information to a first-time visitor than it does to a three-time visitor. The knowledge and needs of each visitor are different, meaning the best information presented at that moment is customized.

Adaptive content hasn’t reached the point of wide adoption yet, but smart marketing professionals know how important it is to get ahead of trends. Put together with the help of Magic, this information can help content creators get ready for their role in adaptive content.

What adaptive means for content planning

In a lot of ways, the best practices for adaptive content look a lot like the best practices already accepted in content marketing, but more so. The most important elements in adaptive content strategy won’t sound too surprising to successful content marketers:

  • Developing content personas
  • Understanding the buyer journey
  • Figuring out the “why” behind implementing personalized content before diving into the “what” and “how”

Getting those main elements into place quickly makes clear why adaptive content is useful. Explains Magic, “If you have five personas at five buyer stages, you have a lot of content options for mixing and matching those, and that’s where the adaptive or personalized content work comes up.”

Some content creators will want to be involved at this early stage of the process, but others will prefer to let the content strategist take care of the persona and buyer journey evaluation, and enter the process when it’s time to talk specifically about what the content will be and how it will be deployed. Regardless of who owns persona development and the buyer’s journey process, it’s imperative that content creators understand the output.

How adaptive changes content creation

“Smart content creators are going to stop talking about deliverables like the ‘white paper’ and they’re going to start talking about deliverables as they relate to personas,” says Magic. In other words, before creating the content, you want to think about all possible variations for that content.

To figure out the right content mix for each piece of content, consider:

  • Which personas are relevant for this content
  • Which stage or stages of the buyer journey (for each persona) would be useful
  • What content formats will be used for each version
  • What channels will be used to distribute the content versions

HICKS - Adaptive Content - Image 1

This information will help you determine from day one how many and which versions of the content there ought to be. With that information top of mind, you can more efficiently tackle the research stage for the content itself because you don’t have to conduct any persona-focused research.

Naturally, this content mix matrix changes the scope of deliverables for most content projects. Content creators will expect each assignment to require a number of similar deliverables rather than a single version of the content, changing the amount of work involved and the way deadlines must be considered. Each content creation team will have to consider questions like these to create a better and more efficient process:

  • Should I do all the research in one phase or do supplementary research as I work on additional personalized versions?
  • Should I start with a master outline that notes which parts of the piece will need to be adapted for each version?
  • Should I create a master version of the content and amend it to create each new version or work on each version side by side?

The answers and process will look different based on the content creators’ working styles and the goals of the content marketing team.

Empathy will be more important

Unless you’re new to content marketing, you’ve probably heard the word empathy come up a few (hundred) times. Being able to get inside the head of your target audiences and speak directly to what they want and need to know is pretty much the Holy Grail in our industry.

The good news about adaptive content is that it makes that relevancy process easier on the creator. “It’s just too hard to have any sort of relevance when you’re writing for a broad or generalized audience,” says Magic. The ability to hone a more specific persona and speak to those more personalized needs makes bringing empathy into the process more natural.

Magic suggests that knowledge of personas and an ability to empathize will be what separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to the value of a content creator. Content creators who can more easily get into the heads of multiple personas and successfully adapt content for each persona will have a serious edge in coming years.

What you can do now

If you’re the rare content creator already working with a company that’s started using adaptive content, soak up all the information you can on what works. For the rest of us, there are a few things we can be doing:

  • Start thinking about personalization from day one
  • Think when planning and creating content about which persona is being targeted and at what stage the persona is in the buyer journey
  • Create content in a structure optimized for repurposing between personas

Magic suggests using a tool like Gather Content that provides distinct fields for dividing a piece of content into its main components or chunks (e.g., headline, headings, introductory blurb, main sections). Viewing the content as a collection of components simplifies the process of identifying which parts should be changed for each version. Outlines also can help with this.

Greater use of adaptive content means embracing a new and different work process for most content creators. It also means the content is stronger because it connects more deeply with viewers and provides more useful analytics for measuring success. Those are outcomes that every brand embracing adaptive content will find beneficial to their business.

Want to know more about the strategic and practical applications of adaptive content? Check out the diverse CMW sessions available through our Video on Demand portal.

Cover image by Ian L,, via pixabay

Author: Kristen Hicks

Kristen Hicks is a freelance writer who has worked with businesses in a variety of industries, including education, technology, and senior care. Check out her blog at Austin Copywriter, or follow her @atxcopywriter.

