We’ve been talking about the need for more personalization for years, as have a lot of other folks in this great content industry. However, together we have only scratched the surface of what’s possible with content personalization. To take the next steps, organizations must rely on content intelligence to build their capacity to create the right content for the right people and deliver it at the right moment through the right touchpoint in the right format—and to do so reliably again and again.

If that sounds like content nirvana, it is. Imagine a world where you have served every customer to their satisfaction, which means little to no customer service necessary because your content set their expectations perfectly and delivered flawlessly (or near enough) so to stay in their good graces. Imagine what this could do for your company’s innovation, because people won’t have to focus so much on fixing past mistakes and can instead dedicate more energy into the company’s content vision and future goals.

Let’s start by reviewing the progress made with content personalization. Our CEO Colleen Jones explains, “I remember talking about it in 2000 as a priority for a big website redesign. But the right technology and the content architecture weren’t there to support it. Also, users were not quite ready. Users were not using the web enough to generate enough behavioral data to drive personalization, and they often weren’t willing to share other kinds of data.”

Fast-forward to 2016, and businesses envy the level of personalized content Amazon and Apple have reached, meaning most organizations still aren’t utilizing personalization opportunities yet. However, “the benefits of personalization both to business and users tend to outweigh the drawbacks, so personalization will not go away,” Jones explains. And how are we doing with customer privacy concerns compared to 2000?

Amazon and Apple's Personalization

The word that best describes the privacy/personalization tradeoff is ‘resignation.’ Meaning that regardless of the type or quality of the supposed benefits we received, Americans widely believe that there is little to nothing we can do to stop the wholesale Hoovering of our private data or the use and misuse of it by those entities that gather it. And they’re not entirely pissed off—yet. — Michael Hinshaw “Smart Customers, Stupid Companies: Why Only Intelligent Companies Will Thrive, and How to Be One of Them”

To further complicate matters, organizations must be aware of both personalization and customization opportunities. Nielsen Norman Group explains: “Customization gives control to the user and personalization gives control to the site. Both can enhance users’ experiences, but only when carefully implemented.”

Personalization and customization should enhance an already good experience, rather than try to fix a poor one. — NN Group


Getting your foundation set is key before diving into the personalization sphere. As Edelman notes, “Personal service doesn’t replace poor service, or the malaise brought on by slow service. Consumers have extremely high expectations, and our threshold for quality being impacted by any personalization ‘add-on’ is low. Companies who miss that point and focus on one over the other are missing the point—the reintroduction of staffed checkouts in some supermarkets is testament to that sentiment.”

Organizations believe personalization should be a bigger focus.

64% of marketers believe that personalization should be a bigger priority in their organizations, and the top three obstacles that stand in the way of making it a greater priority are the lack of budget, personnel, and skills. — Paula Crerar, VP of Content Marketing for Evergage

personalizationObviously, one of the most challenging aspects of personalization is respecting consumer privacy. As Pew Research Center’s Privacy and Information Sharing study reveals, people recognize that “the potential benefits of sharing personal information include saving money, gaining access to useful services or information, and facilitating commercial and social encounters. Yet even as [consumers] worry about the negative downstream consequences of sharing their personal information, these findings also illustrate that consumers understand and appreciate the benefits of sharing—at least under certain circumstances.”

82% of marketing departments lack the data framework to unify technologies. — Quantify How You Unify

Marketing departments lack the framework they need

Other challenges reside in the tension between serving customers and serving the corporation or organization. NiemanLab points to the NPR “strategy tax” that caused controversy in Q1 2016 when they decided not to promote NPR One—their beloved app—to the very radio listeners who would be users and want to know about it. All industries must move to a customer-first approach in order to thrive and survive in the digital and personalization era as Forbes iterates.


