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Designing content for individuals

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 ibm.com, 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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