July 1, 2024 #ContentChat Recap: How to Create More Personalized Content Marketing

A Content Chat header image featuring an array of flowers behind a text overlay that says today’s topic is how to create more personalized content marketing, with images of host Erika Heald and guest Zontee Hou.

“Your audience, your customer, and your prospective customer wants to be seen for who they are, what they need, and what they uniquely, individually have as goals. If you can deliver on that and you can make that experience more relevant to them, they’ll be happier—and they’ll stick around longer and want to spend more money with you.”—Zontee Hou

In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Zontee Hou, managing director of Convince & Convert, to discuss how to create more personalized content marketing. Zontee shares learnings from her new book, Data-Driven Personalization, and you can get 20% off your copy by using code ZHData20.

Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.

Q1: What do today’s customers expect from brands in terms of communications and other individual touchpoints? 

Customers have always appreciated personalized communications, even if it is something as small as recognizing their birthday or anniversary.

“In the early 2000s, the amount of information that we could leverage was pretty limited. We felt sophisticated doing automations and [using] a little bit of information about your anniversary date with this company or your birthday. And that actually gave us quite a bump when it came to sales, because people felt so special being recognized. So we knew that there was a lot of power in this kind of highly personalized messaging.”—Zontee Hou

88% of customers now expect their brand interactions to reflect the past experiences they’ve had with the brand. Personalized product and content recommendations help them save time and energy. 

“We actually did customer research for the book, and what we found interviewing or surveying more than 1,000 U.S. adults was that 88% expect that brands are going to interact with them based on the shared experience that they’ve had together. So whatever past experiences they’ve had with the brand should shape the future marketing they get from the brand.”—Zontee Hou

“85% of them believe that personalization is really important from a recommendation standpoint, that they want brands to actually help them get more out of their experience with the brands by sharing with them specific product recommendations, content, recommendations, usage tips, etc., based on the things that they are actually doing with the brand. That’s their expectation; they believe that that is going to help them save time, save energy, and get a more quality experience with the brand.”—Zontee Hou 

However, many marketing teams are challenged in using data to effectively fulfill their customer expectations. 

“But when we asked marketers about if [they] are collecting enough data, less than half said ‘Yes, I’m collecting enough data.’ And I’m just going to tell you that the folks who said yes, I’m collecting enough data, I don’t actually believe them. They think they’re collecting enough data. I promise if you actually ask them ‘Can you deliver on all of these expectations of the customers?’ they probably can’t.”—Zontee Hou

“And even the brands that have a lot of data, oftentimes they’re struggling with things like: How do we unify our data so we have one holistic picture of the customer? How do we make sure that we’re using that in a way that respects privacy but gives people a better experience? How do we use our budget in the right place where we’re delivering on personalization across the right platforms?”—Zontee Hou

“There’s still a lot that we have to figure out as a marketing community, but I think that the key takeaway here is that, in fact, the expectation of consumers is extremely high for that personalized, one-to-one experience with brands. They believe that it is high time that they have contextual experiences with brands.”—Zontee Hou

Customers judge your personalization based on the experiences they receive with other brands—regardless of whether you are B2B or B2C or in a highly regulated industry

“The [pushback] I often get from folks is ‘Well, I’m in the B2B space, that’s the expectation on the B2C side, but nobody’s doing that in my space’ or ‘I’m in healthcare, nobody does it well in my space.’ And I’m like, none of that matters. You are looking at your competition as just the other brands in your space, but the expectations of consumers are not shaped by your competitive set. They are shaped by their experiences across all different brands. And the people that you’re competing for when it comes to the expectations around personalization are Amazon, Netflix, and Nike; all these brands that are actually doing a good job of taking that information and turning it into something that makes the experience of the consumer one that’s more seamless and easy.”—Zontee Hou

“When I think about those kinds of objections, which I’ve certainly heard a ton over my career being mostly B2B and spending a lot of time in financial services, I think back about what were the really amazing experiences I had as a B2B buyer. And they’re things like when Allen Gannett was running TrackMaven and he sent my office gluten-free cupcakes to celebrate our signing the contract. And these kinds of little things that were very personal that he didn’t get from click-through data, he got it from brain data and paying attention and seeing what was out there. Those little things start to build the ‘Hey, they really get me and they understand who my team is.’ And that’s so impactful. It has nothing to do with the B2B versus B2C, it’s just about are you paying attention?”—Erika Heald

Q2: What data is most valuable for creating personalized content marketing? 

