For more than fifteen years Karen McGrane has helped create more usable digital products through the power of user experience design and content strategy. 

Karen helped build the User Experience practice at Razorfish, hired as the very first information architect and leaving as the vice president and national lead for User Experience. 

Today, she manages Bond Art + Science, a user experience consultancy, is the author of “Content Strategy for Mobile,” published by A Book Apart and is on the faculty of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where she teaches Design Management. McGrane spoke recently about adaptive content at Magnolia Conference 2016 in Basel, Switzerland.

Adaptive Content Makes Personalization Real, But it Ain't Easy

Lorraine Chandler: Please explain the main principles of adaptive content

Karen McGrane: Adaptive content is an approach to delivering targeted messages based on what you know about the user. That may be what type of device she is using, it may be her location or other contextual cues, it may be very personal information like her lifestage, income, relationship status or other cues.

The promise of personalization has always been talked about, but it’s currently done in a rather clunky way. Marketers can imagine scenarios where we can personalize and tailor the message to individual user needs or experiences. But it’s difficult to build that — it’s difficult to do, even more difficult to do well, and nearly impossible to do at scale.

Adaptive content at its core is a content strategy practice that looks at the needs and requirements for delivering personalized or targeted content through the lens of what will be required to create, deliver and evaluate the success of those initiatives. It takes marketers’ personalization ambitions and makes them real (although complex and costly.)

I’ve been talking about adaptive content since 2011. It’s been picked up by the content marketing community in the past couple of years. Desire for device or contextual targeting of information drives a lot of attention to adaptive content, beyond that there is a need for more practical approaches to delivering personalization. 

Lorraine Chandler: Which technology innovations (will) play the biggest role for adaptive content?

Karen McGrane: CMS, analytics, personalization engines, CRM — all of these play a role in delivering adaptive content. Having more refined tools, more effective tools, will certainly help.

But the biggest barrier is the level of effort required. The tools can help you publish and target the content, but they cannot tell you what to write. They cannot develop the strategy for you. As with pretty much all CMS projects, companies overestimate the value of using a specific tool and underestimate the effort and time required from people to create and manage and evaluate the content.

Lorraine Chandler: Can you tell me a bit on your views on content strategy?

Karen McGrane: I believe content marketing as a strategy is a bit overblown. The idea that the foundation of marketing could sit on creating (and then throwing away) ever more content is simply not viable over the long term.

Content strategists like myself are frequently faced with the challenge of sorting through website analytics that show few — if any — people actually look at the content. It’s not uncommon for web pages to have fewer than 50 visits in a year. It’s not uncommon for PDFs to receive zero downloads.

The problem is that content marketing isn’t a strategy. It’s about volume, and SEO, and seeing what sticks. A real content strategy would focus much more on the cost to create and produce content, techniques for evaluating content success so that editorial efforts can be fine-tuned, and ensuring effective content reuse across web pages or channels.

Lorraine Chandler: What are the big trends in content/strategy and which of those will actually be useful/long lasting?

Karen McGrane: Sort of broadly, I think looking at content from the intersection of what people can do and what technology can do is the most important lens that content strategy offers. No one ever expected the printing press to be able to tell editors what to focus on, but now in the digital world we have publishing tools that can work collaboratively with human beings to shape and influence the value of what gets published.

As with many collaborations between people and technology, our reach exceeds our grasp. People can easily imagine a world where we can personalize and tailor the message to individual user needs or experiences. But it’s difficult to build that. 

Lorraine Chandler: What do companies have to do to make sure their content gets read and read by the right audience?

Karen McGrane: For most companies publishing a website, the foundation is that they need to understand user tasks and goals and then deliver content that is well-written and answers user questions. That’s not rocket science, it’s UX 101. But most companies are not there yet. And every company should focus on getting that piece right first, before moving on to more complex endeavors like adaptive content.

Beyond that, companies need an omnichannel strategy for ensuring content will work across devices, platforms, channels. Finding ways to reuse content or streamline content production is the only thing that will save you here — we can’t afford to treat every platform, every device as its own silo.