The Interesting (and not-so-complex) Content/Personalization Relationship

Over the last few weeks, I have delved into my predictions for the year — specifically, the three areas marketers and brands need to dig into to get ahead. My last post focused on a very foundational concept and practice: conversion rate optimization. The goal is to reset our collective view of what “conversion” can and should mean — given today’s always-on, highly complex, and increasingly integrated customer landscape — for the benefit of our brands and the industry as a whole. And now, it is time to move on to part two of the conversation: content personalization.

So, you probably know I have talked a lot about personalization over the last few years, always coming at it with a data-first point of view. For me, personalization has always been unquestionably tied to different marketing buckets like data, algorithmic learning, personas, and segmentation — the real meat and potatoes of effectively delivering relevance at scale. When you talk about content personalization, there is still, of course, that data connection; without it, “content personalization” simply would not exist.

Our Content Obsession
So, why the focus on content personalization? And why now? Just like conversion-rate optimization (CRO), the personalization game has changed tremendously in the last few years. The concept of personalization — and even real-life execution — are reaching critical mass. I would not go so far as to say that we are seeing large-scale maturity and adoption, but the spark has been ignited, and there is no dousing this fast-burning flame. What is fueling it? A simple, but equally fiery, concept: we are OBSESSED with content.

And it is (mostly) a good thing.

Our obsession sits deep in the content-marketing conversation — a conversation that has, both directly and indirectly, lead to a mass proliferation of content. Until now, it has seemed that content marketing = more, more, more in a totally unabashed way. Even marketers who acknowledged that content marketing, at the end of the day, was an exercise in personalization still wound up going the more-content route, often disregarding the highest performing or most personalized in the bunch.

Also contributing to the “more” of it all is the fact that personalization is simply content-hungry. Sounds strange, right? Think about it: we have always talked about personalization engines being data-hungry. However, now, to keep up with the scale of personalization efforts and the granularity of those campaigns — think millions of segments of one — our ability to produce, assemble, and deliver great content needs to keep pace with our ability to decide, analyze, and model around the individual puzzle pieces that inform relevance.

Today’s Content Personalization
And I am definitely not alone in my thinking. Joe Pulizzi, the Executive Director of the Content Marketing Institute, said it best: “There is no more room in the world for content that doesn’t add value to its intended audience in some way,” he explained. “That means most content is, in a word, horrible.” So, what do consumers crave if not more, more, more? “There is always room for amazing information that gets people thinking, feeling, acting differently,” says Joe. “Give me some more of that!”

Joe’s words are music to my ears. Today’s personalization hinges on everything from the way we think about content, to what is considered content, to the particular platform and how deeply we marry consumers with specific content and choices. All of these considerations directly inform brands’ next steps in the space, including the type of content they will create, how they will deliver it, how they will ensure relevant moments resonate, and how consumers move through the conversion funnel.

What Content Personalization Looks Like Today
Given everything that is feeding into this large-scale evolution, it is no surprise that effective content personalization looks a lot different than it did before. Some good examples? McDonald’s Canada launched an “Our Food, Your Questions” campaign, answering more than 10,000 customer questions regarding their menu items. Some were good, some were bad, and some were downright ugly; but no matter the theme or the tone, McDonald’s responded. It was a content-rooted customer-service play, personalized to the unique concerns and preferences of the masses — and it worked. In an interview, CMO Joel Yashinksy explained, “If you have a good story to tell, tell it. But you have to do it in a way that’s authentic, and you have to have that conversation with the customer. You can’t just preach to the consumer these things that you know are true. You have to engage them so that they can come to learn it and believe it and build that trust with you.” A win for customer service, and a win for content personalization.

Other innovative examples include apparel-delivery services like Bombfell and Stitchfix. In this case, the content is the apparel that is being personalized based on not only the subscriber’s expressed preferences, but also data detailing what similarly surveyed customers liked and did not like. It is a mix of data-driven personalization and human touch — and it is great.

These are just a few of the many examples swirling around in the content-personalization universe right now. But no matter what you are fixated on, one thing is clear: content personalization has come to represent something else — something bigger, better, and incredibly powerful. Today’s content personalization is truly the intersection of customer experiences and marketing mandates. And that, I would argue, is unparalleled in our business. Where else does everyone truly win? Where else are you addressing the need for rich experiences paired with satisfying consumer demands, and as a direct result, nailing your conversion goals and hitting the bottom line? Only here and only with effective, efficient content personalization.