It can help to think of customer data simply as customer information. 

“Oftentimes, we think about data as these technologically driven data points. But in fact, when I use the word data and how I approach it in my book is really talking about information [and] all of the different information that you are collecting about your customers, across all of the different places that they engage with you. And that does include your sales team interacting with people. That includes your customer service team interacting with people. That includes point of sales, where you haven’t a lot of opportunities to really take down key information about your customers.”—Zontee Hou

Brands like Stitch Fix and Methodical Coffee directly ask customers about their preferences to inform their experience. 

“Back in the day, you would go to a department store, and you would have a personal shopper. And they would have a booklet that they kept a file of you and your taste needs. And then they could make recommendations for the next time you came around. And there are digital brands that are doing that, Stitch Fix and things like that, and they use those personal interactions of [an] actual chat with a customer service agent to help collect that information. But it’s the capturing of that information and then the using of it for future interactions and engagements with the customer that really improves the experience.”—Zontee Hou

“In the book, I actually share an example of a small business, Methodical Coffee. They’re out of South Carolina, they are a coffee roaster, [and] they create beautiful coffee roasts with wonderful flavor profiles. And they sell direct to consumer, but they also have real cafes. And one of the things that you will experience if you go into one of their real cafes and talk to a person within the store who’s actually helping you select your coffee is they’re going to ask you a whole bunch of questions about your preferences. And when they bring you up, they’re going to capture that information in your profile. So the next time you order from them, whether it’s online or in the store, they can say ‘Hey, these are the things you liked last time, we’ve actually got a new blend that’s in that same kind of category. Do you want to give that a shot?’ But if they don’t capture that, then they can’t use that for future experiences.”—Zontee Hou

Marketers need to build holistic customer profiles that include all the necessary data to tailor their experiences. 

“It’s our responsibility to think about what is that holistic profile building that we can do. We have to treat it as a relationship. Most of us have a CRM in place, [but] how are you actually seeding that CRM with the information that helps your team deliver a really great experience? That is actually a strategic decision when it comes to what data to collect.”—Zontee Hou 

There is such a thing as having too much data. 

“People always ask me ‘Well, do we just collect everything and anything?’ And it’s like, of course not, that’s not useful for your team. How much stuff do you want to actually have to sort through? But if you’re deliberate and figuring out what are the things that would really make a difference in our customers’ shopping experience—their buying experience, their usage experience, their ongoing relationship with us—you can identify those places where you can capture information that really helps them to get more out of their relationship.”—Zontee Hou

Understanding your audience’s learning goals is powerful for crafting your content strategy. 

“I shared this idea of learning goals. Making it easy for your audience to say ‘These are the things that I’m trying to research, trying to learn about, etc.,’ allows you to make better recommendations. Oftentimes in the content marketing space, we’re trying to recommend the next resource that might be useful to you. Also, what’s the learning path that is helpful to you to achieve those specific goals. And I think that we can do a lot of that now, not only through the recommendations engines or algorithms that are serving this personalized content selection to our customers.”—Zontee Hou

“Through a lot of these automated tools, you may come into a content marketing page [and] it gives you some resources. And then you’re asked a series of two or three questions: What are the things that you’re trying to achieve? Do you want more resources? What would make your experience with these resources better? The next thing that it spits out is maybe a custom PDF or learning path or even a course that is sent to you that says ‘Hey, here’s the thing that we built for you based on your goals.’ I think that that would make the experience for your audience much more seamless.  It makes sure that they actually are more likely to use the resources that you’ve provided and it gives them an assurance and trust in your brand; you actually care about their goals, and that you can do something about their goals.”—Zontee Hou

Q3: What tools or methods can marketers use to gain the necessary customer insights to create truly personalized content? 

A culture of curiosity is key to learning how to best use your data. 

“It comes down to culture. I have a whole section of the book that’s focused on the idea of building a culture of curiosity, where everybody within your organization is empowered to identify useful hypotheses that you want to learn out of the data. This cannot just live inside—we have one data analyst or we have a market research team—because oftentimes, those are not the people who are actually engaging with the customers on a regular basis. And therefore they don’t really have a good picture of what’s valuable to that customer and how marketing actually happens. That’s why it’s so important for marketing to have a seat at this data table.”—Zontee Hou

“That’s the first thing is to have a culture of curiosity, where all the different members of your team are really empowered to think through what are those key questions that if we could answer we would be able to deliver a more valuable experience, we will be able to create more useful content, we will be able to build trust and a stronger relationship with our customers.”—Zontee Hou

Tools like Mutiny, Optimizely, and Persado can help you deliver personalized content to customers across channels. 

