As an industry, we’ve mostly figured out that if we don’t want content problems to sabotage our web projects, we have to plan ahead. Whether we’re creating the content with our clients or helping them to create it on their own, we know that it’s important to hire a writer or editor if the project lacks one, to write content with real humans in mind, and to design content for reading. We know—or we should know, by now—that we must approach each page of website content with a clear set of goals. And yet, even knowing all these things, we face dozens of complexities when it’s time to conjure up content from the ruins of an old website or a shiny new set of empty wireframes.
One such complexity is the problem of getting information from the brains of the people who Know Stuff—about products, marketing campaigns, business units, financial regulations, and so on—into the brains of the people who can write web copy. The first group of people are sometimes called “subject matter experts,” but that’s really long and a bit redundant, so let’s just call them “experts.” We’ll call the second group of people “writers,” and if they don’t like it, they can throw tomatoes in the discussion section.
Now, getting even semi-publishable writing from experts is notoriously difficult; they may be immersed in their “real jobs” and too busy to write even a first draft of content, they may not understand why web content matters at all, they may not be fluent in the language(s) in which you publish your website, or they may just be terrible writers. This problem was bad enough back in the world of annual reports and quarterly brochure updates, and it’s become even worse as more companies have realized that effective websites require a steady diet of fresh, consistent, well-written content.
The bigger the organization, the harder it usually is to get content to flow smoothly from far-flung experts to web-savvy writers and editors to the website itself. If you’re working with (or within) a very small company in which the CEO knows everything that needs to be on your new website, this probably isn’t a problem. In just about every other situation, it is. Happily, there are ways to make the process smoother, faster, and much more likely to succeed:
- Assign one person to manage the exchange of knowledge between your experts and your writer(s). That person might be a writer or a content strategist or just someone within your organization (or agency team) who cares about content and tends to get things done.
- Give that person as much authority and backup as possible. If the leaders of your organization (or client’s organization) make it clear that your content lead’s requests are high priority, the work often magically gets done.
- Define a content workflow as early as possible, preferably as part of a unified content strategy that includes a content audit (a detailed analysis of what content you have, what content you need, and how to bridge that gap), voice and tone guidelines, and a schedule for collecting and generating content.
- Use smart tools to collect, track, and revise your content. This one sounds like common sense, and, let’s be honest, it also sounds like something that isn’t really all that important. In fact, the right tools can make a huge difference, so that’s what we’ll talk about next.
Content templates to the rescue#section1
One tool I’ve found extremely helpful whenever more than a handful of people will touch the content on a new site is the content template. A content template is a simple document that serves two purposes: it’s a paragraph-level companion to your website’s wireframes (or other IA blueprints), and it’s a simple, effective means of getting useful information from your experts to your writers. (It is not the same thing as an HTML template you feed to your content management system.)
You might think of content templates as a kind of wizard for content development. Whereas branding, voice, and editorial guidelines are often prosy and stylish, the content templates I use are lo-fi, ugly, and relentlessly practical, and they contain at least the following information:
- The page title.
- A short description of each chunk of content that will be on the final page, including what each chunk of content must do, and what formats it can be in (paragraph, simple bulleted list, multi-level bulleted list, data table, screenshot, callout box, etc.).
- Examples of each chunk of information, written by actual writers and supplemented by inline guidelines as needed.
Note: Content templates are usually created by content strategists, but if your project doesn’t have a dedicated content specialist, the templates can produced by information architect, project coordinator, or other person who is in charge of your content. (If no one is currently in charge of your content, you have bigger problems and should put this article down and go hire, assign, or persuade someone to oversee content for your site.)
How content templates help#section2
Content templates can be useful for one-off pages like About Us, but they’re particularly effective when you’re working with whole classes of pages, like product pages or staff bios or departmental landing pages, all of which need to contain similar information, presented in a consistent way.
By letting you show your experts exactly what kind of content you need for each page, content templates can help you:
- Collect information more quickly, by giving experts an easy fill-in-the-blank structure to work with.
- Speed up and simplify the content development process by producing more uniform first drafts that are easier to turn into final web copy.
- Improve the structural consistency of your final content.
- Reveal any gaps between the communication needs of the organization’s various divisions and the content structure you thought you needed, while there’s still time to fix it.
What the final templates look like depends a lot on what you use them for. If you’re a consultant and your client is doing most or all of the content development work themselves, content templates can act as training wheels for the experts who need it, while also making life easier for the internal writers who will eventually produce final web copy. In this case, since they’ll be used to coach non-writer experts through the process of collecting and writing content drafts, they should include detailed instructions and plentiful inline examples.
If, on the other hand, they’ll mostly be used to organize the transfer of information from one brain to another, they can be extremely simple. (And if you happen to be working with a very clever client who can figure out how to automatically pull copy from a carefully prepared Microsoft Word content template straight into a content management system, then your content templates can also help prevent copy-and-paste-related repetitive-stress injuries, in which case everyone gets gold stars and cake.)
How to make them#section3
Before you can create content templates, you need to know what each page is supposed to do, and you need to have a pretty good idea of what new content needs to be created. Depending on the size of the project, you may need to do a full-on content audit to get there, or you may be able to just piggyback on information architecture work. Either way, that’s a topic for another article, so we’ll fast-forward to the point at which you know, for the most part, what each page needs to do and say. Now you’re ready to start making content templates.
Let’s say you’re building a site for a company that makes widgets they sell to customers in several industries. On the current Widget-o-Rama corporate site—which lacks a place for the company’s new line of extra-fancy widgets—the product descriptions are terribly inconsistent, ranging from a single vague paragraph to a full page of text with a fourteen-line table of feature comparisons. Especially troubling is the fact that many of the product pages (especially for the Widget 2.0 line) never quite say what, exactly, a particular widget is and why customers should pony up extra money for the upgrade.
Let’s look at a content template for Widget-o-Rama’s product pages. We know that we need to tell visitors who the product is for, what it is, what it does, and why they should buy it—that is, why it’s better than the alternatives. In the content template, we’ll go through each of those points, spelling out exactly what information should go on the page, and approximately what format it should be in. The content template this example was based on was written for users on various marketing teams, so it’s designed to elicit near-final-draft content, which is why we’ve included formatting guidelines. Here’s the first part of the template:
How do you use content templates?#section8
Content templates won’t solve every workflow problem you encounter on a big web project, but in my experience working on both in-house and consulting teams, they can help speed up the information-collection process, improve consistency across the website, and make the editing process easier and more orderly. In this brief introduction, I’ve only considered one kind of template and a few ways of using them in one or two possible content strategy processes. If you use content templates in your work—or might consider doing so—please tell us about your methods and ideas in the discussion forum.
I am obliged to Rockwell Automated for detailed technical information about their astonishingly advanced Turbo-Encabulator, information I have shamelessly abused for my own amusement.