Content Tailoring

Tailoring vs. Targeting: A Better Metaphor for Content Personalization

In the last five years or so, personalized content has really entered the mainstream discussion about digital strategy and customer experience functionality. The most common metaphor for personalization is “targeted content”. Having spent the better part of a decade thinking about this, I’ve come to the conclusion that we’re using the wrong words, which leads to the wrong attitudes, and ultimately to less than optimal results.

What’s Wrong with “Targeting”?

Content targeting is the common name for the practice of using what we know (or guess) about a visitor to enable us to make a decision about the best content to put in front of them during their interaction with us. Common choices for user attributes that might explicitly affect content personalization are explicit preferences (for instance, the customer has told us that she wants to see how-to articles about investments strategies), demographics (age, location, etc.), and behavior (for example, the visitor arrived at our site because he searched for lawnmowers).

Unfortunately, targeting as a word generally has negative connotations. When I asked one of my colleagues what came to mind when I said “targeting”, he immediately responded “arrows, sniper bullets, and nuclear warheads.” In most cases, when we are targeting something, we are targeting at something (for example, a torpedo at an enemy vessel). In the realm of digital experiences, the usual implicit meaning is that I am targeting content at the visitor with the intent of eliciting some response—typically a purchase, although it might be some other conversion event. In one of the support articles for Google AdWords, Google makes it explicit that the visitor is the target.

Pushing offers at customers in order to make a sale can be a viable strategy. If you have a single visit sales cycle and low customer loyalty, it might even be the best strategy. This is basically a more personal version of the convenience store sales model. However, people do not like to think of themselves as targets. Perhaps this is one of the factors that accounts for the large number of people who use privacy-enhancing tools such as ad blockers (26.3% in one recent survey!)

A Better Way: Think “For” not “At”

For most organizations operating in the digital space, every interaction with a visitor is not a direct sales opportunity. Customers and potential customers interact with you based on their need or interest in the moment. If you only personalize product offers and discounts, you are failing to address your visitor’s specific need and communicating to her that you are more invested in the immediate financial transaction than in a long-term relationship.

Instead, leverage personalization to provide the visitor content that supports her specific goal. Working with a home improvement retailer, we identified that a customer’s interaction with the brand followed the lifecycle of a project: looking for inspiration, preparing, doing, and enjoying (there were a few other phases, but that’s sufficient to give you the idea). Product offers are only effective when a customer is in the preparing phase (buying materials) or the enjoying phase (buying products to decorate or maintain the completed project).

During the inspiration phase, the customer wants to see what is possible and to start forming ideas about budget and timeline. You can sell to this kind of customer, but it’s an educational sell, not a hard sell. During the doing phase, the main kind of content the customer is likely to need is support content that teaches her how to use tools and materials that she bought during the preparation phase. To further complicate matters, the same customer could simultaneously be in different phases on multiple projects! To deliver the best digital experience for her, you need to be able to determine what phase she’s in on what kind of project and then find the content that enables her to do what she wants.

“For” is Tailoring

The tailoring metaphor came to our attention through an entirely different client, who does no ecommerce at all. This particular client has a web site that connects prospective volunteers to organizations that have volunteer opportunities that match the skills, interests, and location of the visitor. They refer to this as “tailoring” the opportunity to the volunteer.

To my mind, it’s the perfect metaphor for content personalization. A suit is an inherently personal purchase choice. It must fit one’s preferences (cut, color, fabric), the season or occasions during which it is likely to be worn (no seersucker after Labor Day, please), and ultimately one’s body. If a sales clerk grabs a suit off the rack and pushes it “at” you, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up with an ill-fitting monstrosity. If he works with you to select the right suit, gets your measurements, and sends it back to the tailor for necessary customizations, then your needs will be met, you’ll be happy, and you’ll be back for another when the season (or your size) changes.


Special thanks to Colin Eagan (@colineags) for editorial insight including the list of things that can be targeted and for many enjoyable debates about this topic over the last several years. You can catch Colin live at the Minnesota Interactive Marketing Association Summit in Minneapolis on October 19 if you would like some additional insight on content personalization.