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Responsive Web Design

Episode 156: Spotlight: Cleve Gibbon

This week’s spotlight shines on Cleve Gibbon, who talks to Karen about the facts and fiction of developing more personalized content.

If you think about a content management system, it’s there to actually manage content in the management life-cycle. Managing experiences, that’s context and content, and that’s a very different proposition.

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This Week’s Guest

Cleve Gibbon

Chief Marketing Technology Officer, Cognifide

Cleve Gibbon is a technology evangelist with over 20 years of experience delivering digital platforms for large organisations. Currently the Chief Marketing Technology Officer at WPP Digital Technology Consultancy, Cognifide, he focuses on freeing clients to effectively make, manage, measure and mobilise digital content. Cleve is responsible for the innovative marketing technology solutions that help Cognifide’s clients to be profitable online, engage effectively and execute with confidence on their digital marketing strategies.

Cleve is a regular conference speaker on content strategy and marketing technology. He blogs at

Episode Transcript


Hi, this is a Responsive Web Design Podcast, where we interview the people who make responsive designs happen. I’m your host, Karen McGrane, and I’m flying solo today as Ethan has been unavoidably detained by a case of the Mondays, which is a delightful turn of events because I get to spend the whole time talking with our guest today, whose name is Cleve Gibbon. Cleve, it is so great to have you here.


Karen, it’s great to be here.


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Thanks for tuning in, and thanks again to Gather Content for sponsoring our little podcast. Karen and I are thrilled to have them involved.


For those of you who are following along at home, normally here on the Responsive Web Design Podcast we talk to organizations and companies that have pulled off a large-scale responsive redesign. But sometimes we do what we like to call Spotlight Interviews, where we like to talk to somebody just personally who we think is doing interesting work that in some way, shape, or form intersects with the kinds of things that Ethan and I care about.

Today, I’ve invited Cleve on the show. He’s the CTO of a company called Cognifide. And I personally, if you know any of my interests, really enjoy talking to Cleve about his worldview on how content fits into an organization’s publishing process goals, and particularly how organizations adapt their content for different uses and contexts.

So Cleve, let me start this one out with an easy one. Maybe you just want to introduce yourself, tell everybody a little bit about your role, and maybe even just a little bit about the types of things that you work on.


Okay, thanks, Karen. So, my name’s Cleve Gibbon, I’m CTO of a company called Cognifide, and we just deal in content exclusively. I live in London, I’m a technologist, and I’ve done a lot of work in and around content platforms and how to actually land them within organizations. And just going back a little bit, I have a degree in computer science, and I decided to go back to school when someone asked me a simple question, which was, “How do you know whether a design is a good design?”

Being the kind of person that I am, I couldn’t let it go. I went back and did a doctorate and answered the question. And then I left academia and started building trading systems for banks. I worked for the likes of Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and even Lehman Brothers before they disappeared. Then I left the financial sector and then decided to do something really easy, and started building content platforms.




And I joined a company called Cognifide, and thirteen years later I’m still trying to solve the problems that actually arise when we come to deal with content, and I wrangle with it daily. Now it’s at a stage where the channels, the multi-channel, the omni-channel questions are becoming very hard problems and the solutions to them are so varied that it’s not really the problem I’m interested in, it’s the way in which we approach them. That’s something I’d like to talk about today.


Well, I would as well. I kind of laughed when you talk about the content problem not yet being solved. [laughs] I joke about it all the time where I’m like, you know, the types of problems that I solve, every company has them. No matter how great I am, these problems are not going away. In fact, they’re getting more and more complicated.

So, that might be an interesting entrée, or at least a nod in the direction of the theme of this podcast. Maybe we could start out and you could just address, from your perspective when you’re working on content platforms, how does the question of this crazy new multi-device world that we’ve found ourselves living in play into the decision-making in the work that you have to do with different companies? Do companies publish different things to different devices? Do they need a mobile strategy that helps them figure out the mobile context or understand what their customers are doing on different devices? Or is it still more of a holistic strategy that just takes every device into account?


So, what actually happened—ten years ago, everyone had their mobile platform, the m-dot stuff; they had their own desktop variant of things. They also had apps starting to come out. What we saw was responsive web design was just one way to consolidate. What happened very quickly was everyone started getting very hooked onto the technology aspects. They started thinking about feature phones, tablets when they came out, mobile phones… And then we all started to think, “We should just be looking at the devices.” And then what happened very quickly was responsive web design came along to sort of address that problem.

