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Content Strategy

Personalised content: is it worth the effort?

Dana Rock • 3 minutes

You can learn everything you need to know about personalisation in one day: your birthday.

Imagine you receive three birthday messages:

  • Your ex-housemate’s ex-girlfriend writes on your Facebook wall: ‘Happy Birthday!!!! Have a great day!!!’ It’s a message with far too many exclamation marks for someone you’ve not seen in over two years. Meh, whatever.
  • The card from the office. The whole team have signed it with the usual well wishes. Yes, you know there’s an Excel spreadsheet which lists everyone’s birthday – created in truth so they know who is due to bring in cake – but it’s still a nice acknowledgement. And the Victoria sponge is one of your favourites.
  • The one from your best friend. This is a friend who knew your birthday was coming up so texted you last week to ask if you were doing anything. Now, hand-delivered over a pint, you laugh out loud as you open the card. Inside is a message that only you could find funny.

All of the above birthday messages are, in theory, personal. But they span the range from completely ignorable to genuinely heart-warming.

What sort of reaction do you want your communications to have?

Personalisation isn’t about sticking in a {firstname} or remembering a date. Personalising content starts when you use what you know about someone to change how you communicate with them. That understanding might be built by shared experiences gained over years or a neat bit of data analysis.

A personal journey

The first to say about personalised content is this: you’re probably doing it already.

In one of my first communication jobs, I was tasked with recruiting volunteers to participate in local fundraising events. Unsurprisingly, the generic article in the newsletter: “Sign up for our national fundraising campaign! Find an event near you!” yielded little result.

So I sent out a mailer to the previous participants, “We are planning to hold a fundraiser at {yourlocaltown} on {eventdate}. Are you able to volunteer again this year?”

This worked a lot better. A flurry of sign ups. And also, bizarrely, a handful of phone calls from people apologising they couldn’t help because they were on holiday that week. It was nice to receive a personal response, but did they not know I had just fiddled around on Excel?

The call to action worked not because I’d mastered the basics of mail merge but because I’d looked at the data and understood what most people wanted. They wanted to volunteer at a local level. Each {yourlocaltown} needed to be within 30 minutes of where they lived.

This was the first step in my journey into personalised communication. I realised that, whether you’re relying on a spreadsheet and a stack of envelopes or a sophisticated CRM, the emotional power of personalisation comes from understanding the data.

You can do that at the level of audience, segment or individual but the principle remains the same. By putting in that effort to stop and scratch your head you will hopefully understand what someone needs and then you can do something to meet that need.

Let’s get (more) personal

The second thing to say about personalised content is this: you can probably do more.

  • Improving your web navigation to help people find what they’re looking for more quickly? ✅
  • Tailoring email content to suit different customer segments? ✅
  • Delivering individual welcome videos to your new customers?

Ah yes, that last one was the #helloBrookes campaign I managed last summer. The purpose of the campaign was to welcome new undergraduate students to Oxford Brookes University by sending them each a uniquely personal video live on results day.

The campaign delivered truly personal communication on a mass scale. All the videos started with ‘hello {firstname}’ and were created by an existing student or member of staff at the university. But those video which had the closest better match between the new student and the person who recorded the welcome had the greatest impact.

There was something genuinely heart-warming in the welcome videos created by the Law lecturer for each of his new undergraduates. Moving away to university can be a nerve-wracking time but receiving a personal hello from your new lecturer meant that those new students already knew one friendly face they could expect to see on campus.

So it is worth the effort?

No kidding, delivering personal video messages on a mass scale is an epic faff.

Months of planning and gallons of caffeine went into it. Out came as award-winning campaign which directly engaged over 10% of the new students, received over 100,000 video views, and generated over 4.5 million impressions on Twitter and Instagram in just 3 days.

Was it worth it? The video messages celebrated a very emotionally-charged moment in a student’s journey to university. By being truly personal, the video messages touched not just the individual new students but the hearts of existing students and staff across the university and beyond. It became a source of pride for the university. From this experience I’d argue that where there is a deep emotional need, there’s a stronger need to put the effort into making it more personal.

Putting it into action

Before you click ‘send’ or ‘publish’ on your next communication, have a think.

Rather than ask if personalisation is worth the effort, ask how much personalisation is worth how much effort. How much of an emotional reaction do you want to provoke? How hard would it be to achieve that?

For very functional communications it may suffice to crack on with the standard template. You’ve thought about what information the average customer needs to know – and you deliver it. The more personal you go, the more effort is involved. But the truly personal communications – those tailored to a specific individual – do have the greatest potential to provoke an emotional reaction.

Personalised content starts when you use what you know about someone to change how you communicate with them.

It ends with a birthday card from your best mate. You laugh out loud as you open it. Inside is a message that only you could find funny.

Want to know more?

Dana will be speaking on the Personalisation Panel at the ContentEd conference on 14-15 June.

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About the Author

Dana Rock

Marketing and Communication Manager, Oxford Brookes University

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