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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

What retailers’ approach to personalization can teach publishers

March 30, 2022 | By Allison Mezzafonte, Media Advisor – Sailthru @sailthru

Retail brands with a data-driven approach to commerce have captured consumers through the pandemic. They’ve done so by leaning on personalization through targeted messaging, relevant offers, and orchestrated campaigns across channels.

Now, many retailers are going a step further. They are offering personalized content that delivers a hybrid retail/media experience: The inspiration section of IKEA’s website resembles an interactive home and garden publication. Upstart retail brands like Thrive Market have an entire content team that creates lifestyle content that is targeted to consumers based on their buying preferences. They send out curated newsletters that have content similar to a wellness magazine.

The key element that makes retailer content so powerful is their data-driven approach. People like personalization, and successful retailers are approaching content with personalization in mind. The good news is that publishers can, too.

Create a value exchange

A recent study by Sailthru finds that 71% of consumers will shop more with brands and retailers that personalize their experiences. What’s more, 80% will share data in exchange for deals and special offers.

Many retailers have created a “value exchange” with their customers in order to address this reality. For example, Thrive Market asks for information about diet and food preferences on the first website visit. Then, it uses these insights to deliver more personalized shopping experiences, deals and content. Consumers give more data because they get a better experience in return.

This exchange is not dissimilar to some subscription products served up by media organizations. Take Seeking Alpha. Geared toward passionate investors, Seeking Alpha offers a super-premium paid “value exchange” with very specific content for those investors who closely follow the market. A subscriber can receive real-time news and alerts for their stocks and other investment picks. Further, upon sign-in, their portfolio page will display personalized news and articles related to the stocks in their portfolio.

For publishers with more general audiences, one beneficial place to offer a value exchange is with a referral program. theSkimm was an early adopter of referral programs. Their Skimbassador program long awarded readers who referred new readers to subscribe with swag and shout outs in the newsletter. After driving 10 referrals, readers also became a part of a private, gated community. The Hustle and Morning Brew have also seen great success with referral programs to scale their businesses, gaining new subscribers and loyalty from current readers.

Tailor the experience

Consumers are willing to provide personal data and expect brands to use the information they gather to create tailored experiences that make them feel like individuals. Many publishers want to take their insights to the next level with even more tailored content. Understanding the topics that are interesting to a reader and sharing articles and videos that fall into specific categories is a good start, but retailers provide examples for how to go even further.

Everyday Health and Baby Center are two publishers that make the most of the data they collect for expecting mothers in order to deliver personalized content. They prompt for due date, gender, number of children at home, and more. They use that data to customize the entire email journey over the course of a woman’s pregnancy and beyond.

A fitness-based publication could do something similar, with a health quiz that leads into a continuous engagement of more and more personalized content. This might launch a content journey that includes a custom workout routine, recipes, and more. There is no end to the possibilities, as long as publishers start thinking in terms of collecting insights that drive a strategy of smaller content blocks that can be assembled into personalized experiences, rather than long-form articles and videos.

Personalizing at the right time and right place

Successful retailers personalize every moment of the shopper experience from in-store to online, and across platforms and devices. A brand like Sephora ensures that they know everything about a customer on the website, the mobile app, and when they visit a store. This includes their loyalty status, recent purchases, what email content they have received, and more.

Sports enthusiasts are maniacal about following their teams and their players, and publishers like The Athletic have been meeting that need for years now. Subscribers indicate which cities, teams, and players they want to follow, and will receive personalized emails and news alerts. They also have a personalized homepage filled with “recent news” about content of interest and discussion groups with kindred and passionate fans. Fans can filter content to see news and information about their competition too.

Marketing at the speed of the customer is the “future of commerce.” It should also be the future of media. This can be done with personalization that creates a constant feedback loop of testing, insight collection and optimization.

Publishers should be constantly in “learning” mode – asking for preferences, running small tests, and re-incorporating results into the next email, page load, or SMS message. With a commitment to continuous incremental improvement and data gathering, the audience also starts to get more relevant experiences and sees the value in providing more feedback to the publisher, creating a virtuous cycle that can increase both loyalty and ROI.

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