“There are many more tools now available that actually customize headlines and even body copy and the selection of content to the customers. And that is something that I think has been more heavily adapted on the lead generation or sales side, but a lot of the tools actually are available in a content marketing capacity. And I think that that’s particularly valuable for the B2B space, where we have long lead cycles where education is such a key part of it.”—Zontee Hou

“Tools like Persado, like Optimizely, like Mutiny, they’re able to deliver this not only on the web experience, but you can actually integrate this into your email experience so that people can get customized messages back specific to them.”—Zontee Hou

“The next thing is, once you have those hypotheses, to make sure that you’ve got the tools in place that will actually allow the team to act upon that information and pull it out. And we’re at a moment right now where we suddenly have the ability to query our data much more easily than ever before and much more cost effectively.”—Zontee Hou

Q4: How can content marketers apply their customer intelligence to create impactful messages? 

Zontee and Erika discuss the notorious Target pregnancy marketing situation as an example of when personalization goes too far, and how to reel it back in. 

“What was interesting to me about it was it was so effective, they were actually sending marketing messages to people whose families didn’t even know they were pregnant yet who had not actually made any kind of an announcement.”—Zontee Hou

“What I think is very powerful about this example is it took so much effort in 2002 to come up with this profile. Now, with AI and machine learning, if you have a tool layered on top of your data lake, it would have been very easy for the Target team today to say ‘Pull us a segment of all of our customers who have announced that they are pregnant.’ Okay, we’ve got that segment. Tell us nine months ago, or I guess you might want to say like, six, eight months ago, what were they buying? What were the throughlines there? And then they would have that data profile.”—Zontee Hou

“Even smaller teams can layer Claude or a paid subscription to ChatGPT on top of their data and start to ask some of these questions. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. But it is easier than ever before. And what I want to demonstrate is that between that and the more purpose-built tools to help you process data, we can make it simpler for our team to have these great hypotheses, and then get the information they need to do something about it.”—Zontee Hou

Be transparent about how you collect and use customer data. This can be a key step in building trust with your customers. 

“The things that you are providing have to be highly relevant to the person. You have to be transparent with how you are using your data so that the customer understands ‘We’re collecting this data in order to give you a better experience, to personalize the content that you’re getting, to make sure that you are not wasting your time with stuff that you don’t want to see.’ Telling that story actually can be part of the marketing message that builds trust with your customers.”—Zontee Hou

“A recent study from PwC showed that the vast majority of people actually are willing to share their data with companies when they understand that the personalization that they’re getting is actually benefiting them.”—Zontee Hou

Find ways to give customers power over their data and the ability to opt out of specific campaigns. 

“The other part of it is identifying where do we actually want to be sensitive to our customers to give them the ability to opt in and out of certain information. In the book, I share the example of brands like Levi’s, Kay Jewelers, and a couple of others who actually have proactively asked customers to opt out of Mother’s Day messaging or Father’s Day messaging because those might be sensitive times of year for certain people.”—Zontee Hou

“The example I often share is when Meta, or Facebook at the time, finally lifted the curtain and allowed you to actually see what categories you were being targeted for. And you, the user, could start to opt out of them or remove certain categories. And I had some friends who said, ‘Oh, I went in there, and I removed myself from everything.’ And it was interesting to me, because I felt like I wouldn’t want to remove myself from everything, because I wouldn’t want to get a whole bunch of ads done that are completely nonsensical and unrelated to me. I think that makes my experience worse. But I did go in there and remove some categories that I felt like were in there because maybe I had been doing research on a client—because you know when you’re in the digital marketing space, you get to spend a lot of time on people’s websites, and all of a sudden [you’re] getting ads for all sorts of weird things.”—Zontee Hou

“We sometimes think if we give people the choice, they’ll just say no to everything. But again, if you’re transparent about why you need this information and that you want to make the experience better for them and want to give them content that is more likely to serve their needs, I actually think that oftentimes people will make the decision to be thoughtful and say ‘This actually makes my experience better with this company overall.’”—Zontee Hou

“I wish more brands were like Amazon, in that everything that you purchase from Amazon you can choose whether or not Amazon uses that to tailor content or to make product recommendations. And you can say no. So that way, when you’re buying gifts for the whole family, that doesn’t mean all of a sudden you get weird recommendations for things that you absolutely do not want and you’re just buying your father-in-law or something like that.”—Erika Heald

“We’re in a moment where the possibilities of personalization are greater than ever before, but we should not assume that our customers understand. And that’s why the education piece of it is really important; bringing them along when it comes to how you’re using the data, and then transparency about what kinds of data are collected.”—Zontee Hou

Continually listen to your customers’ behaviors to find new content opportunities. 