See why it is so important?

When More Content Does Equal More Personalization
That said, while there is an incredible emphasis on content and even content marketing — the McDonalds, the Amazons, the Netflixes, and the Bombfells of the world — it is important to take a step back and ensure we are all adding a critical layer of content personalization that comes with it. Content is critical, but are we allowing ourselves to become so razor-focused on the proliferation of that content — the assets, the blogging, the creative development — that we are forgetting that people have natural bandwidths?

Granted, I am not suggesting that we stop creating content or cultivating content-marketing moments. What I am saying is that this is just another argument for bigger, better, deeper content personalization. People simply cannot consume all of the great content out there — even if it is relevant to them and their experiences — so are we personalizing those content experiences to meet these inherent needs? What we develop and push into the universe must be spot-on. How we use context — hyperlocal experiences, mobile connectivity — really needs to resonate. Now, more than ever before, we cannot just talk about general personalization. In this period of explosive content proliferation, we need to constantly be thinking about content personalization as an aspect of everything we are producing and pushing into the world.

Understanding Content Velocity
Another slice of the conversation centers on content velocity, something my content-expert colleague, Loni Stark, writes about fairly frequently. “Content marketing has become a critical focus as brands realize they need to create, manage and deliver relevant and delightful content across the customer journey,” she explains. “Content velocity, how quick a brand can harness creativity and marshall it into experiences that reach the intended audiences at the right moments is a defining competitive advantage in this digital age.” It is a vital piece of the content-personalization conversation: how quickly can you create and deliver those spot-on experiences to the right consumer at the right moment in time. Content velocity is what enables us to deliver relevance at scale. And given the glut of content circulating at any given moment, how can you cut through the clutter, leveraging even more personalization (see above), to add that layer of criticality and relevance?

That is the Holy Grail: personalized content, personalized to platform preferences and personalized to that very moment in time. To fuel our decisioning, we have tapped in to the data we have collected, and from there, made the best possible and most personalized content — all in the last millisecond we have available. The stars align, and we are one important step closer to creating greater relevance at scale.

Through that lens, then, what it really comes down to is our ability to bring the creative and content worlds together with the delivery of that content. It is about delivering personalized experiences — not webpages but actual experiences. Again, it is highly dependent on not only your ability to decide, analyze, and model quickly so you can make those rapid-fire targeting choices — cue automation and machine learning — but also your capacity to instantly assemble the right experience that comes part and parcel with the right kind of content. It is a huge responsibility for marketers as well as for content systems. My advice? Take a good, hard look at your personalization platform and ensure you are placing equal focus on the data and the role it plays plus the content and ability to scale accordingly.

At Adobe, one way we are diving into this is by looking at our content/personalization powerhouse, Adobe Target and Adobe Experience Manager. Through a more holistic lens, we can continue to evolve the platforms both together and separately, delivering on our personalization promise every day and in every way.

Putting It Together: The Content-Personalization Evolution
In short, YES, content is king. But that king needs an equally powerful sidekick to get the job done. You must infuse that content with even deeper value. The best way to do that? By understanding your customers’ motivations, purchase intents, and other drivers and by marrying those wants, needs, hopes, and dreams with your amazing content. Do it and you fan the content-personalization flames in a big way, and — hands down — it will pay off in the year ahead. Miss the mark, though, and your content could be A+, but chances are, it is falling on deaf ears more often than not.

Beyond that, it is part of the bigger 2016 trifecta. Our CRO goals cannot be fulfilled without delivering this unparalleled, content-first relevance — nor can our mobile-app goals, but more on that next week. Likewise, we need the experience delivery, the platforms, the audience, and the data to hone our content-personalization processes and ongoing momentum — enter CRO and mobile. It is a perfect circle, with one bucket informing the next and the next, then back again. But sitting front and center is the king — the content — waiting to be ignited in a big way.

All of this said, I am not advocating that we lose sight of those critical pillars: data, segmentation, algorithmic learning, personas. Those pieces — and really, anything under the data umbrella — are still the epicenter of powerhouse personalization. What I am saying is that we are in this pivotal period, and it is time to rethink and to reset what comes to mind when we think about content, personalization, and of course, content personalization. Who’s in?