We all have heard the phrase, "personalization at scale." What it means is the ability to programmatically show relevant experiences to each user on each channel without your marketing team having to manually craft specific messages for each individual. When most people talk about personalization, the focus is almost always on understanding the customer and segmenting audiences so marketers can target them with the appropriate messaging. This rightful preoccupation with having a 360 view of the customer gave rise to the customer data platform.

Without question, it's important to know the customer. But personalization is a function of more than just the customer. It is the intersection of the three Cs: customer, content and context. In this article, I want to talk about the element that often goes overlooked: content.

Why Content Is King

Content has a broad definition as it can be anything that you serve to the customer on any channel. It could be an article, an image, a video, a product or any artifact meant to create an emotional or logical connection between your brand and the customer. This connection can only be made between you and your customer if the content you serve is meaningful at the moment of interaction. Content is what you have control over and spend a huge amount of money and time creating. It is the heart and soul of personalization.

Typically marketers create various versions of relevant content for specific audience segments or customer types in an attempt to scale their personalization efforts. The process of serving content to the target audiences is usually automated through marketing automation platforms on email and SMS channels and programmatically on web and mobile channels. However, the amount of time spent in creating the multiple versions of content for different personas is often the bottleneck in scaling personalization initiatives.

What if we want 1:1 personalization at scale for a million customers? You would need to create 1 million content pieces and assign them to each individual customer since every customer is unique. The challenge becomes exponentially more difficult once you factor in the various brands your company owns, markets that you operate in, geographies, languages and channels. In this world of increasingly complex customer interactions, 1:1 personalization would be nearly impossible and is essentially the antithesis to automation or scale. Unless you change the way you think about content. 

Related Article: Personalization Prep Work: Is Your Content Ready?

Treating Your Content Like Your Customer

When we want to target customers based on their interests, attributes and intent, we break them down into segments that represent these characteristics. You need to start treating your content like you treat your customers. You must break it down into manageable components. 

It Starts With Headless Content

If you want to break your content down into smaller chunks and allow it to be reused across multiple channels, the only way is to keep content agnostic of presentation. Having to manage experiences across multiple channels while staying consistent is what gave birth to the headless CMS. The objective was to create content once and publish it to various channels by decoupling content from presentation. Contentful, Butter CMS, Prismic.io and others emerged to solve this very problem. We have solved the challenge of keeping content separate from presentation, at least at the surface. 

Why Use a Headless CMS But Not a Headless Approach?

I am still surprised at how many organizations have adopted a headless CMS without adopting the headless approach. Their digital teams still recreate web CMS-style html blobs representing full page experiences inside a headless CMS, making it virtually impossible to reuse content across channels. It is important to remember that headless is not just a type of CMS, it’s a way of thinking of and approaching your architecture.

Creating full-page html blobs in a headless CMS is not only counter to the ultimate goal of content reusability across channels, it simply can not scale. We need to break the content down in such a way so it is not only reusable across channels, but it can also be independently personalized and dynamically assembled into an experience on every channel: web, mobile, social media, email — you name it.

Admittedly, it is counterintuitive to take a bottom up approach to building visual experiences. Marketers like to think of what the content looks like in the context of the page, preferring the WYSIWYG approach to experience design. This is a paradigm shift. If you do this right, you should be able to provide a multi-channel preview environment to your marketing teams to visualize what the outcome would look like. It just requires up front planning and design.

Related Article: Rethink Your Content Strategy for a Headless CMS

Breaking It Down

Let’s say you have an ecommerce website, a mobile presence, and you communicate with your customers via email and social media ads and posts. The content you serve on the homepage of your ecommerce site may include a promotion, daily offers, featured categories and brands, featured products, global header and footer information, a blog or article related to the products you sell, and so on. Each of these experience blocks contain content that can be repurposed for not only different pages on your website, but also other channels, albeit the styling and layout would likely be very different. This is not an issue if you have bought into the headless approach.

Personalizing at Scale With Modular Content

Let’s say you have four channels with a total of 45 interfaces that need to be designed and personalized for 10 different personas. In the traditional web CMS world, you would need to design and create a total of 10 versions for each of the 45 interfaces amounting in 450 variations. Now imagine that each of these variations also needs to be localized to five different languages. This takes us to 450 x 5 = 2,250 variations. It doesn’t end there because there are times when you need to account for markets, products, brands, etc. That only explodes the complexity of the content creation process.

Learning Opportunities

Breaking down the content into reusable components provides multiple advantages including reusability, consistency, scalability and most importantly, personalization at scale. The first step is to take stock of all of your interfaces and identify common components across them all. 

Here is a visual that demonstrates what that process may look like:

content components

In the above image, we have identified seven unique components that are common across all interfaces. Now, if you want to personalize the content within each component for 10 different personas, we’re looking at creating 70 variations, which is quite a bit fewer than 450! The reality is that every component on every page does not need to be personalized. For the few sections of the experience that are, marketers end up having to create a whole different version of the entire page. So in the example above, 70 variations is the worst case scenario. 

Related Article: Looking for Structure in the Dollar Menu

Where Tags and Metadata Come Into Play

In order to select which content module to inject into the experience in real-time, the content must be self-describing. This is done through metadata and tags.  Content, just like customers, has attributes and intent. We call this metadata. You can dramatically scale your personalization efforts if instead of manually selecting content to display to your customers, you programmatically select the right content based on its metadata and performance metrics that align with the customer’s attributes and real-time intent. In the future, if you choose to pivot your personalization strategy, you don’t need to recreate all your content, but instead tweak the metadata and the personalization rule. In the worst case, the individual content modules may have to be updated. You can just imagine the pain and frustration of the marketer if they have to update 450 variations of the interfaces to make a simple textual change or swap out an image.

Metadata Is Not a New Concept

As I mentioned before, any products you present to the customer are just another type of content. The difference is that product information and attributes are neatly organized into product information management systems, which allows you to create easily personalized search and browser experiences. Somewhere along the line, we decided that content should be kept separate from products without describing what it is all about and who it is relevant for.  What we need here is to classify and tag content the same way we classify products. Modular content and metadata go hand in hand. Breaking down content into modules would be a useless exercise without the use of tags.

If you are using machine learning to determine the right content to display to the customer at the right time, having rich metadata on your content becomes even more critical. There is no way for an AI algorithm to predict what the customer should see unless it can make a connection between customer attributes and content metadata.

Assembling Personalized Content Segments in Real-Time

Once you have your content conditioned with the right level of metadata and your customer profiles are enriched with traits computed based on their demographics, psychographic and behavioral data, it’s time to connect the dots between customer and content within a given context. Instead of having your marketing team create hundreds of variants of html blobs representing entire page/screen experiences, the front-end framework should be architected to dynamically assemble modular, personalized content into an experience blueprint or a template based on the real-time context of the customer.

All of this requires marketing and digital teams to work hand in hand and align on this approach. But once they do, the benefits are endless.

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