By Marcia Riefer Johnston published February 11, 2016

Adaptive Content: The Way to Your Customer’s Heart


Editor’s note: You may have missed this article when CMI published it on another blog last year. We’re sharing it now because adaptive content holds more promise than ever for marketers who want to scale their efforts.

Hey, there. I know you. I understand where you are. I get what you’re going through. I just might have what you need right now.

If adaptive content could speak to its recipients, that’s what it would sound like.

Imagine your organization’s content serving people in such personal, useful ways that it stirs feelings for your brand. What impact might those feelings have on your business? (Hint: Consider this tagline, brought to us by the folks at Connective DX: “Companies that are loved win.”)

As you ponder the impact that more customer love could have on your business, allow me to give you a preview of this article’s sections:

  • What does “adaptive content” mean?
  • How is adaptive content different from responsive design?
  • How adaptive content works with personalization
  • How to get started with adaptive content

What does ‘adaptive content’ mean?

Adaptive content is content that can, at each instance of use, change (adapt) – not just in appearance but in substance – based on a number of factors. What factors? Consider this tweet from a talk by Karen McGrane.

Adaptive #content changes in more than appearance—the content itself automatically changes. Click To Tweet


Karen McGrane’s slide lists more than a dozen factors that might determine the way content could adapt to a given instance of use.

Look at all the factors she lists:

  • Device (operating system, mobile, tablet, desktop, screen resolution)
  • Context (time, location, velocity, humidity, temperature)
  • Person (age, gender, stage of life, language, relationships)

Does your organization’s content have the built-in smarts to adapt to all those factors? I think I can answer that question: No, it doesn’t.

Don’t feel bad; no one’s content does. It’s hard to conceive of any content needing to be that intelligent. Karen’s list isn’t a set of “shoulds.” It’s a peek into a realm of possibility, a set of things to consider – strategically – as you imagine the experiences you want your customers and prospective customers to have with your content.

How is adaptive content different from responsive design?

Adaptive content and responsive design are often discussed together, and they both refer to changes in the way content is delivered, but “responsive” and “adaptive” refer to different kinds of changes. Whereas “responsive” refers to changes in content layout based on the device (or the device’s orientation), “adaptive” refers to tailored delivery of the content itself.


Content delivered into a responsive design changes cosmetically, not adaptively. The content itself doesn’t change. It simply reflows to accommodate a device’s screen size and orientation, as shown in these screenshots of the agenda page from the Intelligent Content Conference site on a smartphone.

In The Language of Content Strategy, Charles Cooper defines adaptive content this way:

[Adaptive] content is designed to adapt to the needs of the customer, not just cosmetically, but also in substance and in capability. Adaptive content automatically responds to the screen size and orientation of any device, but goes further by displaying relevant content that takes full advantage of the specific capabilities of the device being used.

Here’s how Noz Urbina explains the difference in a slightly techier way.

Adaptive content doesn’t know if it’s in a responsive or nonresponsive website. It knows who it’s for and where/when it should be shown because it’s semantically/structurally rich and categorized (using metadata).

Examples of adaptive content

Here’s an example of content adapting for device types. For the same instruction – a single chunk of content in a content management system – people on the receiving end might read “click” on a laptop, read “tap” on a tablet, or hear “say select” in a car’s GPS.

Adaptive-content-click-tap-say select

Adaptive content goes beyond responsive design. The content itself changes according to a number of factors: The device, the context, the person. For example, an adaptive instruction might show up as “click” on a laptop, “tap” on a tablet, and “say select” from a car’s GPS tool. That’s content adapting for the device. To deliver adaptive experiences, you have to put all the desired content variations – in this case “click,” “tap,” and “say select” – into your content management system, and you have to give the system the clues (metadata) it needs to figure out which content to deliver where and when.

Here’s another example of adaptive content. Whatever you’re describing (a term, a product, a podcast, a tourist attraction … anything), you create both a long and a short description. The long description is automatically delivered to laptops. The short description is automatically delivered to smartphones. For these automatic deliveries to work, two things have to happen:

  1. The source content has to include both descriptions, each one semantically tagged – maybe “longdesc” and “shortdesc.”
  1. The content distribution system has to understand what to do when it’s time to send those tagged descriptions to a given device.

For yet another example, read Noz’s wine-tasting story, in which he declares, “Wow! I just lived an adaptive content moment!”

