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November 16, 2020

The personalization paradox (podcast)

In episode 84 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Sarah O’Keefe talks with Val Swisher of Content Rules about why companies fail and how to succeed at delivering personalized experiences at scale.

“It all has to be completely standardized in order to be successful. There have to be small, individual, standardized chunks of content that are devoid of format that can be mixed and matched. Then the output can be personalized to the person who asked for it and sent to them at that moment in time.”

—Val Swisher

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Sarah O’Keefe:                   Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way. In this episode, we talk with special guest Val Swisher of Content Rules about why companies fail, which seems terrifying, and also how to succeed at delivering personalized experiences at scale. And I imagine you’re going to tell us those two things are related, like do one to avoid the other.

SO:                   So, hi, my name is Sarah O’Keefe and I’m here with my special guest Val Swisher, who is the CEO of Content Rules. Val and I have some common affinities for a variety of causes and some needlework and some other fun stuff like that. And we run similar businesses so we actually talk quite often. Today, we’re going to attempt to distill that into a useful podcast for you. So wish us luck. Val, hi.

Val Swisher:                   Hey Sarah, how are you?

SO:                   I’m good. How are you doing over there?

VS:                   I am doing just fine here.

SO:                   Excellent.

VS:                   It’s a new day.

SO:                   It is a new day. For context, we are recording this on November 9th?

VS:                   9th.

SO:                   9th in 2020 so you can take that away for whatever you want. But Val, tell us a little bit about Content Rules and what you do over there.

VS:                   Well, we do a lot of similar things to Scriptorium, don’t we? Since you and I are in similar businesses. So as you said, I’m the CEO of Content Rules and I started the company in 1994 and we do a variety of things that are all related to content. So we develop content with contract writers and editors and course developers and all those kinds of folks. We do a lot of content strategy work, helping customers move from an, unstructured environment to a structured environment or helping customers with their global content strategy and how to go global, what they need to do to go global. And we also help customers optimize their content using special software that will allow them to program in their style guides and terminology, and make sure that their content is as good as it can be. So those are all of our different service lines.

SO:                   Yeah. And you’re right, there is a good bit of overlap. Although the funny thing I think is that we don’t actually see that much customer overlap, which is probably why we manage to get along, which is helpful.

VS:                   Undoubtedly. It is interesting though.

SO:                   Do, you have a book you’re working on?

VS:                   I do. I do. I am working on my fourth book. This book is titled The Personalization Paradox: Why Companies Fail and How to Succeed at Delivering Personalized Experiences at Scale.

SO:                   Okay, so let’s start with failure. It’s 2020 so I feel like that’s where we need to start. Why are companies failing at this?

VS:                   Okay. So there are a few reasons that companies are failing. The first thing is that they focus on the wrong place. Companies have spent years focusing on the delivery of personalized experiences, the delivery mechanisms of content. They’ve spent a lot of time, a lot of money, all around how they’re going to deliver content. And that’s the wrong place to start, they need to start with the content. And when you start at the end, rather than the beginning, you’re kind of setting yourself up to fail. So that’s one reason.

SO:                   So you’re saying they should start at the very beginning and that’s a very good place to start?

VS:                   Indeed. I could break into song right now.

SO:                   Okay.

VS:                   Yes. So starting with the content is the most important thing you can do. It doesn’t matter what delivery mechanisms you have, if you don’t have your content set up to deliver personalized experiences, it’s not going to work. So that’s the first problem.

VS:                   The second reason companies fail is that they are into the new, great, bright, shiny object. So they keep buying tools and they don’t think about it before they buy tools. They’re just like, “Oh, let’s buy this tool. This’ll do it. Oh, let’s buy that tool. That’ll do it.” And my new saying, I have a new saying, if you take the same crappy content and put it into your new expensive tool, you will end up with expensive crappy content.

SO:                   That seems accurate.