And now, no one talks about responsive web design as the starting point, it’s now just the new norm, you just expect that to happen. But still, the device channel and all of those problems still exist, and now we see a layering. So, if you think of responsive web design as you’ve just got to do that, that’s what’s normal, and then when people start thinking about personalization of content and omni-channel, there are so many other problems that need to be solved, and it’s that layering that is challenging people, and there is no holistic way. And so we’re starting to see people focus on different areas that they can solve, and it’s actually understanding which areas to approach first—that is really the problem.


I could not have said that better myself. So, I would actually be very interested to hear from you, what is the problem in the wide range of things that companies are wrestling with with their content platforms and publishing processes? One of the things that I talk a lot about in my work—and that I know that’s important to you—is just the idea of how digital publishing is different. It’s not a sheet of paper, the stuff isn’t fixed on the page permanently. You have the ability to change or tailor the content, tailor the experience based on a whole bunch of criteria.

I think one of the things that comes up is there’s the sense of, “Oh, well mobile devices are different, so we should tailor the content to the device.” Turns out that’s not a very productive line of reasoning, and I’m glad to see our industry cut that off. But the desire to tailor things—dare I say it, to personalize things—or contextualize the information is still there. So, how do you approach those types of problems when you’re working with different companies?


So, there are two extremes. The first extreme is where you create content that is for the general masses. You broadcast, and so you say the same thing to the same person, and it does not resonate. Nobody wants to be in that camp.

Everyone wants to be in the other camp, whereby you can tailor a message specific to a one-to-one communication, a personalized one. I’ve not seen anyone do that at scale. Even though people talk about it, I have never seen a whole outfit, an organization, geared across all its channels, deliver that right message to the right person at the right time. That personalized message; that highly personalized message.

What you actually start seeing are cohorts, and you start seeing segments of people that are more interesting. So, I’m more interested in a forty-year-old Caucasian in Spain who likes to stand on one leg, for example, and you fill that audience out and then you deliver and craft content to that particular segment. That seems to have more legs. That seems to be the way in which people are approaching it, and see segmented content for those particular audiences is resonating. So, highly personalized is sort of aspirational, a “North Star,” but actually where you’re getting bang for your buck today is around those segments.


I completely agree with what you’re saying, and I think, like you said, many organizations have this dream of personalization, but the challenges that they face in actually executing on it mean that they either have to scale back their ambitions or really focus on something achievable. Can you talk a little bit about the level of effort that goes into even a segmented strategy? Because the way I describe it is it’s very easy to prototype something like this, like it’s very easy to say, “Oh, and what if we had a unique experience for gay and lesbian travelers who love horseback riding?” It’s very difficult to outline what all of those potential segments could be and then create all of the different variations of content that you need to create and then serve those up dynamically in a realistic timeframe and scale that actually delivers on that sense of “You know me” that those people want.


Yeah. So, if you think about what you need to do from the consumer’s perspective, you need to be able to create and craft those customer journeys that make sense across whichever channels that you think are important, and where the consumer is going to be. Actually getting an intimate view of those customers’ journeys for those particular channels that are actually holistic and that actually move from one touch point to the next is very difficult to produce. But that is your scope.

Then you think about those consumer journeys, and then you look inside to the enterprise and say, “Who are the agencies, partners, and vendors who are going to build and craft those customer journeys to bring them to life?” That is the enterprise journey that I see, and that’s what I work with. Because a CMS, for example, it is not for your consumers. The CMS’s customers are the people who create the content that actually go out to your consumers. And so you have all these enterprise journeys that need to be crafted as well so that they can actually have those customer journeys that the consumer enjoys.

And then you need to have all the data that you need to actually create the segments so that you can then craft those enterprise journeys that will actually deliver the customer journeys. When you layer it like that, you realize that you need to invest in actually creating the processes and putting the people in place with the right talent and skill sets to actually operate those enterprise journeys. That’s where I see most companies struggling, is that they have to go through their transformations, whether it’s digitally or whichever, to actually get their organization in an agile and fast, sustainable and systemic way to deliver those customer journeys back to the consumer.


