How to personalize content for locals

How do you scale content while maintaining a local touch? Columnist Megan Hannay walks you through some tips to help you create custom content that speaks to local users.

Aug 16

In late 2016, some hockey fans were pretty miffed with the NHL. It wasn’t because of a certain call in a game or a particular player’s draft standing. It was about their team iPhone and Android apps — or more specifically, it was about the fact that their team apps had been redirected to a one-size-fits-all NHL app.

While fans could still select their favorite team within the app, the new system didn’t have the local touch of the individual team apps. Red Wings fans, for example, missed their app that played a customized alert whenever their team scored, and some weren’t afraid to be colorful with criticism.

The switch was the result of a new partnership between the NHL and Major League Baseball, which also has a centralized app. But for hockey fans, this new, nationally focused messaging wasn’t always a good fit.

As I pointed out in my last column on local launches, scaling content while retaining personalization is a pesky problem for many brands, from small startups to national franchises (and sports leagues, too, apparently). While a single system creates consistency of branding and experience, it can also result in a disconnect, especially among more passionate users who thrive on customization. But some brands have found a way to retain a local touch.

First, create templates that encourage customization

Templates can be a great gift to local content creators, allowing brand owners to streamline structure while giving local team members the power of customization. But I think templates have earned a bad rep, as they’re too often used as an opportunity to copy/paste and forget.

Local car dealer websites, for example, have a serious problem with misusing templates. Most dealer sites need to show info on cars for sale, along with specs and pricing, as well as hours and contact numbers for their maintenance shop — so it makes sense that many local dealers purchase premade website templates.

But the problem is, many auto dealers stop there. Instead of creating copy that reflects their local store, dealers let the templated content remain on the localized website.

To create powerful brand templates, determine what details should remain consistent and where the “filler text” should give smaller teams decision-making power. Template models can be applied to website content, social posts, event planning, email marketing campaigns and local sponsorships.

Even the NHL is adapting to templates. The hockey app recently released a feature that allows iPhone app users to choose a team logo as their app icon. While the feature is a far cry from the team apps of yore, it’s a way for passionate fans to express their local fervor.

Explore local data

Local data + templates can make custom content. Take a look at real estate startups for examples of brands doing local data right.

But even if local data isn’t your bread and butter, aggregated information on local markets can turn into great marketing pieces. Airbnb uses booking data to determine which cities are trending among travelers. Don’t keep all of your numbers internal; data tells stories.

Embrace local humor

As an American tourist in Glasgow, Scotland, a couple of years back, I could sense cultural differences as I explored the city, but I didn’t feel a firm grasp on Scottish culture until I visited a comedy show. The jokes I found funny, and especially those that I didn’t get as much as the rest of the room, gave me a peek into the cultural lens I was missing.

And though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was learning a cultural introduction hack. In a recent conversation with Lexi Mills, an international PR and SEO consultant, she told me that local comedy shows are a trick she uses for learning about the tenor of a town.

“I always try and go to local comedy,” she said. “It’s a very good way to get really embedded in a community, and there’s this age-old saying in newspapers which is about tickling people. If you can make someone giggle, if you can make them laugh, you’ve got their engagement.”

Local humor is a toughie, though — get it wrong, and locals will wish you hadn’t even tried. But working with locals, via interviews or local team members, may turn up funny gems on how customers view their city and its place in the national conversation.

Highlight local team members

Team members are most brands’ most unique assets. People tell stories numbers can’t. That isn’t to say that your local templates should give complete free rein to personality, taking on a Myspace-circa-2004 flair. But giving personnel the chance to stand out not only provides for automatic unique content, it also gives customers local connection points.

A great example of this is Lyft, which has local teams in many of the cities they serve, with Twitter accounts to highlight team members “in the wild,” as well as local discounts and promotions.

Not every company has the means to fully fund communications teams in every location, but when a happy fan wants to connect, highlighting the accomplishment of a team member can be a great way to show some personality. And not taking the opportunity, when presented, can feel a little insincere.

To me, this is an example of a wonderful missed opportunity. Hopefully, the marketing department writer can at least put the piece in her portfolio.

Not sure where to start?

Experiment with targeted ads or even locally focused native advertising campaigns to test local content before launching at scale. And take a lesson from the NHL: Pause a beat before nationalizing previously local pages or campaigns.