VS:                   So once again, we are starting at the content. And then the third reason is the same old silos that we’ve always had. I mean, we’ve been talking about silos for decades and decades, and if you really want to deliver personalized experiences at scale, you’re really going to need to play well with each other. This silo thing gets more and more difficult. So those are the reasons.

SO:                   So those are the three. Okay, so what are we talking about here? When we talk about personalization, what does that mean? What is a personalized experience?

VS:                   So personalization is when we deliver the right content to the right person at the right time on the right device in the language of their choice. So some people refer to it, we start referring to it as the Amazon experience. When I log into Amazon, boy, they know me really well. They show me everything I want to buy right now. They’re like in my brain, “Oh, Val, she likes shoes, we’re going to show her these boots,” this sort of thing.

VS:                   More and more, we’re coming to expect the content that we receive from a company to match what we need rather than having to go hunt for it. In fact, I was talking to someone over the weekend about this and they were telling me how frustrating it is for them when they go out to a particular financial site that actually has all their information. And rather than just showing them what they need, they know what funds they have and all this, they make him just search for stuff nonstop. And he’s like, “They know all about me, why am I putting this information in? Why can’t they just show me what I need?”

SO:                   That would be nice. I actually saw an example of this that I thought was fantastic and it was a credit card company believe it or not. And this was so stunning because they did the right thing. My mind was blown. So what happened was, now this was of course in the before times, I had bought a plane ticket because I was going somewhere and I went on to the credit card website to do something and was looking at my list of transactions and there was the charge for the airline, right? And underneath it, it said, essentially, “Hey, you’re traveling overseas. Would you like to set up a travel alert?” And I thought, well, that’s pretty good.

SO:                   Now, I’ve since seen a different version of this, where I actually got an email that said, “Hey, we noticed you bought a plane ticket and so we automatically set the travel alert for the place you’re going,” which was actually even better. But I was stunned because it was so unusual. Normally you have to dig through 18,000 menus to find the travel notification. Okay, in the olden days, children, we used to this thing called getting on airplanes and we would go places, we would leave our house and go to this big building and then we would get on the small tube in the sky and go places, yes. So, anyway, sorry, bad example right now. So personalization really just means deliver reasonable information, right? I mean, is it fair to say, you’re not really talking about, it doesn’t have to be that personalized, it doesn’t have to be, “Hey Val, here’s your stuff.”

VS:                   It’s a really, really good point. It’s very interesting you should even talk about that. When we’re figuring out how to talk to the customer, we need to be super careful about how we do that. It is so contrived, dear blank, and then they use the wrong name or it says dear [first name], because something’s screwed up. It really just means, give me what I need. Honestly, I don’t care if you know my name, as long as you give me what I need.

VS:                   We’ve been working on making it easy to find content for hundreds and hundreds of years literally. In fact, I was doing some research and back in the 1500s, there was a man named Pliny the Elder, not to be confused with the beer from the Russian River Brewing Company called Pliny the Elder. There was a guy called Pliny the Elder and he wrote a 37 volume, it was like an encyclopedia at the time, of the natural world. And book one was an index to the other 36 books. This was in the 1500s.

VS:                   So we’ve tried everything as we’ve gotten more and more technologically advanced. We have the card catalog for libraries and we’ve had indexes and table of contents and lists of figures and lists of tables, navigation on a website, navigation in any type of app or training or whatever.

VS:                   We’re at the point where people don’t want to have to pull that information. All of those ways of searching, ways of finding content is pulling that content. The onus is on the person looking for the information. We don’t want that anymore. We want it pushed to us automatically, just push what I need right now. I don’t have time to look in book one to see that what I want is in book 28. We’re out of that kind of time. The expectations are really different. So it’s not new.

