The path to one-to-one content marketing

How do you create content that's tailored to individual customers? Columnist Jose Cebrian outlines the steps for developing content that can be applied to a people-based marketing strategy.

Chat with MarTechBot

shutterstock_206842363-1920-content-marketing-man-pointsIf you’re familiar with my column, you know I have generally been focused on direct response, bottom-of-the-funnel (email) marketing that drives the consumer to action. That’s changing (a little).

These last-click-attribution type marketing tactics are fun and easy because they are predictable. We know who we are targeting (e.g., email, SMS, addressable display/social), or we know what they are looking for (e.g., search). In recent years, we have made strides in top-of-the-funnel display and other media, which helps improve engagement during the consideration phase of the life cycle.

Still, we need to get better at developing content that moves people through the funnel. While often considered the purview of B2B marketing, the same principles apply to B2C marketing.

If we think about luxury goods or insurance, there has to be more than just driving a single transaction. We have to create content to build the brand, inform the purchase, and, when ready, facilitate a transaction. That requires knowledge, a lot of content and a plan on how to use that content.

Against my nature: Giving into the left-brain competencies


It’s been 17 years or so since Don Peppers and Martha Rogers wrote the book on one-to-one enterprise marketing (literally). Of course, the tactics for implementation have changed drastically over time, but at its core, the principles they laid out for the burgeoning marketing strategy still hold.

Here’s how I interpret those principles within the process of developing content for use in today’s digitally driven, people-based marketing strategies.

Identify: Who are my customers and how do they interact with my brand?

To do it right, you need several layers of information. For many, the standard is first-party customer relationship marketing (CRM) data, combined with third-party data, which gives you demographics and some level of mass profiling that can be used for general segmentation.

This combination gives a basic understanding of what people in a given group might likely be interested in. It’s very helpful; but it can miss a lot, depending upon how tightly the segments — and the data that informs those segments — are defined.

I’d even go so far as to say that these data are table stakes and are simply foundational. Here’s some additional data to improve what you know about your audiences:

Social data

  • What language is the audience using to talk about our product, our competitors and the market in general?
  • What content types and formats resonate with them?
    • What drives action (purchase, sharing, commenting and so on)?
  • Who is influencing our customers?

Search data

  • What terms are people using when searching for information about our product, category or brand? Our competitors?
  • What questions are they asking, and what answers are they looking for?
    • What are their fears, concerns, aspirations?

Offline data

  • Are customers interacting with you at events, in-store, call centers or somewhere else?
    • Connect data between online and offline transactions (This includes purchases, returns, service requests and any other product/service your brand provides).

With this data, you can craft messaging that contains the actual terms people use when looking for or evaluating your products. How wasteful is it to spend thousands of dollars on a campaign promoting a car’s low emissions to your target audience of eco-conscious consumers, when the main factor they look for and respond to in a car purchase is the average MPG?

Leading with the wrong message could cost you — literally and figuratively.

Differentiate: How do I create a message I can own? Should I target everyone with that message?

It’s common knowledge that, when developing content, you need to know who you are creating it for, what they care about and why.

While personalizing every piece of content to every customer may be the ultimate goal for some brands, when you think about the permutations that apply to all the customer variations, this goal is daunting, if not impossible. In my experience, marketers don’t have to create a personalized journey for each individual.

I recommend creating master experiences and content for larger segments of people. And where possible, customize some of that content for individuals based on what you know or learn about them in real time, to create a more personalized experience in channels that allow it like display, your site or email.

Start by determining who your most valuable customers are, and focus on rolling out the content red carpet for them first. You will inevitably meet a physical limitation to how much content you can create. This is where the science of selecting the audience comes into play.

Determining customer lifetime value is an excellent place to start. An even better route: Take a look at your top customers and create a model where you can determine patterns (behavioral or demographic) that help you identify new customers or existing ones with the potential to fall into your high lifetime value segment.

Then you can put the focus on these people from the get-go, or at least from the first indication that they’re ready to commit to your brand.

The art of the message

One needs to round out the simple analyses with higher-level insight into what people truly care about and why. That requires first-party research into motivations.

An online survey is a less expensive (slightly more flawed) route, but we recommend a substantial volume of in-person interviews to understand how people think about the problem your product solves and how customers view you in that context.

This can be accomplished with first-party neuroanalytics and consumer-decision laddering research. The output is a view into what people care about from a messaging perspective.

While this method is obviously grounded in brain science, what you do with the learnings (Please, please do something with them!) is the art, and how you translate the findings into your actual creative and copy is what separates the data hoarders from the successful brands.

Interact: Where and how does the customer want to be contacted or interact? How can I gain and hold his attention in these channels? What do I learn when I interact with him?

Once you have layered on all of this research and understand your customer, now what? You have to convert those findings into some sort of plan. All of the above can help inform the current state and the opportunity, but at some point, we need to move from insight to action. CRM segments are not enough.

Format and channel matter. Is it direct mail, email, SMS, display (which unit?), a YouTube video, a Vine, a cinemograph? Each format has its unique best practices and measurements. Some are active, meaning you drive the communication. Others, like display, are more passive, and you want to see your customer in that medium.

You need to understand each format and its strengths, measure against them and be a good creative director for the myriad of content types. Just because you know print, it doesn’t mean you are an arbiter of a quality Vine or snap.

With a complete content marketing plan, you’re basically waiting for prospects/customers to make a move, and you have to be ready wherever and whenever they do.

Search on mobile? Be there with a mobile-optimized website.

Open email en route to an event? Display updated content based on their current location.

Central to this “we’re ready whenever you are” marketing strategy is the ability to identify customers across channels. This was previously done by cookies and still is to a certain extent. But we’re now able to leverage tools like Google Customer Match and Facebook Custom Audiences to retain the ability to identify someone across devices, locations and websites.

Customize: Now that I know a bit about my customer from research (data) and interaction (more data), how can I use this information to tailor content just for him?

People-based marketing is about the journey — each individual has her own journey; it doesn’t mean each individual has her own message at each step of the journey. Trying to create something that large and that complex is impractical from a value perspective.

But what you can do is mix content marketing tailored at the segment level with specific communications that are triggered by actions or behaviors (or modeling) at the individual level. That’s how you get the best of all worlds.

Contributing authors are invited to create content for MarTech and are chosen for their expertise and contribution to the martech community. Our contributors work under the oversight of the editorial staff and contributions are checked for quality and relevance to our readers. The opinions they express are their own.

About the author

Jose Cebrian
Jose Cebrian is Vice President and General Manager of Email and Mobile Messaging for Merkle. He came to Merkle after spending nine years at Acxiom, where he grew to Managing Director, Global Client Services for Digital Impact, Acxiom’s email and SMS division. Jose led a global team responsible for optimizing interactive direct marketing campaigns across the web, email, and mobile.

Fuel for your marketing strategy.