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How to Create a Not-Awkward Personalization Strategy

Every morning, you jog the same route. You’ve come to recognize the faces of your fellow runners, greeting them with a smile (pre-mask days) and now a nod (with mask).

But today is different. Every time you encounter a regular, they wish you a happy birthday.

Wait, what? How did they know it was your birthday when you only know them by sight?

It’s more than a little awkward.

And yet, that’s how many brands treat their audiences. They personalize the connection because they have the data – regardless of whether audience members see the relationship the same way or even recognize there is a relationship.

But aren’t you, as a content marketer, supposed to learn as much about your audience as you can? Is it wrong to use the information you’ve collected from and about them? Can you do it in a way that doesn’t come off as awkward at best and creepy at worst?

We got great advice from some of the presenters at the upcoming ContentTECH Summit.

Yes, you need a strategy

“Personalization can easily go too far if you aren’t keeping consent and expectations in mind,” says Charles Farina, director of growth and development at Adswerve.

For example, he’s seen B2B companies use site visitors’ ISP addresses to identify their company and then insert that company’s name into website messaging. “User surveys have shown that this has a high probability of making some of those users uncomfortable since they don’t understand how you know who they work for when it’s their first time visiting you,” Charles says.

You cross the line into creepy when you personalize before you have an actual relationship with and ask for consent from your users, he says.

Don’t personalize content before you have a real relationship w/ and consent from your users, says @CharlesFarina via @CMIContent #ContentTECH Share on X

That’s why every brand should create a deliberate personalization or decision-making process, not something cobbled together on a case-by-case basis by those on the content marketing frontlines.

Ask the essential question

Vishal Khanna, vice president of marketing and communications at HealthPrize Technologies, says the go or no-go decision for personalizing content should boil down to a single question: Is personalization integral to achieving success?

If it is, detail the goal for each piece of content, nurture campaign, etc. What does your brand want to achieve by personalizing it?

Allison Wert, senior marketing strategist at SmartBug Media, says brands must make personalization about providing value to the audience, not showing off how well they can “stalk” their prospects.

Or, as content strategist and marketing consultant Liz Willits explains, “It’s personalizing with purpose. Use personalization to help your audience and deliver content that solves their problems. For example, ask for your audience’s interests, questions, or pain points on your email sign-up form. Then, deliver segmented emails that align with their interests, answer their questions, or solve their pain points.”

Jeff Coyle, co-founder and chief product officer at MarketMuse, agrees: “An effective personalization strategy can be account-specific, industry-specific, persona-specific, channel-specific – as long as there are unique insights for your audience and it’s written to appeal to the types of content they frequently consume.”

Talk with the audience

Don’t just take their data, invite your audience into the personalization process. Ask about their preferences upfront, says Zontee Hou, co-lead of consulting at Convince & Convert. Think of it as letting them create their choose-your-adventure book.

Don’t just take your audience’s data. Invite them into the personalization process, says @ZonteeHou via @CMIContent #ContentTECH Share on X

Asking your audience doesn’t require complicated tracking. For example, on your homepage, ask visitors to select from three use cases. “It’s more than likely that your users will pick the one that sounds most like them,” Zontee says. “People crave personalization and relevance.”

Another way to simplify your personalization decision-making is to step away from the one-to-one (or brand-to-one) tactics. Your content rarely should be that personal. Instead, think about personalizing content by segments or personas (more on how to do this later).

By focusing on a group and not one person, you can avoid what Edison Research’s Tom Webster calls the “optimization trap,” according to Christopher S. Penn, chief data scientist at Trust Insights. The optimization trap occurs when you over-optimize and make something so personalized that it might make one person happy, but everyone else unhappy.

“Brands should segment and build content for different aspects of their audience but avoid leaving out segments of people unless there’s a conscious, strategic decision to do so,” Chris says.

He raises an important point – a personalization strategy shouldn’t be used as a reason to avoid the need for inclusivity in your content marketing. Be deliberate but not exclusionary.

You also should be careful with a personalization strategy that only matches your audience’s exact interests, says Andrew Cafourek, founder of Lat Long.

“We all bear some ethical responsibility to break down echo chambers and expose our audiences to topics and information beyond their immediate view,” he says. “As you define your personalization strategy, also consider how your library of content can serve to extend rather than simply cater to your audience’s perspective.”

Build trust and transparency

Be upfront about how the data collected will be used, advises Cathy McKnight, vice president of strategy and consulting at The Content Advisory.

Sure, you may need to include a legal policy that few will read (yet most will accept blindly). But you should still do more than post a standard disclaimer. Explain – in easy-to-understand language – how the data will be used to provide value to the audience, as well as how it won’t be used. Include examples if they might help your audience better understand.

Explain in simple terms how you’ll use audience data to provide value. @anngynn rounds up more personalization advice from #ContentTECH speakers via @CMIContent Share on X

Your explanation could be as simple as: “We appreciate you sharing more about your needs and interests with us. We respect the trust you place in us. We will use the information to deliver content that we believe will help solve your challenges, pique your interest, or supplement your current connection to our brand. We will never use that information to deceive or trick you.”

Then make sure your strategy and processes deliver on those promises – that’s how you build and sustain your audience’s trust. To accomplish that, you need a brand personalization framework.

Work with an expert, such as a third-party insights or research firm, to build robust customer personas and journey maps, advises Amy Balliett, founder and CEO of Killer Visual Strategies.

Then, she says, share that information with the creative team so they can figure out how to bring those insights to life and properly speak to those personas through all aspects of your content experience – from imagery selection and illustration styles to your messaging and tone.

Be smart about personalization

With a solid personalization strategy in place, you can take customization to the next level – one that will be welcomed by your audience.

“Create the ‘Spotify recommendation algorithm’ for your content marketing,” says Deborah Carver, principal consultant at The Content Technologist. “If you have a deep bench of content for a user to choose from, a personalized recommendation system that takes into account browsing preferences, favorite topics, and content types is a great idea.”

As Megan Gilhooly, vice president of customer experience at Zoomin Software, says: “Personalized content works when a brand targets the right segment in a way that is helpful.

“Netflix has the ability to deliver suggestions based on age, race, religion, gender, birth date, last log-in date, last viewed, marital status, and just about any other dimension you can imagine. Personalizing content suggestions based on what I last viewed (you might also like…), gender, and age (in most cases) totally makes sense. However, if Netflix displayed shows liked by other people that share my birthday, I can’t imagine that being helpful.”

And finally, like all good strategies, you need to measure your wins and misses. While your answer will be specific to your goals, Jeff offers a good way to know when your personalization is too personal: “If you’re proving high conversion on personalized outreach, you’re not overdoing it.”

Go more in depth into content development processes with these and other presenters at ContentTECH Summit Aug. 10 to 12. Register today.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute