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How to Adjust Your Content Strategy for Adaptive Content Personalization

adaptive-content-strategy In a recent CMI post, I explored the omni-channel technique of adaptive content. As a follow-up, I wanted to dive a bit more deeply into the changes marketers and content strategists will need to make, in terms of how we think about and plan our content models and content marketing strategies to actually make them adaptive.

The strategic need for adaptive content

An ever-increasing supply of statistics indicates that there’s tremendous consumer demand for cross-channel experiences. For example, Walker Sands’ 2014 study examining the future of retail found that 52% of consumers would be more likely to shop at a retailer offering in-store navigation on a mobile device, and 59% would be more likely to shop at a store offering self-checkout via a mobile device. In addition, digital “showrooming” has already become a common practice — and not just with tech-savvy millennials: Columbia Business School reports 74% of mobile shoppers who showroom in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada are older than 29, with 48% older than 40.

Of course, the need for omni-channel is not limited to B2C, retail, or even sales and marketing. Enterprise B2B organizations, in particular, have many compelling reasons to understand and adapt to the methods for creating omni-channel, content-driven experiences. For example, an omni-channel content strategy using adaptive content can drive pre-sale and marketing content, but it can be just as powerful for creating great post-sale documentation and knowledge bases, as well as a range of other purposes.

Basically, anything that touches the customer impacts the brand. Therefore, it’s important that we remove the divisions that have been built around our content — such as distinctions between online and offline, inter-department content creation silos, etc. Only then can we start to successfully implement adaptive content into our organizations in a strategic, manageable, and repeatable way.

The new core principle: Unify thinking

In the aforementioned adaptive content post, I used the increasingly common scenario of having digital devices (e.g., tablets) in a retail environment to illustrate that, instead of thinking about channels as discrete routes for information, we need to see each as a complementary piece of a bigger puzzle that makes up the consumer journey. But making content contextually appropriate for all these channels, devices, and scenarios can be overwhelming if you aren’t starting with a good content strategy.

To begin the process, you will need to take a new look at the “five Ws” (who, what, when, where, and why) that we often use to define the purpose of a given project — and the strategic direction it should take to get there. In fact, when it comes to adaptive content, you will have to address each “W” from two perspectives: that of your audience – to find out who they really are – and that of your organization. Following is a more detailed breakdown of the key considerations for adjusting your strategy to accommodate adaptive content:

1. Who are you talking to?

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. We need to understand them and their goals, and then see how we can fit in value-add in a way that advances our goals.

Who is the audience” is possibly the most deceptively simple question in modern communications. Our answers get vastly more complex as time goes on. With all the understanding of consumers and their behavior offered by today’s media and “Big Data” comes the imperative to do something with it. If you don’t, rest assured that your competition will. This means you need to get improved content and design processes in place, not just to set yourself apart from the crowd, but even to keep up with it.

User communities thrive when the metrics and knowledge that they generate across all these connections are used to optimize content and content strategies. Properly catered for, those users become brand ambassadors. Instead of time-worn demographics like “professional women under 45 looking for a new commuting vehicle” or user-interface-centric cases like “a user logs in wanting to download an instruction manual,” we want to generate rich, situational views of the user and his or her needs. Start asking questions such as:

  • Who are they currently working with? Who referred them to us? Who have they spoken to?
  • What mood are they in? What device are they on? What are their interests?
  • When did they last engage? When was their last positive or negative experience with us? When did the contacts in the network last engage?
  • Where were they before they got “on the grid”? Where are they at this moment? Are they nearby in terms of location? Are they in a car or on foot?
  • Why might they feel you are a brand to engage with at all?

The more five W questions you ask to understand your audience, the better – though how you go about researching the answers can vary widely: You may need to go visit users where they are and ask them directly; you may need to run interactive workshops with clients; or you may start with survey data … your approach will be defined by your business, your users, and their needs.

A word to the wise: Don’t forget that how you expose your knowledge to the consumer may require some sensitivity. In my last post, you may recall that I mentioned the need to maintain a delicate balance between showing understanding and attentiveness, and being overly invasive and pushing audiences away. This certainly applies here, as well.

