Designing content for individuals

October 9, 2015 Leave a comment

Thanks to increasingly powerful marketing analytics, brands can begin to understand their customers as individuals and deliver a personalized “best next engagement” at every touchpoint in the brand ecosystem.

In paid media, personalization is already the norm: capabilities like ad retargeting, location-based advertising and social targeting are delivering dramatically higher conversion rates than “dumb” ads. In earned media, listening and analytics tools are providing invaluable insights that help brands do personalized social outreach and respond in real-time to emerging trends. The owned media space, though, seems to be lagging behind. It’s still relatively rare to see a brand deploy content that is dynamically assembled to meet the needs of an individual user.

As William Gibson put it, “the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

One reason is that most companies still think of content as something inherently monolithic, static and linear — especially when it comes to the workhorses of B2B marketing, case studies and “thought leadership”. Another reason is that making the transition to dynamic, modular content often requires major process transformation: a new content governance model, new formats and workflows for content creators, a robust taxonomy, good analytics, and a modern CMS to support it all. Here are a few design principles that can help make the transition:

Build a future-proof content taxonomy

One of the keys to enabling personalized content is a strong taxonomy. There should be well-defined tags for any user attribute you may conceivably want to use to personalize the experience, eg. the user’s role, industry, business need, company size, geography, or stage in the purchase journey. The extra work of tagging content yields huge dividends in the long run: as you reach a critical mass of content, you can begin to assemble optimal content experiences for specific users based on their entry point, past interactions or explicit choices.

Design for measurable engagement

Static, monolithic content can only be measured with blunt interaction metrics like time on page, scroll depth and click-throughs. Whenever possible, design your content to include features that drive true, measurable engagement, such as:

  • shares, comments, ratings, downloads
  • interactive infographics that let the user explore data on their own terms
  • mini-surveys, quizzes or self-assessment tools that deliver immediate value
  • social connection modules that let the user connect directly with a featured expert or the author of the content
  • an invitation to connect with peer users who have similar needs/interests
  • a curated view of the social conversation surrounding the topic

Design universal content with personalized modules 

Not all content needs to be fully personalized. A case study will always need a common backbone that states the challenge, how it was solved, and some proof of success. But you can design the backbone to support “pluggable” secondary modules that enhance the experience for a specific user’s role, business need or other known attribute. Here is an example from IBM that augments a mobile technology case study with personalized insights and proof points based on the user’s role: The Ottawa Hospital: Transforming healthcare with mobile

Design content to be co-opted

In B2B marketing, content is often designed to give users ammunition to build their own internal business case for the product: strategic frameworks, sparklers, quotes, business results, trend charts, etc. If that’s the main focus, think about ways to help users appropriate your content and integrate into their own narrative. It’s not enough to create smart content; it has to make the user look smart too.

Lead gen forms are dead; use social sign-on

According to Janrain, a leading provider of social sign-on services, web users are increasingly frustrated with custom form requirements to access registered content. 54% of users report abandoning forms before registration is complete, and an astounding 84% report providing false information. (The most common name by far in IBM’s global lead database is “Mickey Mouse.”)

Switching to social sign-on is a triple win. It’s faster, easier and more trustworthy for users, and therefore massively increases form completion and incoming leads. It guarantees correct user information, improving the efficiency of lead nurture programs. And in some cases it can even provide valuable social graph information about the user to further personalize the lead response. Microsoft recently executed a brilliant campaign to drive trials for Office 365. After registering via LinkedIn, the user immediately sees a recommended usage plan and a cost analysis based on the size of the user’s company.

Humanize your content

This last principle is so obvious that it is often overlooked. People trust people more than abstract brands or institutions. So whenever possible, show that your content is being created (and used) by actual people – use bylines, add a “Who’s who” section to your case studies, surface experts, hot-link people’s names to their LinkedIn profile, show how many users have downloaded/commented/rated, etc. If you can’t show real people, resist the temptation to use stock photography. In a now infamous A/B test on, users where shown three versions of a page. One had poor quality profile pics from real people, one had natural-looking stock photos, and one had no people at all. The real people got 4X more interaction than the stock people, and the no-people version got twice as much.

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Brand engagement in the networked world

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

The traditional purchase funnel has been running on empty for a while now. In fact, it was probably misguided right from the beginning — from its radical oversimplification of consumer behavior all the way to the silly funnel metaphor that dutifully squeezed out brand advocates at the narrow end.

