By Noz Urbina published September 19, 2014

Adaptive Content: The Omnichannel Technique You Need to Implement

guy viewing water, mountains-scenicAdaptive content is a content strategy technique designed to support meaningful, personalized, interactions across all channels. The urgency of supporting personalization that considers multiple channels is apparent from stats like 94 percent of businesses saying personalization is key to success, and 48 percent of shoppers saying they’d like to use a phone to shop while in stores. But it’s more than retail and B2C. Every business model is impacted. We’re now in a multichannel world where all consumers want tailored delivery.

As we explore adaptive content’s very significant potential, we will also define and contextualize omnichannel content strategy and examine the value proposition they hold for content marketing.

I will use a simple, relatable story to illustrate:

  • What adaptive content is and where it fits in an omnichannel content strategy
  • The brand and consumer benefits of implementing it properly
  • The risks of doing it poorly.

Omnichannel, personalization and adaptive content

“Omnichannel” is a term that extends and supersedes multichannel. Multichannel (or cross-channel) refers to delivering content and considering consumer experience on more than one channel. Omnichannel is about understanding and optimizing for the entire journey across all channels.

A poorly executed omnichannel or personalization strategy, however, can do more harm than good. Handling one or two channels discretely but satisfying expectations is better than disappointing your consumers when you fail to deliver added value — or worse still, confuse or frustrate — while tackling all channels. Personalization can be even more dangerous because of very real risks that your brand can be given the dreaded “creepy” label.

To be successful at delivering a personalized experience in our omnichannel marketplace, adaptive content is a requirement. It is content that is designed for both personalization and delivery across many channels (including print, and beyond, as we’ll see later). It’s more than feeding product or content recommendations (e.g., like Amazon or YouTube use), 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 (responsive web design).

Adaptive content replaces static content

Organizations have reluctantly had to conclude that static content delivers a sub-optimal experience; the one-size-fits-all approach no longer works. The evidence applies in varying degrees to customer and user journeys the world over, in the context of markets as diverse as fast-moving consumer goods and financial services to medical devices and electronic components.

In the past few years, I’ve been working with a variety of organizations on adaptive content in a workshop setting and there has been extensive interest. In my hands-on consulting work I’ve been with large-scale B2B, eBusiness component supply, high-tech manufacturing, and even regulatory bodies for transport systems, all needing to adapt content based on user type, customer life cycle stages, or even geographic location within a physical client site. Those experiences have brought into focus the importance of adaptive content. For relatability, I’m going to look at (what appears to be) simpler content, and show how a variety of omnichannel consumer experiences could be enhanced if approached properly.

A real-world content scenario

Let me share a personal experience: I like wine.

wine bottle-vinas de calles

Wine. Do you need a reason?

Recently I went with my partner, Elodie, to an evening wine tasting at our local Vegamar Vineyards store in Valencia. The evening was structured as follows:

  • Arrival
  • Host’s welcome
  • Receive a glass of something (not part of the official tasting) and a small snack (from their list of related products) while waiting for all guests to arrive
  • Watch an intro video of the brand and its products, process, history, etc.
  • Listen to talk by the host
  • Three rounds of:

o   Presentation of a wine and accompanying snack

o   Drink, eat, chat, ask questions, etc.

  • Exit casually

The point of giving all that agenda detail is to help visualize in your mind all the potential breaks, waits, and pauses in it. This is significant because each table had a tablet PC for people to browse during those moments. These were restricted to showing the main corporate website: bodegasvegamar.com. After a while, Elodie and I explored the website.

The site structure is a pretty standard WordPress-theme affair, with a welcome page from which you can get to the wine list, and content that describes individual products. It’s not a great website, but let’s not focus on that.

As we were sipping, munching, and chatting, Elodie found a product she liked and asked an inspired question: “Do you think if I start adding things to the shopping cart, they can just add it to our bill and have it ready to pick up on the way out?

Lightbulb moment!

lightbulb-exclamation points

Wow! I just lived an adaptive content moment!

Adaptive content rethinks experience beyond the screens

The answer to the question was a big “No.” It was just the regular .com site. It had no idea where we were or what we were doing while looking at it. But how it should have worked was crystal clear. The content should have adapted to the context, so that it could integrate the digital engagement with the physical, and increase revenue.

It should have been personalized, integrated and properly conceived for omnichannel.

Personalization

SES Magazine found that personalized eCommerce sites can increase conversions by up to 70 percent. According to Metail, 56 percent of consumers say they would be more inclined to use a retailer if it offered a good personalized experience.

