Your Content Strategy Needs to Include Adaptive Content. Here’s Why (and How to Do It)

Your content strategy needs to include adaptive content.

The Future Is Here . . . Is Your Web Content Ready to Adapt?

I used to frequent a sandwich shop that was pretty mediocre. The food was inconsistent and the prices were high. But it was really close to work, and despite the place’s flaws, I went there week after week—and usually left happy.

That was mostly because of one employee. I wouldn’t call him chatty, but he remembered my name every time I came in. He’d say hi even if he was busy restocking elsewhere in the store. He knew my regular order and that I was a vegetarian, and he made sure to point out any vegetarian specials on the menu that day. I never had to ask for a pickle on the side; sometimes he gave me two.

Sometimes he even opened a new register for me, or expedited my order when things were running slow. The one time I had to place a catering order for a meeting, he made sure to be extra clear about that process since he knew it wasn’t something I usually did.

This, of course, is the blessed condition known as being a regular. It seems simple, but it isn’t, exactly. To deliver this kind of customer experience, Mr. Friendly Sandwich Man had to do a lot of things:

  • Commit my face and name to memory
  • Learn my regular order and quirky preferences, then
  • Realize I didn’t always order the same thing, and
  • Identify new things I might like instead
  • Spot hiccups in the process (lost order tickets, long lines) and resolve them
  • And finally, do all this in a manner that seemed natural and welcoming, not pushy or invasive

When you break it down, it’s actually kind of remarkable. But people who are halfway decent at engaging with customers do it all the time.

Click here to download our Adaptive Content Checklist

It’s not that Mr. Friendly Sandwich Man and I couldn’t have started from scratch every time I ordered a sandwich; it’s a quick, rote transaction, and from an efficiency perspective, any gains from his personal knowledge probably came in under two seconds.

But after a while, failing to acknowledge the context of my being there multiple times a week would’ve felt plain weird.


Okay. Where Is This Parable of the Sandwich Man Going?

Well, shouldn’t our marketing tools and products aspire to the same level of everyday responsiveness that a good sandwich-counter worker supplies intuitively?

A website isn’t a person, and a landing page isn’t an employee. But all the same, your landing page is often the first representative of your business your customers meet; it’s standing at the front of the house ready to make them feel welcome—or not.

And one major way to keep your customers excited about coming back to your site is to recognize them as returning visitors, recognize the context in which they’re visiting, and adapt the way you serve them your content accordingly. And that, of course, can turn leads into new customers and new customers into three-times-a-week regulars.

One size doesn’t fit all. It would’ve been weird if Mr. Friendly Sandwich Man never let on that he recognized me. But it would’ve also been weird if, every time I came in, he automatically entered my usual order without asking me if that’s what I even wanted. Or if he greeted me like an old friend the first time I walked in the door.

I’m no tech forecaster, but I’m confident that even smaller businesses will soon find more adaptive-content strategies and technologies available to help their sites be more responsive to their changing relationship with their customers—and they can start planning for them now.

Click here to download our Adaptive Content Checklist


So What’s Adaptive Content?

The term adaptive content has been around for a few years in the content strategy and marketing worlds, but it’s come to take on new resonances as strategists and developers start to consider all its inherent—and inspiring—possibilities. First, a couple of (relatively) old-school definitions:

It means content that reflects how you’re accessing it. From your giant desktop monitor to your iPhone, adaptive content will look great no matter what device or screen you’re using.

And if you use LeadPages®, you’re already partway there. Every landing-page template is automatically built with responsive design.

That means that when you resize your browser window the content will wrap and the images will scale down; when you switch to your phone, you won’t need to scroll horizontally for ages to finish reading a sentence or see the final puppy at the end of a photo of a puppy conga line. The page will rearrange itself to suit your device.

It means content that goes everywhere. “Create once, publish everywhere” (COPE) is a mantra devised by strategist Daniel Jacobson when he was wrangling massive amount of content for the massive number of channels under the umbrella of NPR. Most businesses don’t have nearly as much content to manage, and probably aren’t equipped to implement the slightly complex technical underpinnings of the COPE system (though if you’re a WordPress developer, you should read Anna Ladoshkina’s excellent primer on building adaptive content with WordPress).

But without getting into things like data normalization, consider: what if, every time you went to create a piece of content, you already had a strategy in place for how it’d be shared and knew how it’d look across platforms: on your site, on your app, in your newsletter, on social media?

Wouldn’t that make you so much more eager to spread it around?

