Adaptive Content

Adaptive content: If you love your content, set it free
That little chunk of wisdom comes from a Sting song about relationships. It seemed like the perfect way to start this Blue Paper® because, if we’re being completely honest, technology and content have a strange relationship. In fact, they’re kind of like Sonny and Cher (another music legend). They work great together, but sometimes they just don’t get along. We’re not prepared to say which one is Sonny and which one is Cher, but let’s just say that technology tends to flip it’s hair behind its ear a lot. Their marriage is … complicated. Technology continues to evolve faster and faster, and the proliferation of devices and screen sizes, and the changing ways in which people use them, have caused serious challenges for content providers. With so many different ways to view content, how do you possibly maintain control over how the content gets presented? The short answer is you don’t. You have to move past the idea of content presentation and start embracing the idea of content as data. You’re essentially bringing Sonny and Cher in for some marriage counseling. The goal is to create a harmonious relationship between technology and content that gets them working together to communicate your message more effectively and to spread it further. You’re shooting for your own version of “I Got You Babe.” Enter adaptive content, a fairly new concept that’s perfectly suited to get technology and content back on speaking terms. At the core it’s a fairly simple idea—start thinking about your content like Legos®. The future of effective content lies in building structure into the content itself and letting go of how it gets displayed. Your content becomes the Lego bricks. There’s a distinct structure that enables the pieces to connect with each other, but the bricks can be assembled in a variety of ways. Adaptive content can dynamically adjust to device, screen size, and user preference, but still maintain your message because of the underlying structure built into the content itself. Because it’s so flexible, it can be reassembled and recycled. It can be more easily shared and spread. It travels farther, and takes your message to more users. Let’s look at an early example of adaptive content, one that actually predates the term. Karen McGrane, in her presentation Adapting Ourselves for Adaptive Content, notes that in the early 80’s, “TV Guide® recognized that they were not in the magazine publishing business. They were in the content business.”1
1 McGrane, Karen. “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content.” Karen McGrane. Karen McGrane, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <>.
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They began to approach their content, the descriptions of individual television programs, differently once they began to separate it from the confines of the printed page. TV Guide decided to build structure into the short, medium and long descriptions they created for every television episode. McGrane points out, “They realized that they were going to get more value from what they were creating if they had this in a clean base of content that they would be able to re-use in the future.”2 At the time, creating three different descriptions for each episode seemed like a lot of extra work since there was no outlet for the additional formats and no plan for monetizing them. But they moved forward anyway and created a vast database of clean, structured content that could be reused quickly and easily. Fast forward to today, and TV Guide’s structured content assets are driving the channel directories of satellite and cable networks all over the country, and of services like TIVO® and Netflix®. “All of the value, all of the assets were in [the] content; it was in the data,”3 says McGrane. Meanwhile, all assets related to creating the actual printed magazine, all of them, sold for $1 in 2008. Adaptive content provides a way to leverage your content in conjunction with the latest digital technologies. It’s about building structure at the content level in order to free your content from device and platform constraints, giving it the ability to travel farther and giving you a better return on your investment.

Why should your organization care about adaptive content?
That’s a fair question. Put simply, no organization wants to invest in something that won’t generate a return, right? Adaptive content is a means of leveraging a greater return on the time and money spent developing content for your organization. It brings the content portion of your content marketing efforts up to the same “technologically advanced” level as the other technology-based tools you use to spread your message. Things like websites, social media services, mobile apps, and the various devices that employees and consumers use to access your content.

