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: 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.


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.


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

Other posts by Noz Urbina

  • Roger C. Parker

    Dear Noz: Thank you for your thoughtful, detailed treatment of the topic. Your example and “could have been’s” analysis was really helpful.

    My biggest takeaway is the gap revealed by the yearly surveys of small and medium sized firms (documented content plans, someone in charge, delegation, etc.) and the possibilities that today’s technology makes possible.

    The longer firms delay the “acknowledged basics,” the further and further they will fall behind adopting advanced tactics like adaptive content.

    • B. Noz Urbina

      Thanks, Roger. I agree with you thoughts. I think that we’re at a turning point and there will be a growing gap between those that skill-up and tool-up for what is possible today and those that think that mobile (and wearable) are just new discrete channels that don’t need to be integrated into an overall platform and strategy.

      I have the luck of usually getting contracted by some very forward-thinking firms, but when I run a workshop for example, I see the main bulk of the market is setting themselves up to get left behind across the next 5 years. A dangerous game to play with channels and formats popping up like mushrooms!

      • Roger C. Parker

        Your article continues to resonate with me, emphasizing the gap between what can be done, and what is often done.

        It reminded me of a myopia-caused missed opportunity that I observed about 8-10 years ago. There was a very astute regional retailer of new and used CDs, i.e., energetic, musical, and open till 11 PM environment.

        They had a computer-based rewards program, and scanned the artist and title of every CD you purchased, whether new or used. So, you accumulated “points” with each purchase.

        So, they “knew” what my musical interests were, not only be genre, but also by performer. They also knew my email address and phone.

        Yet, I never received an email informing me about new releases in my favorite genres or by my favorite artists. Likewise, although my buying history showed up on the computer screen, the clerk never said, “Hey, Roger, did you check-out Buddy Guy’s new CD?”

        Either way, I would have **thanked them** because of the “useful content” they were sharing–even as I dug deeper into my pockets!

        Lost opportunities caused by myopia are really sad to watch.

        • B. Noz Urbina

          That’s a great example! Yes – we’re in an age where the opportunities missed are nothing but *staggering*. Organisations are being outstripped by technical evolution. Most aren’t even web savvy yet, much less mobile, social, wearable, augmented – to say nothing of stringing them together into a coherent omnichannel orchestra. Instead there are virtuosos and beginners all hammering at their instruments in hopes that the song is pleasing.

          Still, I have found that there are more than enough who *want* to get up to speed – at least properly handling the main few channels they’re currently most invested in – to have a fun and stimulating career in this industry. There’s nowhere I’d rather be than working in communication right now.

  • JD Adam

    This is an excellent piece! Firstly, you defined your terms, I’m olde 🙂 Principals within differing climates haven’t changed, but terms certainly have. My experience, minus a web page that once may have likely been an Account Executive, proved this to be sound business practice and will likely be sucessfull for your clients. I’m horrified at the free-for-all of Companies buying out well known brands, locally or globally and neglecting the very consumers that built the firm into a successful enough venture to have a market price. They appear to be above the need to share their values, and you see in fact they suffer for it. Branding the same message with the same Logo seems like a no-brainer. The difference now is the Omni-Channel, opening a door into a fabulous aray of creativity. Some can get lost in the joy of creating and if the Branding values (taken from the Organization’s Mission Statement) are not maintained, it will miss the mark.
    I found the process of learning, discovering and practicing these principals led my clients into long term B/B and B/C relationships founded on trust and integrity.

    • B. Noz Urbina

      Thanks, JD! This is a topic I am passionate about. I think there’s so much potential and we’re only at the very early days. I gave a talk last night in front of 150 clever young UX professionals, and when I asked if they knew what ‘Content modelling’ was, *1* hand went up. That’s a sad state of affairs. We need to get a hold of our brand across all channels or we present the market a fragmented – if not downright confusing – message. It’s easy for us to leap on each new channel and throw a team and creative at it, but if we don’t keep consistent with ourselves we’re in great danger of losing the message in the fray.

      • JD Adam

        Well, you know your business, and you have “media” outlets that culminate exponentially almost daily! I’ve been thinking about it and especially in regard to keeping the “commonality” of the core message, I think I mentioned Mission Statement as the core reminder for every media, and then there’s Vision Statement (in my terms perhaps you can help me update the language) Mission statements determine the ethical & moral commitment to a community; what we call “Good Neighbor Practices” of a firm. The Vision Statement is the announcement of how a firm, at this time, intends to fulfill their “Mission”, the Vision Statement can change as different opportunities arise, but always information must be linked back to the “Mission Statement” I hope this makes sense to you really smart professionals of today? And you are working across a wide area of specialized knowledge professionals, many of which have no training in classic “propaganda” :), and a lot of know how and their own ideas, it’s loose anyway, as all creative fields must be, but these may help to explain without a lot of interference in their work processes, just what their main focus needs to be, and they can color in with whatever “paints” they work with! It’s new, it’s growing, yet principals, as this article has so brilliantly pointed out, remain as true. Many times, it was myself who had to develop their Mission and Vision Statements. I worked with small business and start-ups so that is easier than with some large Corporations who often cannot agree on either of these with a Board. Good Luck!

        • B. Noz Urbina

          Thanks, JD. I do find that useful and comprehensible. Although technology is forcing another layer of complexity on top of things. Keeping your core principles in place (mission/vision-level), ensures people don’t wander too far off the tune (see my music metaphor in my conversation with Roger), but they won’t ensure information integrity. They can’t make sure that when “Deal ends May 30th” becomes “June 5th” that that change is reflected ASAP across 6 channels, 4 formats and 50 device form factors. That takes process and content storage techniques we’ve just never needed before. So the heart is timeless, but there’s a new layer over the outside which many are getting their heads around for the first time.

  • Steve C

    Great article Noz, and timely I think. I’m glad you mentioned your experience of speaking to a group of UX professionals and their lack of understanding about content modelling. For me, this is still one of the biggest challenges in the pursuit of adaptive and responsive experiences. It’s not a case of design and development at the device end but, as you clearly indicate, more a question of designing and creating content that will satisfy these demands.

    I look forward to your future posts on this topic.

    • B. Noz Urbina

      Thanks, Steve. “…designing and creating content that will satisfy these demands” that about nails it. I am trying to bring the “Design your content” message to anyone who’ll listen. 🙂 I was talking to the UX folk about wearables and was kicking myself when I forgot to mention that for many wearables (.e.g. Google Glass Cards or smart watches) you often don’t get to control layouts or wireframes at all. You must map your content model to their content model and the device then imposes its layout at display time. Take away wireframes from most UX designers and say “just design for content” and you’ll have a series of heart attacks on your hands.

  • B. Noz Urbina

    If you liked this post, also on the CMI blog is the follow-up. It’s just as, if not more, useful to the content marketer: