What is adaptive content?

In the first of a five-question guide to adaptive content, we ask Noz Urbina, content strategist and founder of Urbina Consulting, to explain adaptive content, and how it creates both efficiencies for businesses and more relevant content for customers.

Noz UrbinaWhat is adaptive content?

Possibly more than you might think at first. Adaptive content is a content strategy technique designed to support meaningful, personalised interactions across all channels. It is content that is conceived, planned and developed around the customers: their context, their mood, their goals.

My friend and colleague Charles Cooper, in The Language of Content Strategy, puts it like this: “Content that is designed to adapt to the needs of the customer, not just cosmetically, but also in substance and in capability. Adaptive content automatically responds to the screen size and orientation of any device, but goes further by displaying relevant content that takes full advantage of the specific capabilities of the device being used.”

Charles’ statement ‘displaying relevant content that takes full advantage of the specific capabilities of the device being used’ has a lot of potential under it, when you consider what today’s devices are truly capable of. They’re fed by vastly powerful central servers which have access to extensive data from the device itself, the cloud, and the past history of the user using the device. For example today’s smartphones have GPS capabilities, but they’re only useful when the server uses those capabilities to send you content – maps, business locations and schedule times, directions, and so on – all unified in ways that are useful, consumable and most of all, relevant.

So taken together, my definition and Charles’ start to point at a mountain of potential that might not be immediately obvious. This potential is attracting organisations of all kinds, especially larger businesses with complex content.

Underlying concepts

Many don’t realise at first that adaptive content is more than simple personalisation according to previous purchase history or manipulation of content for different devices. It actually goes even beyond contextual content delivery according to things like location. Still, understanding simple personalisation and contextualisation is useful background for understanding how adaptive content works and why it’s exciting, so I’ll discuss them first.


Simple personalisation is something most web users will have experienced by now. It’s when, for example, a site uses the fact I have looked at or bought a lawnmower recently as a trigger to drive all geographically filtered, lawnmower-related content (usually ad content) at me. Google the phrase ‘lawnmower prices’ and lawnmowers will start following you around the web.

To achieve this, each item needs to be tagged with what we call ‘semantic categories’ that tell us – and the computer systems serving the content – who it’s relevant for. Categories might include things like ‘lawnmower ad’ and be matched against other things they know about me like ‘suburban’ and ‘homeowner’ to push content that I will likely engage with.


Contextualisation goes beyond delivering the right content for an audience, and starts to think about pushing the right content for a specific place, time or even situation. So you might have more subtle categories like ‘rainy day ad’ and ‘April ad’, which when applied in conjunction with the personalised ‘lawnmower ad’ would enable a content system to know that when it’s raining in my area, to send me an ad that says: “April showers bring May flowers – and grass!” with a picture of a suburban lawn.

I often sum up the difference between personalisation and contextualisation with this example:

  • Personalised: Here are some vegan food establishments in your city that you might like.
  • Contextual: Here are some dinner places within 5km of you, because you’re downtown and it’s dinnertime.
  • Personalised + contextual: Here are some vegan dinner places within 5km of you, because you’re downtown and it’s dinnertime, and you’re vegan (or have otherwise shown yourself to be likely to be interested in vegan foods, eg, you are health-conscious generally).

Warning: Don’t be a creep!

With both contextualisation and personalisation you have to be cautious and not cross the ‘creepy’ line. Commercial communications in particular need to be careful to give users the feeling of adapting to their needs and interests, and sending them relevant content, rather turning into the evil eye of Big Brother watching from within the cloud.

Adaptive content: taking the next step

Adaptive content goes deeper than applying tags to facilitate selecting and pushing around content automatically. It goes into the body of the content itself.

Imagine, for example, a large multinational consumer foods supplier with a large number of registrants on its recipe and food community site. All the user activity can facilitate sophisticated personas and profiles, allowing you to know, for example, if someone is a vegan, male, and between 50 and 60, and eventually what articles, recipes, and yes, ads, would be most relevant for them. However, it’s always still exactly the same content. Adaptive content can allow the actual content to be different, depending who is looking at it.

Adaptive content has metadata inside the source material itself it that defines when, where, and for whom specific parts of it should be displayed (how is handled by the UX design), or when, where, and how to reuse them. This allows the same source material to be used to provide personalised or even contextualised deliverables for a variety of audiences and scenarios.

Adaptive Content uses all the available knowledge and context to drive optimised content experiences, but it relies on embedded metadata in the content. For controlling this metadata, we use content types and models.

This is why adaptive content is getting traction in fields like B2B tech and e-commerce. The ability to create a smaller number of source assets but use them to deliver highly relevant output for all different audience types is very exciting. It allows you to address sales, support, services, marketing or documentation for a complex, mixed audience with a large product set and/or highly complex product.

Join the workshop

In our next post, Noz will be digging deeper into adaptive modeling to look at What is a content model – and why is it important to adaptive content? Or you can read all five adaptive content posts in the series.

Noz is also holding a series of training workshops in the UK and the USA this autumn on Content Personalisation Workshop: Adaptive Content Modeling – to explain the trend, and why it is increasingly on the radar of both businesses and content professionals alike.

Firehead readers can get a a 10% discount offer for any Urbina Consulting-run workshop (this doesn’t include workshops run in conjunction with conferences or third parties). Register with the code ‘UCNW10’ and you’ll get an extra 10% off entry (right now that means London but not New Orleans).

Noz Urbina is an author, content strategist and founder of Urbina Consulting.

    Enquire with us today

    Please complete the enquiry form below and one of the Firehead team will be in touch shortly

    I have read and understand Firehead'sprivacy policy

    I would like to receive updates, offers and news from Firehead