Click here to download our Adaptive Content Checklist


Beyond the Basics

These are some basic principles of adaptive content. But we can also take it further, considering what “going everywhere” and “automatically adjusting” could mean if we stretched them a bit. Over at Copyblogger, Demian Farnworth recently shared a broader view of what adaptive content means today—and what it will come to mean in the very near future. He sums it up simply:

“Our hope with adaptive content is to tailor content to a customer’s experience, behavior, and desires.” – Demian Farnworth

Or take Charles Cooper’s definition from The Language of Content Strategy:

“[Adaptive content is] content that is designed to adapt to the needs of the customer, not just cosmetically, but also in substance and capability.” – Charles Cooper

So, also:

It means content that builds on your previous interactions with the company. If you’ve ever bought something from Amazon, you’ve seen this in action. You recently bought a mega-vat of peanut butter; may we recommend a gallon drum of jelly? Many sites record the stuff you’ve clicked on but never quite pulled the trigger on so they can remind you about it later in an email or on the site.

It means content that understands your preferences. E-commerce sites often let you star items you like, or click “show me more” or “don’t show me products like these” buttons that will change what’s presented to you. Netflix’s ratings system for films you’ve watched is an especially sophisticated version of this kind of functionality.

Netflix gets ultra-specific
Who knew this was a genre? Here Netflix isn’t just adapting the way it serves content to reflect what I like—it’s actually teaching me something about what I like.

It means content that integrates everything you’ve chosen to let a business know about you. By now, no one who spends much time online should be surprised about the extraordinary amount of data that follows us from site to site, impacting the banner ads we see across the internet and the posts that pop up in our Facebook feeds.

Now, granted: this can feel creepy if it’s heavy-handed. (Have you heard the tale of the social marketer who totally freaked out his roommate by running a prank Facebook ad campaign with an audience of one?) But if done well, it can make your site better to use and higher converting.

Personalization definitely doesn’t just apply to ad campaigns. Even simple elements of personalization can boost conversions to a surprising degree—take the pre-populating landing-page fields you can use with LeadBoxes®. When customers reach the fields where they’d normally have to type in their info to subscribe, they find their name and email address already there waiting for them.

From there it’s a single click to sign up. Some LeadPages® users have seen this simple trick boost conversions by more than a third.

Add location into the pot, and the possibilities really start to explode. Businesses can use location-tracking data on users’ smartphones to offer up location-specific content. For instance, an app might alert you to a deal at a restaurant you’re approaching at that very moment—or show a special, mobile-only coupon for a product you just passed by because it seemed too expensive.

Simple location isn’t the only piece of data can be gleaned from mobile users’ devices to deliver truly adaptive content. A program might assess your internet connection speed, giving you ultra-hi-res graphics and cool GIFs if you’re under a hotspot or presenting a more basic interface if you’re working from a mobile signal in the middle of a cornfield.

It could even figure out how fast and where you’re moving. On a plane to Austin? How about an article on the best barbecue spots there? Riding Amtrak? Maybe you’d like to download an e-book of Strangers on a Train.

Get enough data from willing customers, and you can start building ridiculously cool things. To kick off 2015, Nike took the fitness stats customers entered into their Your Year app and used them to personalize irresistibly cute and inspiring animated videos, which customers then could share to entertainingly brag about their accomplishments.

A still from Nike's amazing adaptive video campaign.
Your stats here (if you use their app)


That’s great, but my business is about a millionth of the size of Amazon or Nike. Is this really relevant to me?

The next marketing-technology wave of the future often seems both overwhelming and impossibly distant when it’s way out on the horizon. The rise of mobile certainly once felt that way for many businesses.

So yeah, you might not feel like you have the tech budget or site structure to invest in—or even, really, the time to think about—adaptive content right now. But all signs point to adaptive content being the new standard in five years’ time. Or sooner. MyCustomer editor Neil Davey believes that in fact “technology has progressed far faster than business and marketing’s ability to redefine itself around a personalized delivery.”

Today it’s annoying to find a site that becomes more trouble than it’s worth when viewed on mobile. In 2020, sites that don’t remember who you are, notice where you are, or give you any way to customize your experience may start to feel similarly retrograde.

They’ll be the unsettling deli guy who looks at you blank-faced after your ninth straight week of ordering a ham on rye, no mustard.

So the next time you’re in a planning mood, start thinking about your adaptive-content strategy. Start building a wishlist of adaptive-content features; then, as the technology becomes more accessible and your budget begins to allow it, you’ll know what you want and can start to unleash the conversion drivers and just-plain-cool capabilities you’ve been dreaming of.