SO:                   No, but we seem to be sort of bad at this. I mean, there’s the creepy version, right? Or there’s the failure, dear first name, which is terrible. And then, I mean, you mentioned Amazon, but my experience with Amazon is like, “You bought a washing machine, you’re obviously starting a laundromat. Let me sell you some more washing machines,” right? They seem to have kind of lost the chain there between somebody bought a washing machine, maybe I should sell them detergent. And so they’re not quite there yet, but you buy these big appliances and they immediately assume you want more like that. And so there’s something not quite right with that algorithm, but setting aside that example and thinking more about the business content that you and I mostly deal with, why are people so bad at delivering relevant content?

VS:                   Well, again, I think it’s because they’re focused on the wrong things. For a very long time, we were focused on trying to figure out enough information about you that we could go get the content for you. And even 10 years ago, 12 years ago, there were companies focused on that problem, how are we going to get enough information about you so that we know what to target our ads, so we know what to advertise to you? And now it would be we know what content to deliver.

VS:                   That problem has been solved. I mean, big data is here. We have more of a problem with controlling all the information they know about us than gathering. We know that, we see it every day. It’s the creepy, creepy and on the one hand, it’s uncomfortable. And on the other hand, if you want only the content that you want to see delivered to you, then I’ve got to know a whole bunch of stuff about you. So it’s time to start focusing on the ways that we create, manage, publish, and deliver the content.

SO:                   And so you talked about content and you talked about, I mean, there are certainly tools that can help with this, but they won’t help unless you do the content first. What about the silo issue? What are the problems there? What are the failures there?

VS:                   Where do you begin? I mean I once saw you do this fantastic presentation at a conference where you brought up a manual and it had nothing to do with the marketing content, it was just like, this happens all the time, you see companies’ marketing messages and examples and illustrations and positioning and their terminology and the way they talk about the product and then you move over to the knowledge base, or you move over to training courses or technical documentation and we have four different descriptions of the same widget when really we need to be sharing one description of the widget. So the more content that we each make in our own silo, the worse the problem is because now we have too much content, it all is kind of sort of the same, but not really, we cannot reuse it across silos, we’re restricted in terms of what we can deliver. We can only deliver that which we create. It’s expensive, it’s inefficient, it’s often inconsistent. There’s nothing good about it. So silos get more and more exacerbated when we try to deliver personalized experiences at scale. Same problems, just maybe exponentiated a tad.

SO:                   So what does that mean? I mean, are we talking about one monster piece of software to rule them all?

VS:                   Well, so I would say we actually need to step back from the software and really focus on the content because how people store and manage and publish the content is definitely a challenge to solve, but we need to teach people how to create the content. And you know this as well as I do, the only way to deliver a personalized experience at scale is to write your content in very small units, call it a component, call it a chunk, call it a topic, call it whatever you want, but a very small unit that’s self-contained, that can be mixed and matched with other small units, devoid of format so the format comes in at the end and have this library, searchable, tagged, find-able units of content that at the point of delivery can be mixed and matched so that an output is built, a format is applied and publishing happens on the right device at the right time, etc.

SO:                   Yep. And I’m totally there with you, but all the non-tech writers just ran screaming from the room.

VS:                   I know they did. I know they did. They ran, they’re hyperventilating, but it gets worse for them. It gets worse for that. Actually.

SO:                   Tell us more.

VS:                   It does, sorry.

SO:                   It’s 2020. Tell us more.

VS:                   Well, so here’s the paradox. The paradox is that in order to be successful with this, in order to be successful mixing and matching these little components so that they create a thing that’s specific for you or specific for Tom or Sally or whatever, each one of those components needs to be standardized at every level. The terminology needs to be standardized, the grammar needs to be standardized, the style needs to be standardized, the tone of voice needs to be standardized. It all needs to be standardized to create an experience that is not disjointed, that at best kind of reads funny or looks funny because we’re not calling a widget a widget, we’re calling it 20 different things and at worst completely confuses the person you’re delivering it to.

