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If case you haven’t noticed, personas are a pretty big deal these days. Marketers plant relevant, engaging content throughout digital experiences on multiple channels to try and move the business forward. And that content must be relevant and individualized.

But marketers face a growing challenge. Yes, yet another one.

As marketing teams develop personas, those personas increasingly become “locked” profiles of idealized people at a moment in time. These static lists of features and benefits to people are the business’s view of what people should be when they consume content.

In other words, marketers take the same inside-looking-out view of personas as they do their product. They don't ask “who are these people now?” or “how is this person behaving today?” Instead it's “who is this idealized person who isn’t us, and how do we convince them that we’re awesome?”

This is wrong. Even if our technology can present dynamic content to the different personas in this fashion, it’s simply multiple versions of a static presence. We’ve just created four static digital experiences, sending us right back to 1999, only with exponentially more websites to manage.

Become Context Aware

So how do we deliver dynamic context to a person and (to the extent possible) provide an optimal digital experience based on what we know about that person now? There's no "one category" of consumers, or static definition. A person can simultaneously be a sports enthusiast, a business owner, a car collector and a new mother. This means that our interests and what’s “relevant” will change given the context.

A dynamic listening process allows marketers to take in these multiple contexts and behavior.

And to be clear -- this isn’t new. The “context aware” ideas has been discussed at great length -- namely in a 5-year-old paper from Gartner Analysts Mick MacComascaigh, Bill Gassman, William Clark and Gene Alvarez called “Context-Aware Computing Will Increase The Impact of Your Online Strategy.” In describing why this ideas goes beyond simple “personalization,” the authors wrote,

it is the application of such technologies within a cohesive strategy that allows interactions with users to be even richer and more relevant. Information derived dynamically from the evolving interaction (emphasis mine) itself can lead directly to a more proactive, well targeted, highly relevant experience that encourages further interaction.

The difference between simple persona development and multiple static experiences, versus delivering contextually aware experiences lies in that “evolving interaction.”

Optimizing Behaviors Not People

To understand customer journeys, a web content management system must understand both the “attributes” we ascribe to a target audience, and the real context in which people consume the content.

This is important. It means that today’s really great web content management system can listen, store and understand behavior before we know who the persona is that behaves that way. Once we’ve successfully identified that audience through some explicit method (e.g. a registration form, or a click on a specific asset) then we can start to understand the shades of grey that lie between.

We can discern between what we think that specific persona’s behavior should be, and what it actually is. Now we can understand that when our personas search on the weekend, they are looking for thought leadership, and when they search during the week, they seek product information. And, it’s how we understand that their behavior on a mobile device, or when they click on a social link is much different than when they find us through an advertisement.

We can now optimize content against behavior, instead of managing multiple static representations of what we think different people want.

This approach ultimately drives content performance, higher conversion rates and all of the metrics that define the purpose of why we created the digital content experience in the first place.

When we understand behavior, we not only increase the relevance of the content, we make it more valuable. The same Gartner paper concluded a context-aware approach can help,

Obtain better placement of advertisements and a higher rate of click-throughs by combining your understanding of users with their likely wants, needs and behaviors, in conjunction with their current situation.”

This is the key. We create value for people. People aren’t static. They change and evolve. The Web is built for this. We should be too. 

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Trevor Pritchard