2 Ibid 3 McGrane, Karen. “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content.” Karen McGrane. Karen McGrane, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <>.
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You can’t accurately evaluate the case for adaptive content without taking a moment to look at the evolution of the larger digital landscape. As technology continues to push relentlessly forward, organizations will be dealing more and more with adapting their content to a growing array of outputs. For example, as smartphone and tablet usage continue to grow, the number of different screen sizes has increased. According to a recent survey conducted by Mobify, a technology company that specializes in making the Web more mobile-friendly, among just the top 10 most popular global screen sizes, the largest screen is 13.5 times larger than the smallest one.4 That’s quite the range, and it effectively illustrates the challenge that companies face in creating and sharing content. How do you make a blog post or product page look the same on two screens that are sized so differently? The truth is you can’t, at least not in a way that’s remotely usable for anyone who’s trying to view it. This is exactly why you want Sonny and Cher to get back together. Sorry, we mean technology and content. And the good news is, on the technology side of the equation, there’ve been several new developments that have created a firm foundation on which adaptive content can flourish. There are three innovations in particular that create a great environment for adaptive content—responsive design, HTML5, and CSS3.

Responsive design
At the heart of responsive design is a fluid layout that adapts to screen size and device capabilities dynamically. Instead of a static page that positions text, images and rich media in exactly the same place, you get a page that displays different combinations of those elements based on what you’re using to view it. One of the most successful recent implementations of responsive design is the website for the “Boston Globe.” Web designer Ethan Marcotte was instrumental in the design and development of that site, and he described the basic technological elements of responsive design in an article for He explains: Fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries are the three technical ingredients for responsive Web design, but it also requires a different way of thinking. Rather than quarantining our content into disparate, devicespecific experiences, we can use media queries to progressively enhance our work within different viewing contexts.5 As Marcotte demonstrates in an example site he created for the article, the fluid grid provides the underlying structure that allows the pages to scale elements as
4 Mobify. “Global Screen Size Diversity Infographic: Sizing Up Man’s New Best Friend.”Mobify. Mobify, 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 8 Apr. 2013. <>. 5 Marcotte, Ethan. “Responsive Web Design.” A List Apart. A List Apart, 25 May 2010. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <http://>.
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the size of the browser window changes. Flexible images are similar in the sense that they allow for a fair amount of scaling up or down based on the size of the browser window. The media queries that Marcotte talks about, part of the CSS3 standard that we mentioned earlier, are where the real responsive horsepower lies. Marcotte describes them this way: A media query allows us to target not only certain device classes, but to actually inspect the physical characteristics of the device rendering our work. For example, following the recent rise of mobile WebKit®, media queries became a popular client-side technique for delivering a tailored style sheet to the iPhone®, Android® phones, and their ilk.6  Beyond information about the browser the device is running, media queries let you gather specific details like the pixel width of the device’s screen. Based on that information, you can deliver a single-column page layout optimized for that screen size versus a three-column layout that’s more suited to a desktop screen. You can also deliver site style image assets that are adjusted for different resolutions, reducing the size of the assets that a mobile device needs to download. All of this happens dynamically, delivering an experience that’s optimized for the device accessing your site.

CSS3 is the designation for the latest update to the CSS (cascading style sheets) standard set by the W3C® (The World Wide Web Consortium), the main international standards organization for the worldwide Web. Cascading style sheets designate how HTML (hypertext markup language) elements should be displayed, and allow for different styling based on a number of variables. In the context of responsive design and adaptive content, the main advancement is the media query. As we described, the power of the media query is the ability to get more detailed information about a specific device, and deliver styling and layout elements that are optimized to that device.

Another standard maintained by the W3C, HTML5 is the next iteration of HTML that’ll become the standard for Web development. While it’s still being adopted, HTML5 is designed to provide a more streamlined coding experience, eliminating the need for external plugins like Adobe FlashSM. HTML5 will have full CSS3 support and will be device independent, meaning that HTML5 code will work on all devices without requiring any modification.
6 Ibid
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Responsive design, CSS3 and HTML5 all work together to create a new platform for content. These technological advancements handle the heavy lifting in terms of how to display content, dynamically adjusting the display based on the physical characteristics and capabilities of a specific device. What they don’t address, however, is how to adapt the content itself to the needs of the user on specific devices. That’s where adaptive content comes in.

