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Intelligent Content: What Does ‘Adaptive’ Mean?


For an updated write-up of this article, see Adaptive Content: The Way to Your Customer’s Heart.

Hey, there. I know you. I understand where you are. I get what you’re going through. I just might have what you need right now.

If adaptive content could speak to its recipients, that’s what it would sound like.

Imagine your organization’s content serving people in such personal, useful ways that it stirs feelings for your brand. What impact might those feelings have on your business? (Hint: Consider this tagline, brought to us by the folks at Connective DX: “Companies that are loved win.”)

As you ponder the impact that more customer love could have on your business, allow me to give you a preview of this article’s sections:

  • Why this article?
  • What does “adaptive content” mean?
  • How is adaptive content different from responsive design?
  • Adaptive content and personalization
  • How to get started with adaptive content

Why this article?

This is one of six articles discussing Ann Rockley’s definition of intelligent content:*

Intelligent content is content that’s structurally rich and semantically categorized and therefore automatically discoverable, reusable, reconfigurable, and adaptable.

This article focuses on the definition’s sixth element: adaptability. (I hear adaptive more than adaptable these days, so I use that term in this article.)

What does ‘adaptive content’ mean?

Adaptive content is content that can, at each instance of use, change (adapt) – not just in appearance but in substance – based on a number of factors. What factors? Consider this tweet from a recent talk by Karen McGrane.


Karen McGrane’s slide lists more than a dozen factors that might determine the way content could adapt to a given instance of use.

Look at all the factors Karen lists:

  • The device (operating system, mobile, tablet, desktop, screen resolution)
  • The context (time, location, velocity, humidity, temperature)
  • The person (age, gender, stage of life, language, relationships)

Does your organization’s content have the built-in smarts to adapt to all those factors? I think I can answer that question: No, it doesn’t. Don’t feel bad; no one’s does. It’s hard to conceive of any content needing to be that intelligent. Karen’s list isn’t a set of shoulds. It’s a peek into a realm of possibility, a set of things to consider – strategically – as you imagine the experiences you want your customers and prospective customers to have with your content. 

How is adaptive content different from responsive design?

Adaptivity goes beyond responsive design – that is, it goes beyond changes in layout (as shown here). Adaptive content enables dynamic, tailored delivery of the content itself.


Content delivered into a responsive design changes cosmetically, not adaptively. The content itself doesn’t change. It simply reflows to accommodate a device’s screen size and orientation, as shown in these screenshots of the Intelligent Content Conference Agenda page on a smartphone.

In The Language of Content Strategy, Charles Cooper defines adaptive content this way:

[Adaptive] content is designed to adapt to the needs of the customer, not just cosmetically, but also in substance and in capability. Adaptive content automatically responds to the screen size and orientation of any device, but goes further by displaying relevant content that takes full advantage of the specific capabilities of the device being used.

Here’s how Noz Urbina explains the difference in a slightly techier way. (I quote here from a comment Noz made in reviewing a draft of this article.)

Adaptive content doesn’t know if it’s in a responsive or nonresponsive website. It knows who it’s for and where/when it should be shown because it’s semantically/structurally rich and categorized (using metadata).

Examples of adaptive content

Here’s an example of content adapting for device types. For the same bit of instruction – a single chunk of content in a content management system – people on the receiving end might read click on a laptop, read tap on a tablet, and hear say select in a car’s GPS.


Adaptive content goes beyond responsive design. The content itself changes according to a number of factors: the device, the context, the person. For example, an adaptive instruction might show up as click on a laptop, tap on a tablet, and say select in a car’s GPS. That’s content adapting for the device. To deliver adaptive experiences, you have to put all the desired content variations – in this case click, tap, and say select – into your content management system, and you have to give the system the clues (metadata) it needs to figure out which content to deliver where and when.

Here’s another example of adaptive content. Whatever you’re describing (a term, a product, a podcast, a tourist attraction … anything), let’s say you create both a long and a short description. The long description is automatically delivered to laptops. The short description is automatically delivered to smartphones. For these automatic deliveries to work, two things have to happen:

  1. The source content has to include both descriptions, each one semantically tagged – maybe “longdesc” and “shortdesc.”
  2. The content-distribution system has to understand what to do when it’s time to send those tagged descriptions to a given device.

For yet another example, read Noz’s wine-tasting story, in which he declares, “Wow! I just lived an adaptive content moment!”

Adaptive content and personalization

Adaptive content is often personalized content. Here’s how Kevin P. Nichols defines personalization:

The practice of targeting content to users based on one or more of the following: who they are; where they are; when, why, and how they access the content; and what device they use to access it.

Noz describes adaptive content and personalization in his article (from which I’ve drawn all of his quotations below), 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…

To be successful at delivering a personalized experience … 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.

Some people suggest considering ways to personalize content beyond the web – for example, in email campaigns or in old-fashioned, human-to-human interactions between customers and employees, including “support desks, retail sales staff, field technicians, sales and presales engineers, business development managers, and all the other consumer touch points,” Noz says. “They all own threads of communication that intertwine to sew the tapestry of brand experience for your audience.”

Why should marketers care about personalizing content? As Kristen Hicks says,

“Businesses that have embraced adaptive content have seen huge returns. Website visitors who see content based on what the business already knows about them convert three to 10 times more than non-personalized content viewers. Those are the kinds of numbers of which all marketers dream.”

How to get started with adaptive content

Ready to stop dreaming and start doing? Here are some things you can do to get started toward your own goal of creating content that “can be adapted with little or no human intervention”:

  1. Pick your context factors. Prioritize one or two context factors that you want your content to adapt to. What kind of personalization would your customers most value? See Karen McGrane’s list above for some of the many possibilities.
  2. Pick your content variations. Decide which content variations your content developers need to create consistently. For example, you might need “longdesc” and “shortdesc” text for every product or every podcast. You might need a set of device-specific terms, like click, tap, and say select, in every set of instructions. Start with the high-value variations; get those working before adding more.
  3. Pick your business rules. Adaptive content “has to know when it should change,” Noz says. “That means defining rules that will tell your system when to display what content.”

Of course, you may have to pick your system, too. A content management system, that is.

A lot goes into creating meaningfully adaptive experiences with your content. Throughout the process of making decisions and implementing them, lots of people from various business and technical teams – and, wherever possible, customers – need to collaborate (as in debate, ignore each other, persist, bring donuts, listen, research, share, persuade, celebrate, argue, bring more donuts). You’ll need to test, train, fail, learn, and modify as you go.

You knew it wouldn’t be easy.


Your organization’s success may rest on creating content that can adapt to a variety of devices, to user-specific information, or to any number of other factors – content that basically says, Hey, there. I know you. I understand where you are. I get what you’re going through. I just might have what you need right now.

To create content that’s this easy and useful on the receiving end, you have to do a lot of things that may seem hard. The good news is that those hard things are becoming more and more possible to achieve. (Your competitors are figuring that out, too.)

Are you ready to take the first steps? Have you already taken some steps? If so, what challenges have you confronted? What success stories can you tell? Please let us know in a comment below.

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This article draws from conversations with Ann Rockley and from her book, co-authored with Charles Cooper, Managing Enterprise Content: A Unified Content Strategy, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: New Riders, 2012). At Ann’s request, I have changed the original phrase “unified content” to “intelligent content.”

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute