The Content Personalization Myth

Comic Strip

The scene: It’s week nine of a three-month build cycle and the beta version of the website has just been presented. An executive stakeholder raises their hand and asks, “When will I be able to see the individually personalized content we talked about in the planning meetings?” The project managers on both the client and agency side share furtive glances, steeped in a shared understanding that the content team has not even finished generating the basic web and mobile content for 50% of the pages yet.

The agency project manager clears her throat and attempts to explain, in the most tactful way possible, that although this expensive new CMS is capable of delivering personalized content it’s not going to just happen magically, and certainly not within this deadline.

This is where things get complicated. My personal experience is many organizations buy into a new marketing and engagement suite for the right reasons, but fail to understand the work behind it. In fact, to truly activate WEM, CEM, DMS, CXM (pick your acronym), it’s actually going to be more work. In some cases, a lot more work.

Here at the CMS Myth we often talk about the gap between expectations and reality with regard to what a content management system can do for your organization. Often, this gap is created or widened by the promises vendors make around new features and capabilities. There’s good reason to be skeptical if you hear a salesperson say it will be easy to deliver personalized content with their solution.

good CMS salesperson will help you have these conversations before you buy the product, not after.

Let’s explore some of the steps you need to go through to plan for personalized experiences.


Any good personalization strategy starts with a fundamental understanding of your customer’s behavior, needs and goals. Upfront research goes a long way to building out the personas and having the insight from which to develop an approach to personalization. This may already be gathered through ongoing customer insight or voice of the customer programs, or be more ad hoc and project based. Regardless of the approach, be sure that any approach to personalization is grounded in a solid understanding of your users.

Audience Segmentation

By definition, content personalization targets specific content to specific people and it’s critical to identify the segments upfront. It’s possible to get this done relatively quickly using what Robert Rose calls a Content Segmentation Grid. There’s a lot of ways to slice and dice your segments and we recommend starting small with some specific use cases and expanding it as you collect data and comfortable with the process.

Audience Goals

The next step in the process is to define the audience goals and objectives so you can know if the personalization efforts are successful. These may include top-line key performance indicators such as conversion rate or online sales, or be more specific to the personalization scenarios (i.e. landing page bounce rate). Try to be specific as possible and ensure that your measures of success directly relate to the areas of focus for your personalization efforts impact.

Content Mapping

Spoiler alert: In order to provide personalized content, it is necessary to determine which content is most effective for each audience segment. This content mapping process can be done alongside the audience segmentation model to ensure you have the right content for the right user at the right stage.

We worked with an solar panel company who mapped content to three primary segments of consumers, businesses and installers —each with very different needs. The key thing to remember here is this typically means creating and managing more content which can tax an already overworked editorial team.

Scenario Planning

The biggest mistake organizations make with personalization is thinking too big and getting overwhelmed before they even start. It is exhausting to even start thinking about how to deliver the right message to the right person at every single interaction. Starting with a few specific personalization scenarios can help you more rapidly adopt the processes and technology and see what works on a small scale before expanding.

Here are a few example rules-based scenarios for an auto insurance company:

  1. If a user in a specific region of the United States visits the site, show them regionally specific rates and agent information.
  2. If a user has shown a specific interest in a vehicle, show images and offers that include that vehicle.
  3. If a user is an existing customer (as identified through specific site actions or e-mail campaigns) feature tools and content that help them maintain their relationship with you.
  4. If a user has already subscribed to the newsletter, replace the subscribe to newsletter callout with a different offer or high value piece of content.

As you begin to think about the overall customer journey and digital experience, this list of scenarios is going to to be far more detailed. However, it should not be more complicated than is necessary to accomplish the organizational goal of making it easier for audience segments to achieve their objectives while having the best possible user experience.

Content Development

The process of content mapping and scenario planning will inevitably surface holes in the inventory of your existing content. Obviously, they will need to be filled. This will require some combination of recreating existing content for different audiences in addition to generating some which is completely new. Not to mention the ongoing process of updating and managing these content variations based on what’s working and what’s not.

Pro tip: One thing that can help greatly is to develop a content model and taxonomy for your CMS that is aligned to your audience segmentation approach. By tagging content appropriately you can often automate many areas of personalization (i.e. Display all white papers from a specific vertical industry).