The basics of adaptive content
Adaptive content, in its simplest form, is the content marketers version of “reduce, reuse, recycle.”7 As that label implies, the idea is to create great content that is easily adapted to various outputs so it’s shareable. Instead of pushing to create a LOT of content, create high quality content that you can leverage in more places. Adaptive content is built for that purpose. Karen McGrane outlines the basic components of adaptive content8: •  Reusable Content—Content that is reusable means it can be used on multiple platforms and in many formats. •  Structured Content—This is the biggest differentiator of adaptive content. Instead of writing an article as a single piece, it’s broken into small chunks of content. Remember the Lego approach we talked about earlier? Instead of an article you have a headline, a lead, a main image, etc. •  Presentation-Independent Content—The content is raw and doesn’t contain any formatting. Think of it like the difference between writing something in Microsoft® Notepad® (plain text) versus Microsoft Word® (formatted text). Adaptive content is the Notepad version. •  Meaningful Metadata—Metadata is hidden data that describes the content for easy interpretation. In other words, it can be used to “tag” content chunks with certain descriptors that indicate when it should be displayed. Metadata is the foundation for delivering personalized content. •  Usable CMS (Content Management System) Interfaces—Proponents of adaptive content are pushing for new CMS options that are built from the ground up to manage and distribute adaptive content. Current CMS systems focus mainly on delivering content in a static, formatted fashion. Adaptive content requires systems that allow for content chunks that can be delivered without specific formatting. It should allow content producers to do everything that’s listed above.

7 Moon, Garrett. “Will Your Content Adapt, Or Will It Become Extinct?” Better at Marketing. Todaymade, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. <>. 8 McGrane, Karen. “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content.” Karen McGrane. Karen McGrane, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <>.
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Adaptive content in action: NPR ®
Before we go any further, let’s take a minute to look at an example of one of the most successful implementations of adaptive content in recent times, NPR. National Public Radio’s Director of Application Development, Daniel Jacobson, sums up the realization that drove the news organization to fully embrace the idea of adaptive content: The digital media world is in the process of dramatic change. For years, the Internet has been about web sites and browser-based experiences, and the systems that drove those sites generally matched those experiences. But now, the portable world is upon us and it is formidable. With the growing need and ability to be portable comes tremendous opportunity for content providers. But it also requires substantial changes to their thinking and their systems. It requires distribution platforms, API’s and other ways to get the content to where it needs to be. But having an API is not enough. In order for content providers to take full advantage of these new platforms, they will need to, first and foremost, embrace one simple philosophy: COPE (Create Once, Publish Everywhere).9 NPR realized early on that it would be challenged with the proliferation of devices and content channels. Although they’re not a small organization by any means, they did have a relatively small staff and limited resources. Their COPE philosophy, along with the API (application programming interface) they developed, were key strategies for helping them make their content more available and accessible. Jacobson explains their approach further in an article he wrote for ProgrammableWeb. He explains that COPE is really the combination of several related sub-philosophies10: • Build content management systems, not web publishing tools • Separate content from display • Ensure that the content is modular • Ensure that the content is portable In essence, he’s outlining the basic components of adaptive content. Write content in chunks, tag it with metadata but keep it separate from formatting and display concerns, and make sure that it has structure so it can be used in many different places. Then load it into a CMS that supports its underlying structure, and allows the content to be pushed to multiple distribution
9 Jacobson, Daniel. “COPE: Create Once, Publish Everywhere.” ProgrammableWeb., 13 Oct. 2009. Web. 10 Apr. 2013. <>. 10 Ibid
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channels. Here’s an example of what that looks like. This picture shows how the same content is displayed in a smartphone browser, smartphone app, tablet browser and tablet app:11

Adopting COPE, in combination with their API, has led to a massive increase in NPR’s page views. Because NPR’s content is infinitely adaptable, they were able to quickly and easily add new ways to distribute the content to users. In fact their page view growth increased by over 80% in 12 months.12 Not too shabby. Zach Brand, Senior Director of Technology for NPR, had this to say about the impact of their API: The API has enabled NPR product owners to build specialized apps on a wide range of platforms and devices, liberating them from being dependent on custom development to access the content. Through this process, we built our iPhone and iPad® apps, mobile sites, Android app and HTML5 site, some of which were turned around in a matter of weeks!13 NPR’s use of adaptive content through COPE and their API has allowed the organization to spread its content further, and allowed it to focus on creating great experiences for users on specific platforms, without having to worry about whether the content will display correctly. It’s made the company faster and more responsive, and helped it better leverage its primary asset, the content.

