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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. This definition isn’t device- (or even technology-) specific. Adaptive content can cover all content, on all channels.

The urgency of supporting personalization that considers multiple channels is apparent from stats like this:

  • 94% of businesses say personalization is key to success (Source)
  • 48% of shoppers say they’d like to use a phone to shop while in stores (Source)

Every business model is impacted. We’re now in a multi-channel world where all consumers want tailored delivery.

As we explore adaptive content’s very significant potential, we will also define and contextualize omni-channel content strategy.

Omni-channel, personalization, and adaptive content

“Omni-channel” is a term that extends and supersedes multi-channel. Multi-channel (or cross-channel) refers to delivering content and considering the consumer experience on more than one channel. Omni-channel is about understanding and optimizing for the entire journey across all channels. This includes print and human channels like sales, training, and customer support in your organization or in channel partners.

A poorly executed omni-channel 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 omni-channel marketplace, 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.

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. 

Adaptive content supports multi-user and multi-device

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 and multi-user interactions.

The more that a brand’s digital service supports dynamic, 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.

Prestige Marketing quantifies the ROI, telling us conversion rates are 105% 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.

Omni-channel isn’t limited to the screen 

After multi-device comes adapting content strategy properly for multi-channel, and then omni-channel. 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 touch points.

They all own threads of communication that intertwine to sew the tapestry of brand experience for your audience. McKinsey states, “According to published reports, 48% of U.S. consumers believe companies need to do a better job of integrating their online and offline experiences.”

Content karma

The underlying ethos of content marketing and user-centric content strategy involves karma: The more real value you give to consumers, the more that will come back your way. The more we can make our content adaptive, the more we can realistically deliver tailored, high-value content without running out of budget, resources, or time.

We didn’t invent content marketing because we’re such clever marketers. Content marketing came to be because our audiences simply stopped listening. And who can blame them? The new model is based on attention-for-value-added exchanges rather than blanket messages. It’s a sustainable strategic approach to communication. It sure beats the days of just trying to out-shout the competition.

Adjust your content strategy for adaptive content personalization

Making content contextually appropriate for all the possible channels, devices, and scenarios can be overwhelming if you aren’t starting with a good content strategy. To begin the process, take a new look at the Five Ws – who, what, when, where, why. When it comes to adaptive content, you will have to address each “W” from two perspectives: that of your audience members—to find out who they really are—and that of your organization.

1. Who are your users?

Answer the Five Ws from the user’s perspective: To start off on the right course toward adaptive content, you need to run through all the Five Ws focused on users. You need to understand them and their goals, and then see how you can fit in value-add in a way that advances your goals.

2. What content would best support your users?

Don’t just write content, model and design adaptive content to add real user value: Well-designed content incorporates content features and abilities that are born of use cases and structural plans; it is content that was put through a research phase, architectural design, beta development, testing, optimization, and launch phases for all of its components.

3. When should adaptive content actually adapt?

Develop a set of business rules: Adaptive content has to know when it should change. That means defining rules that will tell your system when to display what content. When codified into a computer system, the rules provide your platform with the necessary content adaptation guidelines.

4. Where will you display it?

Define the presentation layer: Defining the presentation comes last, but you want to think about the fundamentals early in the strategic process. Bridge the gap between content and UX by specifying clear content designs and functions, based on user stories.

5. Why are you bothering to create adaptive content?

Build your business case:  Nothing is going to happen without business justification that’s been customized for your organization. Have a clear reason, and take it to the executives that have the most to gain. Try to win their support and build from there.

Adaptive content is cross-industry and future-proof

These Five Ws of adaptive content scale and apply to all types of businesses. They are appropriate for a prototype or for mounting an omni-channel content revolution in your enterprise, with as many iterations as necessary. In every sphere of business, people will benefit from the tailored experiences that adaptive content can facilitate.

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 B2B 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.

Image courtesy of Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute