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Customized Versus Personalized Marketing Communications

BY: Dan Rubin

As expert content marketers, we know that 1-to-1 communications between your brand and its customers is often considered the holy grail. And yes, while we want the endless permutations of our content to fuel a direct relationship that is meaningful to the consumer and valuable to the brand, there is a stark reality that the operational lift to pull this off (at scale) is often too high a hurdle.

And that’s where discussions on the benefits and demands of content customization versus personalization begin. The purpose of this article is to bring this discussion to the forefront of your content marketing strategy. Sometimes customization will be adequate and other situations warrant personalization. But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let’s define customization and personalization.

Customization is delivering content via segments created by dividing an audience into manageable cohorts. Best practices require that those cohorts go beyond demographics and are inclusive of “tribes” or characteristics that unite people. Tribes transcend age, geography, household income, etc. For example, “people who love Apple,” “people who need help with their finances,” “people who love trucks” are all tribes — and perfect examples of characteristics that can move your communications toward customization. Another important aspect of customization is that the user sets the customization parameters. It’s an explicit ask that puts the user in control. In the example above, a marketer may notice that an individual customer is a lover of Apple products, but the actual user might select iPhones over iPads and the content being served to them adjusts accordingly.

Personalization is delivering unique content to a specific person — true 1-to-1 communication. In this instance, each person gets content that was created specifically for them. For example, personalization may include data points such as transaction history combined with relationship tenure and geography. Data-fueled content like this is highly effective. The recipient will likely notice the white-glove treatment and should react positively. And importantly, personalization doesn’t require the user to make explicit requests. The organization takes on the data lift to determine how best to personalize without input from the user.

So, what are the factors that determine whether you should employ customization or personalization:

  1. Data capture. Do you have the right level of sophistication in place today to gather the data from users?
  2. Content volume. Do you have enough content to deliver a valuable experience for the number of segments or 1-to-1 experiences you envision?
  3. Data privacy check. Do you have the right mechanisms in place to make sure a user can make revisions for individual parameters?
  4. Cross-functional resources. Both customization and personalization require a level of technology, content and measurement resources all working in tandem. Is your organizational readiness aligned to your vision?
  5. Time and budget. Do you have the time to launch a personalization strategy (often at least six months)? Should you start with a customization strategy? And do you have a separate budget within your content marketing expenses to account for the development work associated with customization/personalization?

As you can see, the answer to whether your needs require customization or personalization is very specific. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are many elements across the people, process and technology spectrum that make 1-to-1 communications unachievable and, dare I say, not worth the time. Customization is more often than not the answer for most brands, but it also requires a level of sophistication that marketers can still be caught flat-footed on. The correct content marketing strategy for you requires consultation from experts. We are here to help.


Dan Rubin is a 25+ year veteran of digital and content marketing, bringing expertise from working with Fortune 500 clients across industry verticals, and is responsible for Foundry 360’s strategic solutions, marketing support for Foundry 360, Targeted Media Health, and Dotdash Meredith Accolades.

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