Five Things You Can Do Now to Prepare for the Adaptive-Content Future

1. Let go of old ideas about the mobile-vs.-desktop divide. It might seem intuitive to create an ultra-stripped-down version of your site for mobile or as an app—don’t mobile users have less patience for long content?

Well, maybe. In reality, this approach could frustrate and lose customers. It’s annoying when a site you read on a computer looks bad on mobile, but it’s also jarring when the experience for each platform is vastly different. Imagine you come across an interesting article while you’re at work and make a note to read it later—but when you sit down on the train and try to find it on the site’s mobile version, it’s nowhere in sight. Think you’ll make a third attempt?

As content-strategy guru Karen McGrane put it in a recent conversation with Sparksheet:

“The problem is not about writing something different that will appear on a smartphone or tablet, it’s about ensuring that I’m delivering the right content or the best experience to all of my users regardless of what platforms on which they choose to consume content.” – Karen McGrane

Sure, some mobile users don’t want to read. But plenty do, and you’re selling yourself short if you don’t ensure that your longer content is just as accessible to them. Again, that’s part of why all LeadPages® templates are already mobile-responsive.

In fact, at LeadPages®, we’ve found that long content tends to be shared much more widely than the short stuff. Why? Maybe it’s because it’s hard to feel like you know something about anything after just 500 words. (Or maybe it’s because people like to give their networks the impression that they’re the kind of people who read long articles about complex topics. No judgment!)

The LeadPages multi-device preview tool

2. Keep learning about your customers. Before you try to reach different users in different ways, you’ll want to figure out who those users are and how their needs and desires might differ. You might segment them into categories such as:

  • First-time vs. repeat visitors
  • One-time vs. occasional vs. habitual customers
  • Desktop vs. smartphone vs. tablet users
  • Customers in different time zones and parts of the world
  • Users of different languages
  • Customers in different age groups

What kind of content would you like to put front and center for each of these groups if you could? What would best move them forward in your funnel?

If you’ve developed a marketing or branding strategy at some point, you may have already developed customer profiles or personas representing the people you want to reach. Maybe you even have demographic data on hand. When you have time, read up on their browsing and buying habits. (Perhaps you’ll learn that, say, your customers will respond well to being able to opt in for your content via text—check out LeadDigits™, our new SMS marketing tool for more on that.)

Study them in the wild. Segment your email list based on what you know. Use Facebook ads to target custom audiences and see what’s most successful (for tips on that, see our Facebook Advertising System course). It’ll all come in handy in time.

3. Use the info you’re already capturing to create an adaptive experience. If you have a log-in function, or require customers to fill out a form at any point, there’s a lot you can do already. You could start as small as displaying a cheerful “Welcome Back” message—perhaps with a bit of content about what’s new right now—the next time they log in.

With multi-step forms, let the information captured in the first steps inform the rest. One fun example: Neil Davey has reported on one pet-insurance company that saw a 4% lift in requests for quotes when its site displayed a photo of same breed as the customer’s pet during the application process.

4. Take advantage of the tools you already have. We talked about LeadPages®’ auto-populating landing fields above. You might also know that a big perk of using LeadPages® is the ability to split-test just about every element of your pages to see what kind of copy or images get the best response. Once you figure out what works in general, why not play around to see how customer behavior can change in different circumstances? Perhaps customers care about different information during a sale than they do during an ordinary week of business, for instance.

5. Finally, stick with us, kid. At LeadPages®, we have access to the big data that enables so many of the kinds of adaptive-content features I’ve discussed. We use it to build web templates that are so easy to use, businesses never really have to dig into that data.

Unless, of course, they want to—and for that, there’s this blog. We’ll be sure to keep you updated as we roll out more new features that will help you create the kind of adaptive experience users will want to return to again and again. (Make sure to subscribe so you can get both product updates and the marketing insights behind them fresh out of the data oven!)

We’re also giving you a special bonus with this post: a checklist to assess how close you are to applying the insights in this post in your own business. Just click below to get it:

Click here to download our Adaptive Content Checklist

So, what do you think about adaptive content? Just a buzzword? Or the next new normal?

What kind of adaptive-content features would you love to implement on your own site right now? In five years? What could we do to help make that come true?

Think about the sites you use or admire most. Do they seem to be using any adaptive-content principles? Are there any no-brainer adaptive changes you’d like to see them try?

  • Kat Von Rohr

    Awesome post Daphne! This gave me a few ideas about my own copy. Thanks for the inspiration! 🙂

  • This is a great article Daphne! Thanks for giving us a peek into the future of marketing.