“Nike has done a great job of creating all of these different touchpoints within their ecosystem for you to engage with content, not just products. So if you’re a sneakerhead, they have a sneakers app where you can just learn about other collectibles or how people customize their sneakers. If you are a runner, you’ve got Nike Run Club or Nike Training Club if you like CrossFit. And all of those platforms, you’re getting great content, learning about different kinds of exercises, learning about different creators, getting tips, getting information, etc. But also Nike’s learning what kinds of things people tend to engage with, how often they’re engaging with them, and they’re also identifying trends ahead of time.”—Zontee Hou

A membership experience can create a beneficial feedback cycle for customers and marketers.  

“One of the small business examples that I share in the book is Rosenfeld Media. I advise them, and they are a UX publishing house. They put out beautiful books and they also do a ton of great events throughout the year that are specific to the UX community, the user research community, and the product management community. One of the things that they’ve recently introduced is a membership experience, because when you are logged in, you can get access to a ton of their free content. And that allows you to discover talks, articles, [and] podcasts with a ton of different people who are experts within that community. And it makes it really easy for you to browse that content, but you’re also able to get the book recommendations from them, and you’re also able to get article recommendations from them. And if you’re a paid member, you can even use their AI chatbot, which allows you to ask questions, and it actually gives you responses as well as citations from their universe. So you’re not just helping spit out information, it’s actually saying like this information is from this author and this is the original thing if you want to learn more about that thing.”—Zontee Hou

“If I want to learn more about becoming a product manager, what are the resources that I should be exploring? Who are the people that I should be learning from? What are their top tips? And [Rosenfeld Media] is giving you that. But again, it’s not it’s not a large language model generated thing where it’s sort of rehashed, remixed. It’s actually saying here are three people that you should be learning from, and this is what they’re telling you. And I think that’s a great example of content marketing that is highly personalized, because it’s leveraging this technology. What a cool opportunity for all of us.”—Zontee Hou

Q5: What mistakes do you often see teams make when seeking to gain or act upon customer insights? 

As third-party cookies are phased out, marketers need to develop a first-party data strategy. 

“All marketers have to prepare for a cookieless future. That’s a technology that, unfortunately, is not going to make a lot of sense in the longer run. We’re being pushed more toward this environment where to really own customer data, you have to have some kind of a sign-in membership experience.”—Zontee Hou

“If you’re actually offering them a lot of value to be in your environment and to experience the things that you can customize and offer to them specifically, there’s a good reason for them to say ‘You know what, yes, I am going to log in.’”—Zontee Hou

People often receive emails that don’t respect their skills or expertise. 

“You and I, we’ve been doing content marketing for a very long time. And yet, we still get the occasional upstart companies sending ‘Oh, you’re doing it wrong,’ or, ‘You’re new to content marketing.’ Oh, sweet summer child, you have your data wrong.”—Erika Heald

“We want to be part of a peer cohort. We don’t want to receive a bunch of content that doesn’t meet us where we are and doesn’t reflect who we are.”—Erika Heald

Every message matters, especially in the early days of a customer relationship. 

“There is a high level of expectation about what information is collected. Sometimes you don’t have that information to start with. But again, if you’re going to start a relationship with the customers, you need to actually go out and get that information so that you can make sure that first touch point is right.”—Zontee Hou

How can you get the data you need from customers? Ask them for it during their onboarding.

“The thing that people get wrong is that they don’t realize they can just ask the customer what it is that they want, need, what their goals are, etc. That’s my biggest piece of advice oftentimes for brands, is to figure out how, as part of your onboarding experience, you can just ask them the questions that help to identify what their needs are.”—Zontee Hou

“In the B2B space, we experience a lot of onboarding. You would think that they would capture that data. But oftentimes, the person who onboards and the people who are actually building your marketing profile are different people, or they don’t have it organized together. And so they don’t do that.”—Zontee Hou

“There are brands like Cole Haan, the shoe brand, who, when you sign up for an account on their website, they asked you a whole bunch of questions about how you use their products, so that they can understand what’s going to be helpful to you in the future. The brand Noom, which is a health app, they have a very robust onboarding survey that allows you to define your goals and say what matters to you and what your triggers are. So what you like, what you don’t like. That’s a really great onboarding experience.”—Zontee Hou

Tell your customers who you think they are so they can tell you if you’re right. 