It worked for NPR, but is it right for you?
Now that you have a working knowledge of what adaptive content is, how it works, and how it takes advantage of the latest technological advances to better leverage content while providing a more personalized experience for users, let’s talk about how you can evaluate whether it makes sense for your organization.
11 Kruger, Lacey. “Adaptive Content for a Future-Proofed World.” NpENGAGE. NpENGAGE, 19 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. <>. 12  McGrane, Karen. “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content.” Karen McGrane. Karen McGrane, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <>. 13 Ibid
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The single biggest downside to adaptive content is that it’s really new. I mean really new. It’s so new that if you do research on the topic you won’t find a lot of published examples out there beyond NPR. In fact, the biggest stumbling block you’ll come across right now is finding a CMS to support the initiative. There are a few in development, and some offer elements of adaptive, but it’s not as if you can just grab one and go. And while you could always develop your own like NPR did, off-the-shelf solutions will start to appear before too long. However, if you begin to adopt the principles of adaptive content now you’ll be in an excellent position to realize the benefits once the technology becomes more widely available. Why does adaptive content represent a good investment for your business? The answer’s fairly straightforward. Adaptive content will help you become more valuable for your customers. As we’ve explained, the key to adaptive content is the fact that it’s broken into smaller chunks, each tagged with metadata that describes how each chunk is relevant. That opens the door to all kinds of targeting and personalization possibilities. With adaptive content, you can create a database of reusable, structured content that can be delivered to customers in whatever way they see fit. Because of the metadata, customers get content that’s relevant to what they are looking for or in line with their preferences. The other side of the equation is how adaptive content can reduce the strain on your organizational resources. Content marketing is a key marketing strategy for many organizations, and the challenge of providing high quality, relevant content on a consistent basis can become a real strain on resources for many companies. According to a 2013 report by the Content Marketing Institute®, 64% of the marketers they surveyed said they are challenged with producing enough content.14 With the proliferation of content channels and devices, that challenge is only going to become more and more formidable. Embracing adaptive content reduces that strain because it allows you to focus your internal resources on producing better content that you can leverage more and spread farther. You truly do more with less, which gives you a higher return on your investment.