I worked with one client recently that I will only mention somewhat tangentially, but they recently did some tests on personalization, and after a fair amount of work it turned out that the new personalized experiences that they were delivering to consumers actually performed worse. [laughs] It was actually a pretty shocking outcome for what wound up being quite a lot of work.

What my hypotheses was in talking with them was that they had essentially two problems. The first, and probably most obvious, was that the content simply was not structured or tagged in a manner that would allow them to do anything meaningful with it, and they needed to go back and reverse-engineer a vast amount of content and metadata to make it work. And then even having done that, they didn’t actually fully understand how their customers would want something to be personalized. Everybody jokes about Amazon, it’s like, “Oh, you bought a vacuum cleaner! This must be the start of a vacuum-cleaner-purchasing hobby and you want to see all these other vacuum cleaners!” That the logic that they had behind it was not very sophisticated.

Do you see that as a breakdown that you run into? Where do you think that the magnitude of the effort is?


I’ve tried to do a cost-benefit analysis on personalization. So, if you think about what is the benefit to the organization for having that personalized experience out there in the wild? And then you start looking at the cost of actually realizing that benefit. So, to be able to have that one-to-one personalized interaction, if you think about a web page… We did this with one customer—so, you think about the page, and on the page there’s just one portion of the page, call it a component on the page, and you think what do you need to do to actually personalize that to a particular person? If you take that page and you turn it to the side, you’ve got many different content fragments that could be substituted into that page at that point to be personalized.

To create each one of those content fragments, for example, you’re going to have to understand what message needs to be put in place. You’ll then need to structure your content so that you can get it into that position at that point. Then you’ll have to create the technology plumbing around that. Then you need to marry that with the data so that it’s actually delivered at the right time. And then you have to have all the people and all the agencies required to be aligned around how you do that. And then you look at the cost of doing all that, and then you think about the benefit that you’re going to get from that personalized experience… Most will just run a mile when they understand the amount of work that’s required just to even consider doing that. So, that’s when you go from the one-to-one to really—actually, it’s not a one-to-one, but it’s a segment, it’s a cohort. And then you need to figure out which audiences are going to benefit from that, and then you start having a real conversation around the cost-benefit.


I love that analysis. I’m always struck by how many organizations have this dream of delivering more targeted marketing, more tailored marketing, and yet do not seem to grasp the sheer level of effort that is going to go into it, not just from a content or a technology standpoint, but really from a people standpoint. Are there situations in which you think it’s more likely to be successful? Like if a company comes to you and says, “We want to deliver more contextualized messaging, more personalized messaging,” what has to be true in that organization in order for you to go in saying, “Okay, I think we can pull off something here that will work”?


There’s a few things you need to have in place. You need traffic. That’s one thing, because you need to be able to understand what’s happening on your site. And before you have traffic, you need a website that you can measure stuff. So, you need analytics so you can get the clickstream data so that you can analyze it; you need the traffic so that you can actually make some real good decisions based upon the volume of stuff that’s coming through. You need to be able to test and learn, so you need the ability to very quickly substitute stuff in and out. It also means that you need a release process that enables you to continually update and adapt based upon what you’re learning.

And so when you start putting the foundational things that need to be in place to be able to be successful, there’s a few things that have to be in place, but you cannot do that for everything, so you have to start really small—but think big, but start small. Then iterate, and iterate, and iterate. What I see is, “I need to be able to do everything in a year’s time,” when actually what you need to be able to do is enough today and then build on it. But it’s incredible; everyone understands that message, but the commercial cycles, the budgets, the expectations from management and senior management means that a lot of people start with a big bang. That’s the approach, when I talked about it earlier. If you do approach things right and you do actually stand behind those words, then you have to start small but think big.


Gosh, I think that’s great advice for anybody who’s trying to do anything on the internet. Speaking of that, I would love to just ask sort of broadly about when you talk about content platforms, what sorts of technology are you talking about? Do you have particular content management systems that you tend to work with? Does that fit into a larger marketing suite or experience suite that plays nicely together?

One of the questions that I always get asked all the time, and I bet you do too, is, “Which is the best CMS out there?”


[laughs] I refuse to answer that question. I love that question. It’s always, “It depends.” So, we work with the Adobe Stack, we work with SiteCore; we have dealings with Drupal… I was recently at a CMS experts group, and they had representation for many different vendors, for small to large vendors, to all sorts. But what generally happens is you’re seeing the words “Content Management System” disappear and it’s been replaced by “Experience Platform,” and that is a very big shift.