So, what is this “networked world” we live in and why is it forcing us to rethink a model everyone took for granted for decades? Ben Edwards, VP of Digital Strategy and Development at IBM, captures the main ideas in this succinct “from-to” slide (title and other minor tweaks are mine):

To boil it down: we live in a hyper-networked, real-time world of mass participation in product design, development and marketing. In this world, trust—and hence value creation—is primarily mediated through social relationships, and the scarce commodity is no longer content, but attention.

I’ve seen a few valiant attempts at updating the model for this networked world, including McKinsey’s Consumer Decision Journey and Google’s Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT). Both capture the overwhelming importance of search and social discovery at the start of the customer journey. And both acknowledge that trust, mediated via social interactions between informed and empowered consumers, is becoming the primary source of value creation for brands.

What I haven’t seen, though, is a general-purpose model that marketers can adapt to the unique engagement patterns of their individual brands. Something that can serve as a diagnostic tool for current brand engagement, and suggest a course of action for improving business outcomes.

So I started exploring a model of my own. It has its own built-in shortcuts and simplifications, but they’re not meant to dumb down the real world — they’re just placeholders for the work you’ll need to do as a marketer to adapt the model to your specific brand.


The model starts with how people first encounter your brand, and how those exposures work together to trigger a response.

See These are all the traditional interruptive exposures like TV, print and online ads. If you’re marketing a physical product, it also includes all the “ambient” exposures to the product being used in the real world, e.g. the guy next to you on the train using that sexy new tablet.

Search Combined, organic and paid search now deliver about 70% of all brand exposures. Often it even serves as a kind of memory aid for people who actually saw your paid media but can’t remember your brand – they’ll search for that “lizard with a funny accent” or some other noteworthy element in your ads. So you have to be prepared to show up in search however people actually search for you – enough said.

Social means either people you know or people like you. People you know can range from friends in the real world to more tenuous online connections, aka “weak ties”. Research shows that weak ties can actually be more influential than strong ones when it comes to product recommendations. That might seem counter-intuitive, but think about it. When you’re buying a car, whose advice do you listen to? Your best friend, or that gearhead neighbor who owns the model you’re lusting after?

People like you can be perfect strangers, but you trust them anyway because at this moment, they share your interests or goals, have some knowledge or experience that’s valuable to you, and are completely impartial in their opinions.

Any brand exposure delivered like this has built-in credibility that paid and owned media just can’t compete with.

To make the model work for you, think about how your constituents are currently discovering your brand, whether the three components are mutually reinforcing each other, and which kinds of exposures are most likely to yield the behaviors in the next part of the model. Then decide where to focus your efforts. Do you need to establish baseline awareness? Do you have untapped demand in organic search? Do you need to create more shareable assets to boost social discovery?  Or should you work on broadening and mobilizing your influencer base?


People engage with each other and with the world in one of three basic behavior modes: I call them exploratory, goal-directed and surgical. If you’re exploratory, you don’t have a specific goal: you’re open to a broad range of messages and influences. If you’re goal-directed, you know what you want to accomplish, but not necessarily how to get there. If you’re surgical, you know exactly what you want and how to get there—you’re just gathering ammo to make the final decision. In terms of someone engaging with your brand, that translates into something like this:

Exploratory: Is this the right brand for me?

Goal-directed: Can this brand’s product or service help me achieve my goal?

Surgical: Is this product or service right for me in terms of features, cost and quality?

To make the model work for your brand, map these basic behaviors to the main motivations that show up in your marketing personas, and see which ones are most likely to compel action. (For example, I recently did this exercise for a  large, global confectioner, whose main motivations for purchase were Impulse, Seasonal, Task-driven and Loyalist.)


This part of the model represents the entire ecosystem of owned experiences that help to pay off your audiences’ motivations and corresponding behavior modes. Here again, you’re looking at a default progression that you need to adapt to how your brand envisions the purchase cycle.

Discover This is close to what creative briefs usually call “surprise and delight”: an experience that grabs your attention, sets the agenda, draws you in, makes you want to learn more. It typically pays off exploratory behavior, but can also help seal the deal in surgical mode, e.g. a really compelling demo or case study that blows you away with the product’s performance.

Learn This is where you lead your audience to understand how your product can help them accomplish their goals. Learning experiences typically pay off goal-directed behavior, but people don’t always know what they don’t know, so learning can be exploratory as well — especially if they’re learning about a complex, high-consideration product. (Um, should I get term life or whole life insurance? And what’s this “flexible premium” of which you speak?)