14  Content Marketing Institute, and MarketingProfs. B2B Content Marketing: 2013 Benchmarks, Budgets, and Trends - North America. Rep. Brightcove, 24 Oct. 2012. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. <http://contentmarketinginstitute. com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/b2bresearch2013cmi-121023151728-phpapp01-1.pdf>.
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How to get started with adaptive content
You’ve decided to embrace the future and make the move to adaptive content. Welcome to the world of early adopters. But have no fear, we’ve got some tips to help you get started with adaptive content. Follow these steps to start building great things from your ever-expanding content Lego set: 1. Start writing chunks, not blobs As we’ve discussed, we’ve typically thought of content as blobs—an entire article or blog post, for example. Those blobs then become HTML code that displays the content on a Web page, and that HTML includes formatting code like font, size, color, etc. The first step towards adaptive content is to stop thinking about your content that way. Time to embrace the chunk. In order to do that effectively, you need to take some time to consider the structure that you’re going to utilize for your content. Figure out what distinct chunks you’re going to need. For example, NPR requires title, short slug, long description and dateline. Others are optional, but they have chunks for images, audio, video and bylines. Another thing that will help you effectively write chunks of content is a good style guide. Take some time to consider how you want your content to be organized and how you want it to read. Consider how you want the content to behave as it moves from desktop to mobile. Set some standards and document them so everyone has a reference to fall back on. 2. Master metadata We’ve talked about metadata a little bit already, and to reiterate, it’s defined as data that describes other data.15 An image, for example, may contain metadata specifying the size of the image, its resolution, when it was created, etc. Metadata lets you programmatically build pages instead of manually creating one. Remember our Legos analogy? What that means is your customers show up with their own set of instructions, and they assemble the content they want to see from your Lego set. Like we mentioned before, metadata allows your pages to be dynamic instead of static. If a customer comes to your site and hits the “Music” tab for example, all of your content that has metadata indicating it has to do with music will populate on that
15  “Metadata.” Definition of Metadata., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. < definition/metadata>.
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page. You don’t have to keep updating the page with new content, it gets pulled in programmatically because it’s relevant to that page. That’s the beauty of metadata. It will do the same thing in an iPhone app, or an Android app, or anywhere for that matter. It can be used for a lot of things, but it supports the delivery of personalized content. That’s key. Similar to content chunks, the important thing here is to take some time to consider what kinds of metadata you’ll want to attach to specific chunks. How will you want to filter or sort content? What kinds of options do you want to give your customers for specifying content preferences? Think through those things on the front end of the process to make your adaptive content the most effective. 3. Separate content from display This is another mind shift that comes along with adaptive content. Daniel Jacobson puts it pretty succinctly when he says, “The future of content management systems is in their ability to capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way.”16 Presentation-independent is the key phrase. As you begin to transition to writing chunks of content, focus on how you utilize the various chunks to optimize the delivery of information on various platforms. Don’t worry about how they should look. If you’re using adaptive content correctly the device will handle that part. You just need to make sure your content is high quality, relevant, tagged with great metadata, and able to be assembled like Legos. 4. Get the right tools, or build them As we’ve already pointed out, this part is the most challenging. If you were to jump headlong into adaptive content right now, you would have limited CMS options. However, adaptive content is seen as a compliment to responsive design, which continues to gain momentum. As HTML5 and CSS3 mature and become more widely adopted, which will undoubtedly lead to accelerated adoption of responsive design, adaptive content will be the next logical enhancement to that ecosystem of adaptive and accessible information. As this new view of the role of content continues to evolve, CMS options that support true adaptive content will start to become more common and available.
16  McGrane, Karen. “Adapting Ourselves to Adaptive Content.” Karen McGrane. Karen McGrane, 4 Sept. 2012. Web. 08 Apr. 2013. <>.
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We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and it’s probably a good idea to bring this conversation full circle. To reference another Sting song, arguably one of the best ways to encapsulate complex technological concepts, this is all about making sure that someone gets your message in a bottle. Technically, it’s about making sure that someone gets your message in whatever bottle they choose. Adaptive content is extremely logical and completely counterintuitive at the same time. It will force you to think of you content in an entirely different way, as chunks of important information that retain their informational value independently as well as in concert with other chunks. It will also push you to focus on the quality of the content, while it simultaneously blocks you from concerning yourself with the presentation of the content. The goal is flexible, reusable, highly valuable content that travels further, getting in front of more eyeballs. As the larger digital landscape continues to evolve, putting an emphasis on creating a responsive experience that adjusts to various screen sizes and device capabilities, online experiences will become less and less like the static experiences of print media. Content can’t continue to be developed like it’s going to be printed in a magazine or embedded in a static PDF. Content needs to be as flexible as the mediums that display it. Adaptive content is about building in structure at the content level in order to free your content from device and platform constraints, giving it the ability to travel farther and giving you a better return on your investment. Consider how you could apply the basics of adaptive content to your content marketing strategy to start to reduce the strain on your internal resources, and to better leverage the content you’re producing. Garrett Moon, blogger-in-chief for the “Better at Marketing” blog, puts it this way, “Content that doesn’t adapt becomes extinct.”17 A bit Darwinian perhaps, but that about sums it up. Time to adapt. 

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17  Moon, Garrett. “Will Your Content Adapt, Or Will It Become Extinct?” Better at Marketing. Todaymade, n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2013. <>.
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