Whatever your approach, you must have a plan for centralizing and leveraging this understanding across your organization. This is something content strategists already struggle with, even outside the context of adaptive content. As IBM’s Bill Payne, Vice President, CRM and Industries, once said, “Companies don’t know what they know … they don’t have a strategy that focuses around the customer and the data and using them in a proactive way.” But with omni-channel strategies, you must do everything possible to define and run through full virtual-reality dress rehearsals of the consumer’s real-world environment – and share the resulting research across teams. That is the only way to get the kind of perspective you’ll need to model content, interactions, and navigation properly and maintain consistency across the customer life cycle and different channels.

2. What content would best support your users?

Don’t just write content, model and design adaptive content to add real user value: Too many in the market think about content as written messages or messaging plus media assets. There are only a few voices in the discussion that would describe content as something you design like you would a product. Well-designed content isn’t just something that’s written with the audience and its goals in mind. It 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. To create well-designed content, we should:

  • Create rich personas
  • Model features and functions to support user goals
  • Nurture the consumer relationship
  • Launch, debug, and refine

Research, design, build, test, gather feedback, repeat. That’s a product. I tend to use “design” and “model” interchangeably because content modeling is the process of designing content’s structure. I address modeling in some of my talks and workshops. Keep an eye out for future posts going more in depth into this area. Content is a product that people pay for with their time (as per Ian Lurie, at Portent) and they expect something in return. We need to put in at least as much design work into content as we do when building things like website code or even physical products. HP, via Gilbane, reported that 90% of customers buy based on content, never having touched a product, meaning content plays a vital role as the product ambassador for billions of dollars a year in revenue.

Product and content development work on the same cycles. Diagram by Eric Ries, interpreted via Jonathon Colman, Facebook.

Organizations need to model content so that they are eventually able to personalize even small phrases. For example, in a post-sale or B2B environment for product data and service information, we could surface content relevant for specific locations (locations on a work site or even within a device or user interface), we could push parts lists or compile the right troubleshooting tasks for a given user and situation. We could facilitate a user with highly specific lists and indexes that say, “Use these spares here on this machine because today it is at this stage in its maintenance cycle.” In the retail space, we could swap generic phrases like “Contact us to speak to a representative,” with retail-oriented language, “Ask your shop assistant and they’ll be happy to tell you more.

But why not consider going a step further and implementing a digital “call button” like the ones used to alert flight attendants on planes. This is akin to a “call-a-rep-over” option from your app or website that triggers staff actions in the physical space. One of my contacts in enterprise software is exploring using algorithms in its products to detect when users appear “lost” – for example, when they have been clicking around for several minutes without accomplishing anything – and surfacing helpful value-added content that enhances the perceived value of the brand. This principle could be applied to various industries such as users lost walking around stores or even those “lost” in the interfaces of hardware products when evaluating or during early use after a purchase.

We need more granularity: Chances are, your content is not modeled today with structures that define such small “grains” of content or context. Creating a model that supports such granularity takes time and consideration. What specific phrases you use, for whom, and when can be something you define and improve over time, but before you adapt anything, you need to implement an adaptive model that has the ability to swap one phrase for another. That ability to improve and refine over time is the advantage of designing content carefully. Create content models with adaptive features, and then vary how you apply those features as your consumer conversations and analytics data evolve.

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, as per this example:

  • “When our page is being loaded by a user at our wine-tasting event, display: ‘These wines are featured on tonight’s tasting list,’ then put the selected wines first on the list. Put other wines under a different heading below.”
  • “When we don’t know where the user is located, use the page heading, ‘Our Wines,’ and allow them to order normally.”

These kinds of rules will tell your system when to display what content. When codified into a computer system, they provide your platform with the necessary content-adaptation guidelines. You can make content adaptive based on customized characteristics, like:

  • Physical location
  • Stage in the buying cycle
  • Recent purchase history
  • Date
  • Traffic source
  • Micro-conversions (For example, a customer’s click to zoom on a product image indicates interest but isn’t a full conversion. Thanks to Jonathon Colman for turning me on to that excellent term.)
Adaptive content + matching rules = personalized delivery.