If you think about a content management system, it’s there to actually manage content in the management life-cycle. Managing experiences, that’s context and content, and that’s a very different proposition. And so when I look at what we’re doing, there are experience economies, experience business—Adobe is more in the experience platform, SiteCore is approaching that, and then you’ve got the types of customers that they’re sort of embracing. So, Adobe is very much the enterprise-level customers and they need an enterprise-level platform to do experiences. SiteCore sort of struggles in the medium-to-large tier, and then you’ve got various other vendors doing different things.

So, when you say, “Which is the best one?” It depends, because you’ve got to figure out who you’re targeting and what do they actually want. Do they really want purely content, or do they really want to deal in experiences?


Can you explain that a little bit more? One of the things that I run into a lot, or that comes up particularly in the context of this podcast, is what I might call the content layer, the content repository, and then on the other side is the front-end, the tools that actually handle the theming or the layout, or the actual physical publishing. I think what you’re describing is there’s even a third component to that, which is the experience platform that might encompass personalization, or marketing automation, or all the other tools that people internally need to make decisions about what shows up on the website then.

When you’re thinking about that, one of the things that comes up a lot is “Are you buying a monolithic platform?” Is the benefit in the Adobe Suite, for example, buying a monolithic platform that does everything? Or are you separating out, say, for example, the content repo from the front-end, using whatever you want on the front-end and getting the content out of that repository through an API?


So, you hear terms like “headless CMS,” and that’s a thing. But whenever I hear the words “headless CMS,” I always think, “What’s the head?” And so, the head tends to be, as you say, it’s the theming, it’s the data, it’s the CSS, all of those pieces, the in-channel things that will take the headless piece and then marry it up with whatever is required to deliver that experience back into that channel, and each channel will have a different head. The headless piece is hard, because that content needs to be raw, it needs to be modular, and it needs to be self-describing.

However, the systems that are there in place to actually create the content typically are web content management systems. And so what you have is a web content management system and you still get the markup, which is web markup, which is trapped into that headless repository, and it isn’t clean. That’s one of the challenges that you have—you don’t have clean content that enables it to be truly omni-channel, and so you have to, as an organization, build your own APIs to cleanse the data, make it scalable, make it raw, make it modular, make it self-describing so that the system’s in-channels, the “heads,” can then pull it and then create whatever experience they need within that channel. That is a very different challenge, and what you’re seeing with these big enterprise systems is that they’re trying to do all of that while actually what enterprises want is their own view of doing that. Therefore, they have to unpack what these enterprise systems have and then repurpose it do those specific business needs.


I seriously could sit here and talk to you about this all day, but I know you’re a busy person. Maybe I could ask if you have any advice. There must be all kinds of companies out there that pay you very well for your advice on how to deal with these problems. But if a company came to you and said, “Hey, we’re looking to perhaps replatform our content management system. We want to serve content to a variety of different devices. We are on board with the idea that we want to personalize or contextualize our content somewhat. What do we do?” What advice would you give to those people about how to approach that problem or where to start?


The advice I would give, it’s always the same: If you can boil this down… Prioritize. You hear, “We’re all too busy,” and I may be a bit hard here, but “busy” is just your failure to prioritize. So, what you need to be able to do is to figure out which of your customer journeys are going to give you the best business benefit. That becomes your poster child, and then you start figuring out what you need to do to deliver the right experiences for those customer journeys, and then build the necessary technology, you build the necessary content architecture, you get your communication plans in place, you get your data that’s required, and you focus on that.

It’s extremely hard, but you need to find the right project that you can succeed on as your first step, and then build on top of that. That is a business challenge to figure out what’s the first thing to do, but then you grow from there. You then add your customer journeys, you then build out the operating models internally to support those customer journeys, and then you apply the appropriate tech to scale and make it more agile and get it there as quickly as you can. But you have to find the right journeys.


Well, I think that is fantastic advice, and honestly relevant to anyone that is sorting through any sort of content platforming or responsive redesign. So Cleve, thank you so much for taking the time to come on our little show here. It’s a pleasure to get to talk to you, and I look forward to hopefully getting to talk to you again some time.


Perfect. Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.


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