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Contextually-aware content amps up the online experience

Contextually aware content can enrich online experiences by anticipating user needs, but it also demands that users have a firm grasp of the customer journey and information architecture already in place.

Online digital experiences are becoming more personalized and interactive. Contextually-aware content that delivers...

mobile moments plays an integral role in this shift.

Simply put, contextually-aware content understands and adapts to a user's environment and situation. If a user is on a mobile device, the content received understands this and delivers a corresponding experience. If a user is returning to a website and has previously browsed certain items, the online experience is aware of this and the user's preferences, and delivers relevant content. New technologies are going even further to acknowledge that a user's environment is constantly changing. A user may be on a laptop in the morning and a mobile device when browsing the Web in the afternoon. A user may be a frequent traveler and in San Francisco on Monday and Toronto on Thursday.

Factoring in all these variables is a departure from traditional Web publishing and presents new opportunities. But it also requires a more complex Web content management architecture, alongside other tools, such as marketing automation and location-based technologies -- ones that require solid insights into user behavior and are supported by a firm information architecture.

Contextually-aware content can enrich the digital experiences for users, identify likely challenges of mobilizing multiple moments and provide tips for getting started with that process. Here's how.

From Web publishing to digital experiences

Contextually-aware content is part of a larger shift in how digital content is being delivered and consumed. The traditional model is a one-way exchange of information, but user expectations are increasingly making it a two-way street.

Most of us have experienced the one-way examples, which were initially delivered through full-screen Web browsers. If we buy ski gloves on our favorite outdoor equipment website, we'll receive recommendations about face masks, snowshoes and other cold-weather equipment. These cross- and up-sell offers are linked to our interests and are the stuff of successful e-commerce experiences.

Going that next step and adding context-aware content through two-way interactions is more complicated. It starts by sensing and responding to situational data from mobile devices. For example, once we install the mobile weather app, we expect to find local weather reports on our smartphones. After all, these devices already know our locations.

Linking context with intention 

Linking context with user intention is more complicated, but also more rewarding. For example, when we access travel websites from home, we can explore vacation options through highly visual shopping experiences. But when we connect with those same sites at an airport, we are engaged in travel experiences. We expect information about itineraries, delays and other late-breaking changes. Rather than shopping for trips, we need the content in context for getting there. Contextually-aware applications anticipate that dynamic and serve up content accordingly.

This approach relies on awareness technology that can connect the dots among disparate content snippets and deliver context-sensitive results. Mobile data, location and time become important factors for an online environment that senses our situation and responds smartly. We quickly come to expect an intuitive and seamless flow of information that leads to useful results.

Beyond a single Web presence

The transition from traditional Web publishing to contextually aware digital experiences comes with some challenges.

Most organizations have already invested in a Web presence that's tied to business goals and objectives, typically relying on Web content management (WCM) systems to organize, store and update the information. The next step is engaging target audiences in multiple settings -- both when people are out and about and when they are connecting through fixed workplaces.

Consider where situational awareness, location, time and other information can enhance digital experiences.

Many firms are wrestling with the impact of enterprise mobility -- the need to blend mobile apps with tethered systems. After all, when it comes to the total number of connected devices, mobile has supplanted desktops and laptops as the top means of accessing the Internet. But it's important to understand how mobile apps and full-screen Web browsers are often deployed in different contexts.

There's an inherent problem with responsive website design, the off-the-shelf solution promoted by most WCM vendors to improve mobile support. Responsive sites deliver single experiences across multiple devices. While useful for delivering relevant information for presentation apps, such as news and e-zine sites, responsive design falls short of true digital experiences.

The missing component is context-awareness technology that can anticipate intention and then deliver relevant content in the moment. The trick is identifying useful digital experiences and shaping the delivery environments to meet users' expectations.

Transitioning to context-aware content

Contextually-awarecontent requires flexible frameworks that link back-end resources with front-end devices and touch-points. Coming are capabilities for mobile moments. The following are three important steps for incorporating context-aware content with digital experiences:

An experience audit: Delivering context-aware content begins with an experience audit. Implicitly or explicitly, organizations are mapping their customer journeys as they develop a Web presence. More likely than not, these journeys initially assume tethered systems and full-screen browsers, rather than mobile devices and app-based experiences.

Take stock of the business processes and outcomes that these journeys support. Add mobility to the mix. Consider where situational awareness, location, time and other information can enhance digital experiences. Investigate where mobile devices and sensors that contextualize content can refine the customer journeys.

Finally, map the information flows associated with these multiple journeys to identify the digital experiences. Focus on mobile scenarios where a few choice bits of content, delivered via context-aware apps, transform customer expectations and results.

Content enrichment: Context-aware content is the currency for producing digital experiences. Behind the scenes are content-related back ends: repositories that manage documents, photos, audio tracks, video clips and other types of information. Notably, repositories rely on their own metadata schemas to index content. Text-based items are often broken down into meaningful chunks and tagged with additional metadata. Rich-media items are often managed as valuable digital assets where there is a digital asset management system in the mix.

It is important to verify that the various types of content are sufficiently granular to meet the needs of customer journeys outlined by the experience audit. Identify gaps in the information flows. Develop plans to enrich content with additional metadata to fill the gaps. Take mobile information access and delivery into account, including the range of data and metadata generated by mobile devices and remote sensors.

Be sure to revise and update the information architecture, or begin to implement one if needed. The architecture should describe the criteria for various content types, the relevant metadata and the steps for content enrichment. It should also define the back-end information stores, as well as the functions for front-end devices. This architecture is the foundation for contextualized content delivery.

Personalization: Taken together, the experience audit and the information architecture provide a roadmap for the next steps. Consider investing in personalization capabilities that enhance the digital experiences of high-value customer journeys.

Personalization entails explicit or implicit contextualized content delivery. Some actions are driven by explicit business rules -- predefined criteria lead to specific next steps in a process. Other actions are inferred, based on background information, personal profiles, prior activity, location or a host of other criteria. Various technology investments, including business rules engines, machine learning and big data analysis, offer promising pathways forward for implementing personalization capabilities.

Remember, there is a virtuous circle for personalization. Digital content, together with relevant metadata, create contextual clues. These clues, coupled with pattern recognition capabilities, can produce ever-more-personalized experiences. Before investing in innovative technologies, it is essential to model relationships. Describe the connections and make the implicit explicit.

Of course there are trade-offs with personalized content delivery. The costs of up-front investments must be balanced against the value of business results. Mobile devices are important endpoints for digital experiences, combining both explicit and implicit criteria.

Be pragmatic about the prospects for personalization to deliver content in context. Start with one or two high-value outcomes. Invest in the relevant technologies to produce the desired results. Assess the initial outcomes, then iterate through continuous improvement to refine the digital experiences and deliver ever-more-compelling results.

Context takes a village

Making the transition to context-aware content becomes a holistic effort, touching all aspects of WCM and content delivery. The target becomes developing capacity to deliver multiple digital experiences in real time, while continuing to invest in a consistent back-end environment that manages content in a cost-effective, systematic manner.

Few companies have the luxury of starting from a clean slate. But no matter how much they have already invested in content technologies, customer journeys continue to evolve, supported by an Agile information architecture and ever-better personalization technologies.

Savvy organizations must continuously identify the next-generation digital experiences that support mobile devices and mobile moments. In so doing, these firms can stay ahead of potentially disruptive threats by continuously improving their capabilities for delivering content in context.

Next Steps

Context brings real value to mobile strategy

MBaaS can facilitate digital experiences

Web upgrades open doors for customer experience strategy

This was last published in February 2016

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