This type of thinking is inherent to adaptive content. Matching small pieces of content with the appropriate context and delivering a personalized experience can deliver the user benefits today’s consumers want.

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.

Take for example, the scenario where you present content that embeds a video when shown on the desktop web but the same asset is going to be used on a Kindle two-color eBook reader. Basic digital readers don’t support video, so your content model needs to support the inclusion of two alternative media objects – one with a video file and a Kindle-appropriate alternative with a diagram or series of static images and captions. The asset adaptation would happen at publish time. However, if you are presenting on a smartwatch or Google Glass, you need well-defined fields for a compelling “short description” in your model that are suitable for Google Cards or similar layouts. On the desktop web, these would be simply the first lines or paragraph, but on smaller devices, they would be shown with only the titles above them to help users decide if they want to delve deeper by tapping or clicking. This is conceptually similar to the page title and snippet in a SERP (Search Engine Results Page) only built to be leveraged in your own deliverables according to device contexts.

Keep in mind some platforms such as wearables, as well as today’s modern SERPs (that use semantic models and microdata) do not allow you to choose how your visual layouts will be displayed. A smartwatch or Google Glass may want your content, but it will adapt it to its own content model, and display it according to its own visual rules. This means you must think carefully about how your content is managed in the source to be agile enough for all these outputs.

I am wearing Google Glass. Look, Ma! No hands! And no layout control either!

Non-digital channels are all possible destinations for content that might be shared via digital as well. These include assets like:

  • Brochures
  • Quick-start instruction cards
  • In-store displays and signage
  • Information slips inside packaging

These assets all would need to substitute diagrams or images for videos and media, while retaining the core messages of their digital counterparts. They may also have different phrase- and paragraph-length constraints. Whenever it facilitates users getting good, relevant, and accurate content, print should be generated from the same adaptive source content as digital. This content needs to be smart enough to properly handle the differences of the output medium.

I’ve had clients who got significant positive feedback from their customers after they supplemented heavy medical-device reference guides with quick-reference posters that could hang on a clinic’s wall. Sometimes a low-tech solution is the right one. Regardless of your approach, though, make sure it is well managed and integrated with the rest of your content ecosystem.

Finally, don’t forget people and the content that supports them. Training and reference material and scripts for sales, training, or support staff are just some content types that convey your message via human channels. To this internal audience, you might provide internal-only content that is similar to external versions but with additional guidance or cross-referencing to internal-only assets.

5. Why are you bothering to create adaptive content?

Build your business case: We already covered the why with some of the metrics that I shared in this article and my earlier one, but 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. Whether you do a training-wheels prototype or you get a seven-figure budget from the CEO will likely depend on your situation. (You can check out the video and slides from a session I presented on “Getting to the Power and the Purse Strings” for a bit more guidance.)

If you’re wondering where exactly you should get all this customer knowledge, for now I’m afraid the most accurate answer is “that’s something that should be covered in another article.” Adaptive content depends on you having understanding of what your customers need so that you can address their needs appropriately. If you don’t have an understanding of your customer, you have two options:

  1. Take some good guesses, prototype, and refine. In truth, many projects large and small start with this approach.
  2. Launch a research initiative to get an understanding.

Chances are that you probably have enough knowledge to start adapting for some contexts and roughly designed audience segments.

Content karma

As I see it, 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.

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. A small company might be able to change over its content quickly, but moving an existing large content set from static to adaptive is not trivial. It’s more than a single project. It’s a program, and it may take years. But we have few alternatives.

Starting a design may take different content professionals in very different directions. You could be sitting with consumers at a wine tasting to define your requirements, personas, and matching rules, or you could be looking over the shoulder of a field technician to define what content he needs when repairing a blood-gas analyzer. You could be considering how someone buys sneakers in a retail store or how a CMO decides to change over her enterprise CRM software platform. In every sphere of business, people will benefit from the tailored experiences that adaptive content can facilitate. Their benefit will end up being your benefit, when the content karma wheel swings back around.

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