To feed personalization, most companies dig into every bit of intel they have, including:

  • segmentation
  • brand studies (e.g., awareness, perception, equity)
  • focus groups
  • customer buying process and lifecycle
  • digital campaigns
  • social
  • offline campaigns
  • personas or profiles

Take a page from WebMD’s VP of User Experience: “When we launch products we like to get them out there to see how users respond, iterate and see what we can do to really make it as frictionless and as usable and as delightful as possible. And then we start the marketing. And we’ve just begun to market this, so we’re still looking at our data and trying to analyze trends.” Another way to help in your scaling efforts is to improve your metadata. In fact, metadata magic gives your content four magical powers: Discover, Distribution, Delight, and Deduction.


As Influence & Co.’s CEO John Hall explains for Inc., “It’s much easier to start wide at scale and narrow down as you go than to do the opposite. Personalizing your content and your audience’s experience is important, but remember your process for scaling. Do what you can to set yourself up for success in the long run.”

Scaling is a concern for many aspects of content strategy, especially personalization. Amazon is one of few companies that excels at offering personalized recommendations, and consumers are becoming conditioned to want this kind of personalization in all aspects of their lives, including streaming music, movies, TV, and more. In fact, “56% of consumers say Amazon demonstrates an understanding of their individual preferences and needs on a regular basis,” explains Swirl Networks in their study about the personalization gap.

Users enjoy Amazon's personalized content

As Gartner points out, “Personalizing even a single aspect of the customer experience, such as marketing, takes sustained investments in customer data and analytics—including spending on data management and analytic tools, hiring the right analytical talent, and developing or revamping marketing processes. It also requires technology and techniques that allow marketers to apply insight to execution, such as prioritizing marketing channels and platforms that enable audience segmentation and targeting over those that only support generic customer engagement.”


The recently released Publish or Perish analysis of 380 CMOs by Forbes found that marketers that deliver personalized web experiences are getting double digit returns in marketing performance and response.

The results from personalization efforts speak for themselves. As Demand Metric’s Content Personalization study revealed, “80% of B2B marketers who personalize their content believe that it’s more effective than generic content.” Swirl Networks adds, “88% of consumers say they’re more likely to shop with retailers that deliver personalized and connected cross-channel experiences.” And Forrester found that companies who fully invest in modern personalization will outsell their competitors by 20%. Not coincidentally, a McKinsey study found that companies who put data-driven personalization at the center of marketing and sales decisions improve ROI by 15-20% or more.

Nearly all marketers think their personalized content is more effective

Take the personalization initiatives that have impacted grocery stores. Nielsen found that stores with pre-cut, packaged, and seasoned products have enjoyed some of the largest growth, and this positive growth due to a focus on personalization applies to mini bakery items and more diverse delis and salad bars, too. In fact, Nielsen predicts that “vegetable butchers could be the next big thing in produce.”

Personalization can also aid in hiring the best content team members and requires telling a candidate why you’re contacting them. “You have a great background” is the same line a dozen other recruiters have used that week. Explaining why s/he has a great background, and how it aligns with the job and company is a much more personalized (and productive) way of reaching out. Forbes

Content personalization throughout the customer journey—from first-touch to close—is imperative. Much like how marketing automation disrupted the marketing landscape about a decade ago, marketers today that can execute a holistic and efficient content personalization process before their competitors do will be in a much better position to win more deals and close more sales. — Content Marketing’s Evolution: The Age of Hyper-Personalization and Automation

And hiring the right people is critical, urges McKinsey: “Early data suggest that human skills are actually becoming more critical in the digital world, not less. In many contexts, therefore, competitive advantage is likely to depend even more on human capacity: on providing thoughtful advice to an investor saving for retirement or calm guidance to an insurance customer after an accident.”

Here’s an example of how we’ve implemented personalization at Content Science Review.

My Library Content Science Review

So when do you know your organization is ready to wade further into the personalization pool?

Your [content practice] foundation is staying strong, so you’re experimenting with specialized content campaigns, new formats, and advanced techniques such as personalization. — From Piloting to Innovating: What’s Your Level of Content Maturity?

The Author

Content Science is a growing content strategy and intelligence company and the publisher of Content Science Review. We empower digital enterprises for the content era by taking their content approach to the next level. Customers of our professional services and one-of-a-kind products (such as ContentWRX and Content Science Academy) include the Fortune 50, the world’s largest nonprofits, and the most trusted government agencies.

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