How adaptive content works with personalization

Adaptive content is often considered equivalent to personalized content. Kevin P. Nichols defines personalization as a way to get content to the right user based on one or more of the following:

  • Who they are
  • Where they are
  • When, why, and how they access the content
  • What device they use to access the content

Noz describes adaptive content and personalization in his article (from which I’ve drawn all of his quotations below), The 5 Ws of Adaptive Content: A New Look at Making Content Contextually Appropriate:

Adaptive content is a content strategy technique designed to support meaningful, personalized interactions across all channels. It is content that is conceived, planned, and developed around the customers: their context, their mood, their goals…

To be successful at delivering a personalized experience … adaptive content is a requirement. It’s content that is designed for both personalization and delivery across many channels, including print and beyond. It’s more than feeding product or content recommendations. It can be much more than changing some artwork based on user interests, and it has to be far more than reflowing web layouts so they are workable on a specific device.

Some people suggest considering ways to personalize content beyond the web – for example, in email campaigns or in old-fashioned, human-to-human interactions between customers and employees, including “support desks, retail sales staff, field technicians, sales and presales engineers, business development managers, and all the other consumer touch points,” Noz says. “They all own threads of communication that intertwine to sew the tapestry of brand experience for your audience.”

Why should marketers care about personalizing content? As Kristen Hicks says, “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.”

Adaptive (personalized) #content converts 3 to 10x more viewers more than average via @McKinsey Click To Tweet

How to get started with adaptive content

Ready to stop dreaming and start doing? Here are some things you can do to get started toward your own goal of creating content that, as Ann Rockley says, “can be adapted with little or no human intervention”:

  1. Pick your context factors. Prioritize one or two context factors that you want your content to adapt to. What kind of personalization would your customers most value? See Karen’s list above for some of the many possibilities.
  1. Pick your content variations. Decide which content variations your content developers need to create consistently. For example, you might need “longdesc” and “shortdesc” text for every product or every podcast. You might need a set of device-specific terms, like “click,” “tap,” and “say select,” in every set of instructions. Start with the high-value variations; get those working before adding more.
  1. Pick your business rules. Adaptive content “has to know when it should change,” Noz says. “That means defining rules that will tell your system when to display what content.”

Of course, you may have to pick your system, too. A content management system, that is.

A lot goes into creating meaningfully adaptive experiences with your content. Throughout the process of making decisions and implementing them, lots of people from various business and technical teams – and, wherever possible, customers – need to collaborate (as in debate, ignore each other, persist, bring donuts, listen, research, share, persuade, celebrate, argue, bring more donuts). You’ll need to test, train, fail, learn, and modify as you go.

You knew it wouldn’t be easy.


Your organization’s success may rest on creating content that can adapt to a variety of devices, to user-specific information, or to any number of other factors – content that basically says, “Hey, there. I know you. I understand where you are. I get what you’re going through. I just might have what you need right now.”

To create content that’s this easy and useful on the receiving end, you have to do a lot of things that may seem hard. The good news is that those hard things are becoming more possible to achieve. (Your competitors are figuring that out, too.)

Are you ready to take the first steps? Have you already taken some steps? If so, what challenges have you confronted? What success stories can you tell? Please let us know in a comment.

Missed the Intelligent Content Conference? Don’t fret. You can purchase the Post-Show Video pass and catch Karen’s talk by signing up. Access is good for one full year and contains video, audio, and slide capture for the Main Conference sessions.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Marcia Riefer Johnston

Marcia Riefer Johnston is the author of Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them) and You Can Say That Again: 750 Redundant Phrases to Think Twice About. As a member of the CMI team, she serves as Managing Editor of Content Strategy. She has run a technical-writing business for … a long time. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University and studied literature and creative writing in the Syracuse University Masters program under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. She lives in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaRJohnston. For more, see Writing.Rocks.

Other posts by Marcia Riefer Johnston

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  • Nick Valente

    The value of the article is good except for the lack of continuity between the initial premise and the rest of the content.
    “Imagine your organization’s content serving people in such personal, useful ways that it stirs feelings for your brand.”
    I agree that little things like formatting, correct text cues and the like will help customers interact with your content more easily, I don’t believe they ill help you “stir feelings for your brand” unless you’re selling UI design.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Hi, Nick. I agree that those “little things like formatting, correct text cues and the like” won’t necessarily stir feelings for a brand. The power of adaptive content (and its ability to win hearts) comes in the customizing: giving people the content they need in the way they need it at a given moment.