They had our names in the original booking, so some basic personalization should have included:

  • Allowing check-ins by social media
  • Displaying a personalized welcome screen and actively pushing relevant content to the tablet — like the wine list and accompaniments
  • Adapting the micro-copy and tone of the website
  • Surfacing our favorite wines or purchase history for easy access in the navigation next to the other product filters
  • Providing a rating option for the wines we were tasting. It could have popped up for each wine we tasted soon after we were served
  • Highlighting specific companion items for the wines we liked or were tasting — i.e., wines that were available in-stock, in that location, that night. These could have been offered as recommendations or packaged in discount bundles
  • As a follow-up, these interactions could have been used to personalize an email. Instead of a blanket “Thanks for coming,” I actually would have appreciated an email that said, “Thanks, and here’s a reminder of the wines you said you liked best.” This is the cross-channel equivalent of Amazon emailing to say “Here’s a reminder of what you put on your wish-list.”

Some might point out that this surfacing a customer’s purchase history is common functionality today. But note I said our favorite, not my favorite.

three wine bottles

Adding Elodie and Noz’s picks to the product filters wouldn’t be so hard.

Today, the idea of multiple users logged into a single browser session seems foreign. We usually focus on a one-browser-one-user paradigm. Device manufacturers benefit from this limitation because it discourages device sharing, meaning more unit sales per household. But this was a social (physical social, not social media) context, and it wouldn’t have made sense to only have one of us identified and served by the content.

Integration

Elodie’s initial vision was about adapting the functionality of the online shopping cart and checkout system so that they were integrated into the local system, allowing us to add things to our basket and have them ready to pick up on departure.

Even beyond the sales system integration and the concept of multi-user log-ins, there is adapting for multi-device interactions. One tablet for a group of six wine-tasters imposes interface challenges. But expanding onto the screen real estate of our smartphones would allow personal content to be on-phone, while shared content appeared on the tablet screen. Mac users have enjoyed functionality like this with their Apple mobile devices for years, but I have never seen or heard of implementations for multiple web users with independent devices. This would be the website equivalent of the version of Scrabble where you can use a tablet as the board and apps on individual smartphones as each player’s letter rack.

Multi-device experiences are a natural evolution to support the implicit promise of social media. Social implies many-to-many, and although our current experiences are often about sharing, they are often only designed for one-to-many relationships. There are huge potential user experience and business intelligence benefits of multi-device interactions.

Google is implementing “Universal Analytics” that combine multi-device analytics together so that we can track and improve these experiences of one user on multiple devices. But we have to design for those experiences before we have anything to track. Multiple users and multiple devices is the logical progression.

Tying in to personalization, multi-device, and content marketing, a great social marketing feature could have been to have the tablet offer the best in selfie technology. This would have allowed my partner and I to share the joy with our networks — using the tablet’s camera, our phones, or both.

Finally, it would have also been useful to keep my digital shopping cart full of products handy on my phone so I could see it, privately, while I was (or others were) using the supplied tablet for something else. The possibilities are limited only by our imagination.

The more that a brand’s digital service supports many-to-many, physical-world exchanges, the more integral the brand becomes to the shared memory of the experience. If the brand provides social media integration, it can demonstrate its value-add to whole networks at once.

This is a significant opportunity today because, as author Brian Solis says, “We are looking for shared experiences, ‘social proof,” more and more — not just one-off transactional clicks of the ‘like’ button. It’s in this way that brands solve real-world problems, add value, and become part of the user’s day-to-day life.”

Prestige Marketing quantifies the ROI, telling us conversion rates are 105 percent higher for consumers who interact with ratings and reviews, and Deloitte Consulting calculated that smartphones in the retail environment influenced $159 billion in U.S. sales in 2012. Just think of what would be possible if retailers properly leveraged the potential.

Omnichannel isn’t limited to the screen

After multi-device comes adapting content strategy properly for multichannel, and then omnichannel.

In the hosts’ spoken introduction, they should have at least mentioned that the tablets were there to drive engagement — in truth, they didn’t introduce the devices at all. The idea that the introduction should have been a managed content asset, a brand-controlled script, makes a lot of digital content professionals do a double-take. The staff script? That’s not content. It’s not digital.

Digital, no. But content? Absolutely!

In-store staff scripts are a channel for centrally authored and brand-impacting words and messages, just like a website is. It is, in fact, a linchpin content asset because it could have driven further engagement with the other digital assets. In our case, not everyone at the tasting was even engaging with the digital content. All that the brand had to do to drive engagement and increase sales was think across channels.

Think back to the beginning of this article when I gave you what may have felt like extraneous detail about the night’s agenda. It was very intentional to have you try to visualize in this way. Training ourselves to mentally go on a full, rich, and physically detailed “virtual reality tour” of the consumer’s context is an essential skill for the modern strategist. That’s omnichannel thinking.