Tool configuration

Finally, we’re talking about the technology! Regardless of what tool is used to manage all of this complexity, it will require custom configuration. Some systems are naturally more user friendly than others but none of them come out of the box knowing your audience segments, content mapping, and scenarios. All of this information, once determined and defined, will need to be entered to the system.

Rules-based configuration is the most common type of work you’ll do with a CMS which is literally going through a series of If Then statements to tell the CMS what content to show to what users. It’s important to have someone inside your organization or agency partner that owns the product strategy for personalization and can ensure it is consistently applied and within the best practices for that specific platform.

QA and Deployment

Once your audience and content plans are sorted out and the technology is configured, it is time to test the experience from the perspective of each segment and scenarios within segments. Obviously, no small task, but absolutely necessary if you hope to deliver a seamless experience. Oh, and let’s not forget to test each variation on multiple browsers and mobile devices. Don’t run away, really, personalization is fun! Once the QA is complete it will finally be time to release this all into the wild.

Optimization and A/B Testing

Your new content is in the wild and now the real excitement begins. Longtime CMS Myth readers know that we believe the real work happens on Day 2 and now is the time to gather data, grow, and optimize over time.

The decisions made up to this point were likely based on historical data gathered before the site was delivering personalized content. Going forward it will be possible to revise previous assumptions with new information which is substantially more valid. Using the built-in analytics within your CMS or third party analytics, you’ll be able to watch how each segment interacts with the personalized content and if it was effective.

Don’t despair if the results are actually worse. Optimization pros know that the learnings are more important than the lift. The important part is to make sure all that insight is captured and folded into future projects.

So, what’s been your organization’s experience with generating and delivering personalized customer experiences? We’d like to hear from you.

About the Author
Jake DiMare

Jake has spent the last 15 years helping organizations plan, design, develop, and implement effective online experiences with a strong focus on large scale web content management systems and integrated online marketing suites. Jake wrote for the CMS Myth during his time working at Connective DX (formerly ISITE Design). Google Plus Profile

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5 responses… read them below or add one.

  1. David Hobbs says:

    Also, there are levels of personalization to consider. The lowest, and by far the most important, is actually having information that your primary audiences want. Yes it sounds so obvious (and is so obvious), but organizations need to make sure they aren’t putting the cart before the horse.

  2. David, you make an excellent point. Wishing for personalization does not make the content appear, no matter how badly you want your site to be personalized.

    In the research and planning phase, I’d also add that part of understanding your users is understanding what they don’t want – or what might make them want to close the curtains and buy an extra deadbolt or two. When content personalization works, you want to reach out and hug your computer. Or it’s so subtle you didn’t even know it was happening. However, consider the healthcare space and the many ways personalization could go wrong. If you suddenly started seeing medical content promotions related to a recent doctor’s appointment, you might not feel quite as appreciative. Particularly if you’re not alone at the screen.

  3. Rahel Bailie says:

    If I take a run at this from a slightly different angle, the sticking point is the content. And that’s an even bigger problem than the CMS.

    Content people – writers, content strategists, content managers, communications staff, or whatever the nom du jour is – are mostly left out of the conversation. And when they are included in the conversation, there’s often a lack of knowledge of the technical side of content (and sometimes a lack of interest) that perpetuates the cycle of excluding the content people.

    It’s not just the writers, either . Without this awareness of content personalization and the ways that content needs to be sliced and diced, from both sides, the content agility will not get written, tagged, segmented, taxonomied (OK, I made that word up), and the content types and models won’t be built appropriately, and then the unfortunate throat-clearing begins when the executive walks into the room.

    Everyone likes to shunt governance off to the side as out-of-scope, unnecessary, and so on, but really, it’s the elephant in the room in many cases. Throwing a business analyst onto the team (often the “solution” in these cases) won’t help the content get developed in a way that supports personalization.

    Excellent article – it’s a must read for anyone in the content management or content development industries! (And as I write “industry” as plural, I realize I’m reinforcing the siloed view that not everyone is in the same camp, as they should be.)

  4. Great post, Jake. Much research needs to go into the targets of content, before beginning to create content. But, as Rachel here says, content teams are often left puzzled by the technical side of things.

  5. Great article! What would be the best way to structure a CMS to achieve personalisation? Or is the answer to that question simply to use tags and then structure doesn’t matter?

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