      It’s easy to say, hard to do.

      If a brand could deliver content to you in a completely adaptive way that took into account your situation in the moment – what OS you’re using, what device you’re using, what screen resolution you have, what time it is, where you are, how fast you’re moving, the humidity and temperature, your age, your tastes, your language, and whatever else that brand might know – it would be like giving you your own private Jeeves. Some people might just love that.

      • Nick Valente

        Not underestimating the UI satisfaction users will get from what should be from table stakes you mention. Agree that many/most companies don’t do these well and calling this out is a good thing. Thanks for a well written article.

        • Marcia Riefer Johnston

          I’m glad that you found value here, Nick. Thanks for both your notes.

  • Michael Gowans

    The best “content strategy” I’ve ever heard, used, and personal respect in terms of content marketing is the whole “results in advanced” concept.

    I found that if you use good supporting visuals and solid information that leads someone through to a solution in the simplest way, you’ll gain major attraction.

    When you give, give, give, then ask you win.

    it’s like if you tried to sell a $10 bill for $1. …people wouldn’t believe you, they’d think you’re crazy. They wouldn’t go for it. Even if it was real.

    …but if you put a $10 bill in the same mailbox everyday and didn’t say anything and then on the 4th day when up to their door and said hey I’ve been putting $10 in your mailbox over the last 4 days and then you asked them to buy your $10 bill for $1, you’d sell it without a flinch.

    Same goes with content. It’s about the balance of give versus take and when you do give…GIVE THE BEST.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Michael, That’s an intriguing analogy, putting money in people’s mailboxes. Thanks for the note.

      • Michael Gowans

        Hey Marcia no problem. I actually heard that analogy from Seth Godin on his most recent interview with Tim Ferriss called “How Seth Godin Manages His Life — Rules, Principles, and Obsessions” it’s like 2 hours long on The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast on iTunes. It’s awesome, just came out this morning. It’s so much about give, give, give, ask in terms of content marketing. Have an incredible rest of your day!

  • Paweł Piejko

    I think adaptive content is a great approach that simply makes websites look and work great on all devices (mobile, tablet, desktop) because they’re fully optimized (in terms of UX, page weight, etc) and not just resized.

    Adaptive content is not a new approach given that a lot of big players have been using it for a long time, for example Google (just try searching ‘pizza’ on a phone, tablet, desktop, and compare the results pages). NONE of the most visited sites today uses responsive because it’s just not flexible enough to come up with a device-optimized (adaptive!) experience.

    Here are some examples of sites using adaptive content.

    • Marcia Riefer Johnston

      Pawel, Thanks for your comment. You’re right that adaptive content has been around for a long time. It’s new for many marketers, anyhow, and I look forward to hearing more stories about how marketers are using it.

  • Hitesh Parekh

    Publishers and their respective app are good at this concept of adaptive content where the experience from desktop, mobile, tablet and app differ but retain the visuals and rich content we consume.

  • John Parsons

    Great piece! Personalized content is nothing new, of course. Good-old mail merge morphed into variable data printing, and then it’s online equivalent: persona-based email campaigns, customized landing pages and PURLs. However, the end result often falls short, becoming just another source of spam or (if the source database is too explicit) an unwelcome invasion of privacy.

    Adding variables like device, context, and behavior metrics makes adaptive content more likely to engage the right person in a more meaningful way, but it also adds to its cost and complexity. Authoring tools are only beginning to take these factors into account, so it falls to the marketing strategist to pick the right variables — anticipating truly meaningful (and achievable) variations, not trying to create an uber-system for all possible audience segments.

    It also falls to the writer to think about these variables during the actual writing process. When authoring tools make it easier to tag long and short descriptions within the same piece, we need to be ready to write them.

  • Deepak Memo

    Excellent information Marcia, Little point here. When we are talking about responsive content, this belongs to only layout and screen dimensions. Now we know that there are very limited choices with screen designs and layout decisions. So this is achievable with some nice effort.

    But when ii comes to adaptive content then we are talking about infinite possibilities of different contexts, locations, intentions. When these are infinite then it could be really tough to tune any content looking into all possibilities.

    Thinking that what would be future for adaptive content with respect to these contexts.