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Study Reveals 8 Tips on How to Influence Behavior With Personalized Content


How do you make effective, engaging content that gets people to take action? Take some lessons from Carlos Abler, leader of content marketing strategy for 3M Global eTransformation. At the Intelligent Content Conference, Carlos demonstrated how personalized content can not only change behavior but also transform lives.

In his presentation about a University of Michigan case study, he described how a six-week program of personalized online content reduced smoking and increased healthy behaviors for the young adults who were enrolled in the study.

What does a smoking cessation study offer to marketers? Few of us are tasked with changing addictive behaviors, but we all need to make our content more effective in driving audience behavior that aligns with our organizations’ goals.

If personalized content has the power to change addictive behaviors, imagine what it can do for marketers who have more modest goals. Imagine the potential brand loyalty that could result if you personalized your content in a way that improved the lives of your target audience.

Design content to deliver value

Carlos encourages organizations to think about content as an asset. He says that content isn’t limited to describing the value of some other product. It can deliver value intrinsically. He believes that organizations need to function more like publishers.

Content isn’t limited to describing the value of some other product. @Carlos_Abler #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Tip 1: Think like a publisher, and consider your content a product – valuable in its own right – even if you don’t sell that content.

Carlos combines content and technology to deliver highly engaging content. Coming from the nonprofit world, Carlos knew content could be used as a valuable asset to enrich human lives. Later in his career, he learned that businesses also could benefit from using content and technology to deliver more holistic value – in a way that typical promotional forms of marketing could not.

As an example, Carlos described his work with Johnson & Johnson. In that project, he helped create wellness tools for people with diabetes. These tools helped people with diabetes live healthier lives by significantly reducing the effort required to stay healthy. Customers received free automated meal and exercise planners and educational content licensed from credible healthcare sources. These tools created stronger brand awareness and loyalty for Johnson & Johnson, and empowered people to take better care of themselves.

Tip 2: Establish a win-win call to action, one that includes benefits for both the audience and the organization. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What kind of behavioral change do we want to see?
  • How does this change benefit our audience?
  • How does it benefit the organization?

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Personalize content to change behavior

Personalized content has the potential to change lives. The more you know about your audience, the better your chances of influencing people’s behavior.

The more you know about your audience, the better your chances of influencing people’s behavior. Click To Tweet

Testing the power of personalized content, Carlos became involved in the smoking cessation study with University of Michigan that targeted young adults who smoke. That audience is in a critical transition period for the development of healthy behaviors, so intervention during this time can improve long-term health outcomes.

The study’s researchers believed that implementing an intelligent content system to deliver information tailored for each participant would result in the highest rate of smoking cessation. On the other hand, they believed that delivering general health information would have a weaker effect. They tested this hypothesis.

Collect audience information

To personalize the content, the researchers needed to collect information about each participant. The University of Michigan team consulted with counselors and motivational psychologists to identify key inputs for developing personalized content. These inputs included psychographic factors (values, opinions, interests) revealed through psychological frameworks such as Meyers-Briggs and Hope Theory; behavioral inputs such as health habits and history; and environmental influences such as friends and loved ones. The researchers created a survey incorporating these factors to collect information about each participant and establish baseline profiles for use in personalizing the content.

Tip 3: Learn as much as you can about your audience. Go beyond assumptions about audience demographics to understand individuals. New technologies can help bridge the knowledge gap. For example, consider building a survey into your content delivery platform. Other technologies, such as social media and big data analysis, show promise in providing insights to help you shape your content in powerful ways.

Build an engaging interface

Tying into the popularity of reality entertainment, the study was presented as an online personal health makeover called RealU2. RealU2 presented smoking cessation as just one part of the program’s goals to avoid alienating participants who are prone to resist smoking interventions and who might bias the results. To mask the smoking emphasis, the study was positioned more broadly across multiple behaviors, including eating breakfast, exercising, and reducing alcohol consumption. Participant’s individual health goals and progress became a central part of the site experience.

Each participant customized an avatar (a digital character), which served as the host of the online personal makeover show. Avatars and virtual characters are a common engagement strategy in online gaming environments designed for young adults.

Tip 4: Enable your audience to customize the content in fun and engaging ways.



Test the content

The researchers divided the participants (nearly 1,700 young adult smokers) into three groups to compare delivery of the following:

  • General lifestyle content (trial group Tx1, the control)
  • Personalized health information (trial group Tx2)
  • Personalized health information plus online video-based peer coaching (trial group Tx3)

As part of the six-week online health program, participants were asked to set weekly goals related to eating breakfast, exercising, consuming alcohol, and smoking cigarettes. Eligibility criteria included age (18-30 years) and smoking status (any cigarette use in the previous 30 days). The primary outcome was self-reported 30-day smoking abstinence measured 12 weeks after enrollment.

Tip 5: Think like a researcher. Test your content, measure the results, and modify your strategies based on what you learn.

Choose your platform and people carefully

The researchers used an open-source software package, The Michigan Tailoring System, to create their intelligent content engine. The Michigan Tailoring System enables writers to create highly structured health care-related information. This engine manages and delivers personalized content – content designed for an individual based on data known about that individual.

Tip 6: Investigate platforms that can adapt content based on user input to create a unique experience for each audience member.

The psychographic, demographic, and health information collected at the beginning of the study became algorithmic factors in each participant profile. Answers to the psychometric questions and weekly goals that participants made affected the content delivered to the subjects in two trial groups (Tx2 and Tx3). For these two audiences, content was personalized down to the sentence fragment. Hundreds of messages were written supporting thousands of content variations. Subjects in the control group (Tx1) received general lifestyle information – not personalized content.

Tip 7: Build a team of experts. Creating effective, personalized content requires a broad range of skills. Get to know your technical staff, including your technical writers and engineering staff.


The University of Michigan smoking cessation study employed an intelligent content system to deliver personalized health messages to participants in two of three trial groups. Content marketers could benefit from investigating personalization technologies suited to deliver unique experiences to their audience members.

Couple personalized content with personal attention

Delivering personalized content made a big difference in outcomes in the Michigan study. Twenty-three percent of participants who received personalized content abstained from smoking for 30 days after the study; add in video-peer counseling, and the abstinence rate jumped to 31%. Compare that to the control group: Only 11% of those participants who received general lifestyle content abstained from smoking for 30 days.

Researchers saw similar results with improvements in other health behaviors. Personalized content resulted in 39 to 41% of participants adopting three or four healthy behaviors over the course of the study. Only 19% of participants who received general (not personalized) content adopted the same number of healthy behaviors. (See tables below or the article.)

What does this mean for content marketers? Personalized content is powerful. Add contact with a trusted adviser (for example, a salesperson) to get even greater benefits – that is, more behavioral change in your audience.

Tip 8: Include your sales force in your content strategy, especially when your customers need consultative or diagnostic guidance. Personalized content can only take you so far. Offer opportunities for your audience to connect with a real person.

Personalized content + opportunities to connect with a real person = maximum influence on behavior. Click To Tweet



Personalized content markedly reduced smoking and increased healthy behaviors in this study. If personalized content can change addictive behaviors, imagine what it could do for the audiences of content marketers who have more modest goals.


Want to create engaging content that changes behavior? Personalized content makes a difference, as demonstrated in this study. I’m excited about the potential benefits of personalized content for people and organizations. I’d be interested to hear from you on how you are using a combination of content and technology to build brand loyalty and improve the lives of your customers. Please comment.

Want to learn more about how to leverage intelligent content to elevate your content marketing? Register today for the Intelligent Content Conference March 7-9 in Las Vegas.

Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via