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  • Robert Gibb

    I’ve never thought much about adaptive content, until now. So thanks for the great piece Kristen! This is very thought-provoking. I just have one question based on this quote …

    “Viewing the content as a collection of components simplifies the process of identifying which parts should be changed for each version.”

    I want to know more about what you mean by “versions.”

    Let’s say I’m a content marketer for a company that is targeting 5 verticals. If I was writing a blog post with adaptive content in mind, would I create 5 blog posts, all based on the same general topic? Of course each post would have vertical-specific content, but wouldn’t publishing 5 blog posts based on the same general topic be redundant? It may even come across as tacky and unprofessional.

    Okay, so now I am going to answer my own question and you can tell me if, in your eyes, I’m right or wrong.

    A “version” is based on a general idea but contains vertical-specific information. To avoid redundancy, you can publish the different versions at different times (if it’s evergreen content, say 2 weeks apart) on the same platform (blog).

    Or you could parse the platform into vertical-specific segments and publish the versions all at the same time. But then this brings up the question: which version would show up on the main platform, if there is one. Possible answer: a “vertical-unspecific” version that briefly describes the problems/sloutions related to each targeted vertical, then links to each vertical-specific version.

    Like I said, thought-provoking.

    • Kristen Hicks

      Hello Robert.

      I agree with your own answer of what the versions are, but with the added component of taking into account where each visitor is in the buyer’s cycle. So each of those five verticals might benefit from a different version of the content depending on whether it’s their first time visiting the site, or if they’re a regular reader or current customer.

      For the second part of your question, that’s where the technology comes in. Rather than publishing a steady stream of these versions on your blog or having a lot of pages that are nearly the same on your website, the idea would be that each site visitor would only see the version that’s right for them, and the right kind of tech is needed to recognize who the viewer is and what content to serve up.

      I actually hadn’t thought about the need for a “vertical-unspecific” version in the course of writing this, but I think you’re right that there would need to be one. Even if your tech is pretty sophisticated, there will likely be visitors you don’t have any data on that you’d still want to benefit from the content created.

      • Robert Gibb

        Awesome reply Kristen. And I assume when you say “right kind of tech” you mean a marketing platform like Hubspot. However, I’m not even sure if they, as one of the players, have this technology integrated into their service!

        • Kristen Hicks

          I know very little about the tech side of things, so I don’t mean anything too specific when I say that. I’d love it if someone else with more knowledge of the tech weighed in on the comments (or in their own post on this blog).

  • voiceOfUnreason

    Hey Kristen, thanks for the read. Some great stuff I’ll be looking to incorporate into my process.

    I do this with some inner trepidation though. Let me explain; see, in my case I’m not too big a fan of personalized content, personalized search etc. (i.e. for myself, my users might like it though). I have my reasons, but the main is that I value “free” information and prefer “unfettered” access to it. I like a diverse set of viewpoints and even though I might not like those that conflict with mine, I still value those viewpoints purely for the sake of objectivity and completeness. What I myself don’t like about personalization, especially as it pertains to the delivery of information/content, is that it can create a filter bubble of sorts. This may be particularly the case where one does not make it a point to look for alternative and even contradictory sources. I fear at best it can hamper the discovery of new alternative information and worst well you already already know of folks who watch particular brands of television or listen to certain talk-back radio and as a result end up with “warped” and completely closed world-views.

    Anyway, what I’m getting at, apologies for the tangential embellishments, is that are there any studies, or hard data on users and personalization? I realize my opinion is probably well in the minority but I’m willing to bet that there are others that may hold the same views. It would be interesting to see in what quantities. Sometimes I feel as though with things like personalization (on the Web especially and in regards to content), it is as though this is being “pushed” on users whilst they might not particularly care for it. I know in my case the sentiment is “just give me the information please, I will sort and filter it myself”.


  • james brown

    Great blog Kristen.
    I think many people are unaware about the adaptive content. I did the same mistake in my previous time, but, now I am fully aware about the adaptive content.

  • Jonny Rose


    Thank you for highlighting the importance of “adaptive content”.

    Although this might be an unpopular opinion, my suspicion is for adaptive content to be *truly* adaptive there needs to be a stronger emphasis on the technological aspect (content delivery, reader profiling, dynamic placement etc) over simply the human inputs (creation and strategy).