VS:                   It all has to be completely standardized in order to be successful with this. So they have got to be small, individual standardized chunks of content, devoid of format that can be mixed and matched so that at the point of publishing, that output is personalized to the person who asked for it and sent to them at that moment in time. So yes, everybody’s now screaming. “You’ve taken away my creativity, danger Will Robinson! Creativity, creativity.”

SO:                   And I’m really sad right now that this video will not be captured on podcast. Excellent robot impersonation.

VS:                   You can see me with my hands like robot. Yes, sir.

SO:                   Okay. So having covered all the 2020 buzzwords, COVID travel, etc. What about artificial intelligence? Is that going to help us with this mess?

VS:                   So it will, it’s going to fundamentally change the way all of this happens. So with today’s technology, we have some constraints. One of the constraints is that we have to tag each piece of content with enough metadata that is appropriate, that systems can locate each chunk of content that needs to be delivered for your personalized experience. So that’s the first constraint that AI is going to pretty much mitigate. In an AI engine when they become ubiquitous, that cognitive system itself sets up its own matrices that we don’t tell an AI system, “Here are your tags,” it sets it up. And we tell it, “Here are the things that go together,” we train it, “Here are the things that go together,” and we train it with a whole bunch of information, and then it continues to figure it out on its own. So the locating of the content is going to be much easier.

VS:                   Also, AI systems can look through any kind of content. It doesn’t have to be a structured content. It can look through emails and social posts and all kinds of other content in order to grab what it is you need at that moment in time. And it does it really fast and it learns over time what’s correct and what’s not correct. So the whole process of locating that information and grabbing it, and the whole percentage accuracy goes up, right? The longer it goes on, it’s more likely to be accurate. So that’s one way.

VS:                   The second way is right now, we are constrained by output types. We really do have to define the output type. In the AI world, we won’t need to, it will just send you information. It will be able to on the fly know, “Oh, this is what you need, I’m going to take all these different pieces and I’m just going to send it to you.” We won’t need to define in advance what it’s going to look like. It will be able to do that on its own. We’re not there yet, we’re definitely a few years away minimum, probably… I mean, you and I have plenty of customers that aren’t even at the point of being in structure yet, right? They’re just getting there. So I think there’ll be companies that can leap frog right to it once AI systems are all over the place, but for now we are constrained and AI will take those constraints away.

SO:                   So that’ll be fun and hopefully not at all troubling. All right so it sounds as though we’re going to need this book. So is it out yet? Where can we get it? When can we get it?

VS:                   Any minute now. So the book is not out yet. It’s November 9th. It was supposed to be out at the end of October, but it’s 2020 and nothing happened on time in 2020. It will be out in the very beginning of 2021. You’ll be able to get it on Amazon, or you’ll be able to order it from XML Press. And again, the title is The Personalization Paradox: Why Companies Fail and How to Succeed at Delivering Personalized Experiences at Scale. And I should mention that I do have a coauthor, her name is Regina Lynn Preciado. Regina and I have worked together for, we got to 15 years and it just got blurry beyond that because we’re old, we’ve worked together for a very, very long time. She’s a phenomenal content strategist, I’m really a happy to have collaborated with her on the book.

SO:                   Awesome. So we’ll add all of that information to the show notes and hopefully with any luck XML Press or Amazon or somebody has a pre-order page up.

VS:                   XML Press does and the Content Rules website also does.

SO:                   Okay, great. So we’ll add some version of those. And I think with that, Val, thank you so much, I’m going to wrap this up. This has been the most fun I’ve had today by a long shot actually.

VS:                   Oh, goodie. That’s cause you like my robot impersonation. Danger, danger.

SO:                   The robot was very helpful. So thanks again, and hopefully I will see you in person at some point in 2021 and not just on a screen because I’m kind of over the screen thing, but we’re lucky that we get to work at home, but…

VS:                   We are. And thank you so much for inviting me on and it’s always fun to talk to you.

SO:                   You too. So with that, thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.