For any market, context-appropriate content for your human channels is a brand imperative. This means support desks, retail sales staff, field technicians, sales and presales engineers, business development managers, and all the other consumer touchpoints. They all own threads of communication that intertwine to sew the tapestry of brand experience for your audience.

Adaptive content defined

In The Language of Content Strategy, Charles Cooper said that adaptive content is:

“Content that is designed to adapt to the needs of the customer, not just cosmetically, but also in substance and capability.”

book cover-content strategy

The Language of Content Strategy: A handy reference

Adaptive content is content that is capable of these kinds of changes. The vast majority of content I see, read, or hear about out in the field is not.

To get from where most of us are — static content and layouts — to dynamic contextual personalization requires steadily increasing sophistication in both the source content and the interaction design. It also impacts the creation and delivery platforms that lie in between.

If you look at some much-discussed concepts in relation to each other, you can see a kind of continuum:

continuum-static to dynamic

Adaptive content is content that is ready to feed into responsive web design or a fully dynamic and personalized system. Simpler content adaptations can be achieved without extensive changes to the content itself. This covers you for things like personalizing:

  • Artwork
  • Links and recommendations
  • Offer boxes and ads

But the real meat of the content — especially long-form content like articles, marketing descriptions, how-tos, references, procedures, and more — requires that we invest in modeling and structuring our content and processes from the ground up with personalization in mind. Adaptive content is conceived, planned, and developed around the customer. Their context, their mood, their goals. This definition isn’t device- (or even technology-) specific. Adaptive content can cover all content, on all channels.

For practitioners or those with a more technical bent, I’ll be going deeper into what’s required to make content ready to adapt in this way later in future posts. Also see Jeff Eaton’s Battle for the Body Field for a look at the difference between simpler content types and content with more “meat in the body.”

It’s worth it

McKinsey states, “According to published reports, 48 percent of U.S. consumers believe companies need to do a better job of integrating their online and offline experiences.” Going back to the wine anecdote, that moment of elation when we thought: “Maybe this content will offer us this great feature we want” turned into disappointment.

Oh… it’s just another simple ol’ website.”

The wine was good, but no brand wants the memory of its product or interaction to create a disappointment speed bump along their customer’s journey.

You can do it, but you have to try

There are some technical hoops to leap through to get the kind of improved experience I’m describing. Most content platforms aren’t currently up to the task. But setting your bar at “What most content systems can do today” is a recipe for getting left behind in a market as fast-changing as ours.

Without the demand, the technology will never improve. Unless we start thinking and designing for an omnichannel experience that properly includes physical location and richly defined user contexts, market demand will never build up enough to drive the tech forward.

The Vegamar winery site is designed as an e-brochure with shopping cart feature instead of an intelligent service to support a rich, real-world experience. Simply by being so “normal” and by showing up in a context where there was so much potential left on the table (pun intended), the site actually had a negative impact on our experience.

Adaptive content is a key tactic to support a content strategy that might have made that experience surprising and delightful; something where the brand impression would be strong and resonant — an experience worth sharing — instead of adding an aftertaste of disappointment.

Why you can’t put off adaptive content any longer

You may have thought to yourself by now, that this sounds like a lot of work, and is probably far ahead of what your company is currently doing, thinking, or technically able to execute. If so, don’t worry. I believe you are in the majority. But it would be dangerous to let this lull you into a false sense of security. Organizations have developed all the puzzle pieces to put these solutions together. Every aspect and subsystem of an adaptive, dynamic, personalized content delivery platform and strategy has already been done. Your customers are more than ready. It is now a race to see who will meet the customer expectations first.

For many organizations, especially those in business-to-business or those with large, complex or regulated content sets, implementation will be a multi-year journey, with many iterations and evolutions along the way. Organizations struggle to transform themselves to keep pace with communications options and customer demand. Delivering major changes in two years might mean having gotten started two years ago.

Overall, the benefits vastly outweigh the costs, and the risk of doing nothing is no less than risking being left out of the conversations of the future.

The devil is, of course, in the details. In future posts on the topic, I plan to look at the techniques — applicable in any industry or business context — that this brand could have used to make things better.

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

Cover image by Joshua Earle via Unsplash

Author: Noz Urbina

Noz Urbina is a globally recognized content strategy consultant and trainer specializing in marketing and technical communication for multinational clients. He delivers frequent workshops and keynotes on cutting-edge content techniques, co-authored "Content Strategy: Connecting the dots between business, brand, and benefits," and tweets on @nozurbina. Noz founded Urbina Consulting and is Strategic Marketing Director and Events Chairperson for Congility.com.

Other posts by Noz Urbina