Online Marketers Need to Embrace Personalization: Here's Why and How

Digital publishers (and in the age of online content, marketers are exactly that) have found themselves in the middle of the most crowded market imaginable—online content.

The proliferation of online content has been overwhelming for publishers and readers alike: For publishers, it presents the daunting task of breaking through the noise; for readers, the no-less-daunting task is self-curation of content.

The very best shot that marketers have at attracting audiences and maintaining them is to be champions of relevancy. And the foundation of relevancy is personalization.

You might think that websites are largely personalized already by their very nature: A birdwatching website is already personalized for birdwatchers; a leather crafting website is already personalized for leathersmiths.

Well, they are and they aren’t. As a digital publisher, you don’t need to personalize your content so much as needing to personalize the content experience on your website.

All Clicks Lead to a Story, and That’s a Good Thing

Being relevant and offering a personalized content experience is pretty much the same thing; it is just a matter of which side of the coin we’re looking at: Personalization is the task of the publisher, relevancy is what the readers are after.

Online reading habits are fundamentally different from newspaper or magazine reading habits. No need to elaborate on that. However, today’s online reading habits are vastly different from those of a few of years back, which is to say the heyday of the homepage is long gone. Even the New York Times’ homepage traffic fell 50% in two years, according to an internal report.

Readers arrive to digital publications from social networks, newsfeeds, aggregators, and so on. And that’s a mixed bag of good and bad for publishers. Bad because readers who arrive to a publication directly spend triple the time on the site than those who arrive from elsewhere, like Facebook.

On the other hand, publishers are getting readers that would have never otherwise considered visiting the site. For example, a tech enthusiast would probably not consider Sheep! magazine, but might click on a story about bluetooth implants for sheep herding that stand to replace Collies.

These accidental visitors are a golden opportunity. They fulfill the digital publisher’s first task—being discovered online. It is then up to the publisher to deliver a great content experience. And in this case, great means personalized.

Unmasking the Anonymous Visitor

Anonymous visitors are much less anonymous than you might think. Even on the first page they land on your website, they tell you a lot about themselves.

All visitors arrive with an IP address, telling you where they are from and what time of day it is there. A visitor from the Gold Coast in Australia would be less interested in “compact storage solutions for the apartment” than a Manhattan resident, for example. And looking for something to read at 3 AM vs. 3 PM is quite a difference.

The next piece of intel that visitors arrive with is the type of device they are browsing from. I don’t mention this to point out that your website should be responsive, or mobile-friendly; that goes without saying. But do consider the type of device as a way to deduce, or at least speculate, on the visitor’s state of mind and attention span.

An actual desktop computer (yup, those are still around) would suggest a willingness for lengthy reading; a tablet, in most cases, would hint at a leisurely state of mind, probably on the sofa, and ideal for video. The smartphone is the most challenging in this respect, exactly because of its incredible adoption as the device of choice for many. Some might just bookmark for later, or skim titles or BuzzFeed-like “articles”; others might easily delve through a 2,500-word article. As a general rule, though, mobile content is best served short.

Combine that with the actual piece of content they are reading right now, and you’ve got a nice start as to what might be the next piece of content that best suits them.

Personalizing the Content Experience, Not the Content Itself

As I noted earlier, the task is to personalize the content experience that digital publishers are providing their readers. The way to do that is to actively serve relevant content to the website visitor rather than hope that they stumble upon it (from among the thousands of pages on your website.)

Recommending content to visitors greatly improves their experience. With all due respect to the search box, it can be cumbersome at times. An example from the physical world to illustrate the difference: I can read through a 30-page wine list, and I mostly even enjoy it; but if a waiter were to tell me, “I remember last time you had a Nebbiolo from Piemonte, why don’t I have you try the Barolo this time?” I would be delighted.

Now think of your readers the same way. If you pay attention and you can recommend relevant content, you’ve got their attention—and their gratitude.

Personalized content experiences fulfill another important task: They deepen engagement, prolonging time spent on site, which (to start with) can translate to advertising dollars . But engagement is more than that; it is the building of a relationship between a brand and a person. In my book, that is no less important—and, in many ways, much more important.

Gated Content as a Personalization Tool

The next step in getting to know your readers better and further personalizing their content experience on your digital publication is by using gated content.

“Gated” refers to “locking” a piece of content behind a form: If readers want to read it, they need to leave their email address, name, and any other information, such as job title, that you request of them.

What content is suitable for gating? Obviously, “premium” content, which is either exclusive by topic or by writer, and offers value that cannot be obtained elsewhere. All in all, people are reluctant to leave their details online, but they will do so if they trust the website not to abuse it, and if the offer is hard to resist.

Another option is to ask a question. In this case, multiple-choice or yes-no questions are preferable. Open-ended questions discourage online visitors (as they do college students). By asking one question (in return for reading a piece of premium content), you can learn a lot about your readers.

It’s up to you, based on industry and subject matter that your publication deals with, to figure out which questions are most revealing and useful for you to further personalize future visits to your website, as well as for email and newsletter interactions between you and your readers.

The more you learn about your audience, the better experience you can provide.

Gated content is an effective way to gather precise and intentional information. You decide what will be on that form, and every line counts. But don’t overdo it; long forms alienate visitors and don’t perform as well as short forms.

Peering Into the Crystal Ball

If we look into the future, we can imagine a completely personalized online experience. Every visitor would carry some sort of identification token that would include personal details as well as interests and other such information. When arriving at a digital publication, visitors would be dynamically presented only content that is relevant to the specific visitor; in effect, each visitor would see a totally different website and have a completely different experience.

Until then, to learn more about personalization for digital publishers, check the e-book Personalize or Perish, created by HubSpot and BrightInfo. Spoiler alert: it is gated…

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