    To do AC properly you have to understand each person’s context and their constantly evolving needs at any given time. Buyer personas are helpful but remain a crude, static, broad-brush way to profile a browser. As buyers we are more than just our demographic/firmographic, social profile, transaction history, etc and as content marketers we need to look to more sophisticated ways to understand the people we are creating content for (at idio we advocate for using user interests exposed by their reading history to inform what content is served to them).

    I’d also suggest that for AC to be done properly we need to get our heads around the hard truth that revolving between a few content assets is enough to constitute “adaptive content”. For the buyer experience to be truly personalized – across an audience of hundreds/thousands/millions – content marketers need to consider increasing content creation by an order of magnitude.

    Thanks again for opening discussion on this topic, Kristen.

    Jonny Rose
    Head of Content, idio

    • Kristen Hicks

      Hello Johnny. Thanks for the comment!

      I wouldn’t say that’s an unpopular opinion at all. The talk that Jenny and Melissa gave about adaptive content at Content Marketing World was much more focused on the strategy and technical side of things than this piece is.

      I completely agree that for adaptive to work, the tech matters. I just wrote this post to address what it will mean for one of the other sides of the equation: the people creating the content.

      I like your idea of using reading history to inform what content visitors see, how do you access that data? Do you use what you learn from it to drive decisions around what kind of content you create?

      Do you ever worry about people finding it kind of icky that you know their reader history? That’s another point the talk addressed that I didn’t touch on in this post. It can be hard to do adaptive well without crossing lines that make people uncomfortable.

      • Jonny Rose

        Ah, gotcha.

        We use content analytics/natural language processing to analyze every piece of content on a client’s site. This means we’re able to understand the topics (people, places, concepts, brands…etc) mentioned within each article.

        We can then track individual reader as they consume a piece of content and start to build profiles based on the topics contained within the content they’ve consumed. For example, if we both were on a cooking site, my reading arc/profile might show “Gluten intolerant”, “tofu” and “quinoa” whilst your own might reveal you’re interested in “juicing”, “beetroot” and “carrot recipes” (more examples here: We had a FMCG client that realized content mentioning “weddings” were most popular – this enabled them to rapidly change their entire editorial strategy from product-centric stuff to more lifestyle content around weddings, to great effect!

        Good question about privacy. Our policy has always been to create an opt-in culture. If browsers on client sites are asked – and explained the value proposition of personalization/AC – we’ve found they’re more than happy to sign-in and be tracked. If you get a chance – Iook forward to you writing up that part of Magic’s talk.

        Jonny Rose
        Head of Content, idio

        • Kristen Hicks

          Thanks for the response. Very informative!

          Someone below asked about what tech to use for this, is there a product or platform you’re using currently that you like?

          • Jonny Rose

            Hi Kristen,

            At the risk of sounding self-serving – we use our own technology to do this. In particular, idio Engage –

            I liked your suggestion to @robert_gibb:disqus that someone should probably write something about all the different tech out there which powers better AC/personalization. I may well have to approach CMI about doing this! 😉

  • Teemu Korpi

    Thanks for the article! I see this the way I would use retargeting ads. A browser took this path of content on my site, so he/she must be at this point of purchase process and he/she must be an emotional buyer (not rational) and this product is high involvement for him/her. This way I know what piece of content to serve on the next visit. Or maybe even a pop-up? Just my 5 cents…

  • voiceOfUnreason

    Still looking for solid data on this though so I can implement with good information at hand and not just gut instinct (speaking for myself). Maybe I’ll just run my own tests…

    Just to set some context, I’m from an engineering background (electronics, software/comp eng.) My users fit a range of profiles or demographic base, from folks that know absolutely nothing about tech to powerusers (dudes that speak acronym). My “less knowledgeable” users would probably appreciate a bit of “guidance”. I know they won’t like it if they knew that is in essence what I was doing, and that is effectively “dumbing down” things for them. We can say simplifying but it’s just semantics. Maybe it’s just the way I write/position my content to my audience? I still don’t like making broad assumptions on people though. The powerusers are a whole ‘nother kettle of fish!

    What I’d really like to see (if available) is some data on users and personalization. In particular whether folks like or not (on the whole) or are just neutral to it?

    I hope you can cater to a “diverse” set of readers,

    Kind regards,

    Charles (voiceOfUnreason).

  • mohammad umair

    “Whether or not you’ve heard the term” applies to me big time. I was completely unaware something called Adaptive content.

    Kristen, can we consider pop-ups a part of adaptive content? I feel pop-ups, if done correctly, can be really effective. Or is it just too old to be a part of it?