Solve Once your audience knows enough to understand that your product is a good general fit, you need to make it real for them. Can this product solve their specific problem or meet their specific needs? Depending on the product, that can happen through a wide variety of experiences, such as configurators, simulators, roadmapping tools, comparison tools, personalized customer references, or a live consultation. Solving-type experiences tend to pay off goal-directed and surgical behaviors. (Of course, if you’re selling candy bars, there’s not much to solve—adapt as needed for low-consideration products.)

Believe is the final leap of faith. What else can you do to make them believe they’re making the right decision, when they’ve already convinced themselves that the product is right for them? It could be as simple and concrete as a special offer, or something intangible like the brand’s perception as a good corporate citizen. Find those “tipping-point” factors and make them work for you.


For every desired outcome, go back to the model and see if any of the stages can be optimized to deliver that outcome. In most marketing briefs I’ve seen, the primary objective (usually increased sales) is surrounded by a bunch of fuzzier secondary goals. If necessary, create a separate version of the model that optimizes for each goal so you can identify any glaring conflicts.

(One interesting side-note here: you could easily replace the outcome with something very personal like “get this girl/guy to marry me” and the rest of the model should still hold up. You’re exposed to people in the same three ways as brands, the basic human behavior modes still apply, and you still have to lead your “audience” through an arc of experiences, from discovery to belief.)

Applying the model to your brand ecosystem

These days, any self-respecting brand strategy must have an ecosystem map. Usually this involves big, friendly-looking bubbles and some basic linking strategy, but not a whole lot of actionable insights.

The way I think of optimizing a brand ecosystem is like figuring out crowd management at a big museum exhibit. Lots of different people with different profiles, needs and expectations. Asynchronous, often unpredictable flows of behavior. And a few well-defined things you want them to do or see, preferably in a certain order.

So all the venues in the ecosystem (traditional advertising,, owned social channels, curated conversations, raw social stream, shareable assets, eCRM, retail, etc.) have to work together to “catch” the different behaviors, route them to the most appropriate venue, deliver some value, then hand off to the next desired step. Ideally, those user flows should allow for progressive personalization, so that each experience becomes more relevant than the last, and it should continue to provide incremental value even for those users who don’t follow your intended paths.

One tool I developed recently for a client workshop might help generate some ideas on how to optimize your brand ecosystem, and build some shared understanding among your stakeholders.

The idea is to list out all your owned venues and analyze each one in terms of these four lenses:

Traffic source: how do people come to the venue? What’s the proportion of paid media, search, social discovery, and redirects from other owned venues?

Content type: Crafted, Curated or Social? What’s the most suitable mix of content for the venue?

Experience: which of the experiences defined in your model can be best delivered in the venue?

Behavior mode: which behavior mode(s) are people in when they come to the venue?

That exercise will likely help you identify some opportunities for optimization, by adapting better to things you can’t change (e.g. behavior mode for a venue), improving things you can change (experiences, linkages), or adding/removing venues to better deliver certain types of experiences.

If you’re in a workshop setting, an effective technique to decide best bets for optimization is to do a sort of silent auction: give each participant a fixed sum of virtual money to spend on experiences within venues. Just make sure you have a group of people who can collectively represent the concerns of usability (interaction designers, UX people, creatives), feasibility (developers, IT folks), and value (business stakeholders).

Hopefully some of this was useful. Please be aware I’m making this up as I go along, and my only claim is that various bits of this model have served me well on actual client-facing work. So please feel free to tear it down, or help me make it better.




New t-shirt design. The spider graphic was part of a video i worked on recently about cybersecurity threats and how to avoid them.

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Magnetic poetry

April 21, 2012 Leave a comment

Magnetic poetry

Noodling with French fridge magnets at a friend’s house. It’s complete gibberish, but sounds really nice in French.

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Tootle with vigor

February 24, 2012 Leave a comment

Best translation blooper ever, a warning to motorists in Tokyo:

When a passenger of the foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet at him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage, then tootle him with vigor.

From The Mother Tongue : English & How It Got That Way

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January 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Dominate your agile team while being all collaborative at the same time.

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January 26, 2012 Leave a comment

ImageNew t-shirt design. If you’re a millennial, you’re a “digital native.” If you’re a forty-something pre-internet geek, socially inept and a bit top-heavy with spindly legs, you’re a cybermoose.

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