“Your customers love to define themselves. We like to say I’m a this. I’m a cancer, I’m not a Leo. Those are things that people want to call out. And the assumption that marketers make is, oh, we can’t reveal the secret sauce. No, tell the customers we think these are the profiles that make the most sense. Which one are you?”—Zontee Hou

Q6: How can marketing teams make the case for data-driven personalization as a strategic initiative?

Marketers need to explain to their organizational leaders how personalized content marketing influences business results.

“Within a lot of organizations, the reason that you don’t have the dollars is it’s hard to explain exactly why we should be investing in this particular space. In the book, I talk a lot about this idea of making sure that we’re speaking in the language of business outcomes, and particularly customer lifetime value. There are only three levers that you can really push when it comes to your audience: You can grow the audience, you can get the people that you have right now to spend more with you, or you can increase the length of their lifetime so that the amount of time that they’re spending money with you increases. Ideally, you’re pushing more than one of these things. But because of that, you can very easily start to identify the tangible places where personalization plays a role.”—Zontee Hou

“Throughout this conversation, we’ve talked about the ways that a more personalized experience will increase the value that you provide to your existing customers, making them more valuable. It increases the lifetime by making sure that they’re sticking with you for longer and/or become a great referral source for other people who might have some problems. It also allows you to better identify people for whom you are highly relevant so that you can bring more of them into the fold.”—Zontee Hou

“There are really specific pathways to each of these different business objectives. And I think that if we can make a stronger case within our organization of ‘Hey, we ran a pilot program and we can push this lever and demonstrate that we can create more value for our organization within his particular space. Let us have more budget to do more in this particular space,’ then I think that we can win people over. This kind of an approach to marketing is easy to connect the dots from that measurement perspective, maybe more so than some of the other parts of what we do when it comes to things like content marketing.”—Zontee Hou

Q7: Are there any technology platforms you recommend that make it easier for marketers to create personalized content without needing an IT resource? 

Zontee discusses Optimizely, Persado, and Mutiny in more detail. 

“Some of the tools that I think are really interesting, both because they’re doing good personalization but also because they’re leveraging some AI tools, including Optimizely, which is known as an experimentation platform. [Optimizely] has some really great personalization tools that they’ve rolled out and they’re making it easier for you to curate and deliver a more personalized experience on your website. Again, that’s content as well as leads and sales.”—Zontee Hou

“Persado is also doing some really interesting things. They are using what they call Motivation AI, an AI tool that is pulling in a lot of third-party data into the tool and then allowing you to serve recommendations and content and messaging based on your owned data as well as third party data.”—Zontee Hou

“Mutiny is another tool that’s doing things that are very interesting in that space. That’s a B2B only tool. They are particularly good at leveraging third-party data that helps you to better understand the needs of your particular audience. And again, I think in the B2B space, oftentimes, we need that third party data because we don’t have enough existing within our own house. And so by pulling that in, we’re making it easier.”—Zontee Hou

Research tech options to help with data analysis. 

“I recommend that people think through what is your stack when it comes to analysis? There are  a variety of tools now that are sitting on top of data layers, and that’s very important.”—Zontee Hou

There is a huge opportunity for brands to use tools to deliver fully customized content at scale.

“I’m encouraging brands of all different industries to think about how could they leverage the large language models, etc, to create these custom incidences that actually deliver a more relevant website experience to your customers and pull your content resources into one place.”—Zontee Hou

“My dream would be that you go on and there’s a ChatGPT type of interface where you can ask it these questions and it just pulls the resource for you.”—Zontee Hou

“People are spending so much time thinking about ‘how can I use AI to create more content?’ instead of thinking through ‘how can I use AI to deliver to people exactly what they’re looking for exactly how they want it?’ We should have all of those personalized pathways for finding content. We shouldn’t have the expectation that some UI or UX person has the one vision for how every person regardless of their goals should go through a website, because we’re all different. We all process information differently. We all want to do something differently. Yet we have so much information that’s just coming through the exact same interface for everybody. And we can do it better.”—Erika Heald

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