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#section2
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#section3
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#section4
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?#section9
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.
25 Reader Comments
If I understand correctly, the content template is similar to a detailed contact form that is meant to be displayed on the site, as opposed to being sent to the admin. If so, one would need to actually find tools that would allow such functionality.
In any case, thanks for an informative post!
I think if your organization is big enough that you have a need for this level of content development, hiring a full-time tech writer or even contracting to a freelance tech writer may be useful.
A good tech writer will learn the basics of your operations quickly and they specialize in dragging information out of content experts and standardizing the format for dissemination both on web sites as well as internal and external printed materials.
*Forex,* I believe that this is to be used for internal use to develop the copy. It could be done in a simple text editor or Word (shudder). There are some web apps that allow collaborative copy development with comments etc. however the one’s that I have seen don’t allow the kind of detail that we have outlined here. I think a tool like this would be extremely helpful.
At our web design firm, the hardest thing we ever have to deal with is getting content from our clients. If they can actually provide some copy, it is usually poorly written. I’ve thought about creating some kind of “content writing form” like this but never got around to it… Im going to give this a try with our next project and see how it goes!
Although i like the idea of a content template, i didn’t saw the necessaries up to now in my daily business. Most of my customers neither understand about content for the web, nor for real people or in a keyword context.
This problem is from my side usually solved individually. Every customer is different and i can’t compare the efforts to create (or snatching) the content for a wedding specialist or that for an business consultant. Neither can’t i compare the methods used, so a general template may just be the way for the ‘easy’ customers that don’t have lingual skills, but a strong understanding of what their business (and their website) is about.
Overall, i like the ideas. But establishing this within my business is not that comfortable with the kinds of customers i usually handle.
Thanks for such a useful, accessible approach to low-fi content strategy, Erin. I like thinking of these templates as very structured Mad Libs, and a much better solution than just asking your client to write freeform. As you point out, content creation—whether by aggregation or writing—should come in the context of planning, ideally after a content audit. Content templates provide a sort of targeted content plan that can even grow into that broader strategy when you add fields like owner, expiration date, archiving plan, etc.
We’ve been working with templates for awhile for many clients who are writing or updating their own content. In general, by focusing on the content in addition to the design, we’re able to better control the quality of the overall product—never a bad thing for the client or their target audience, who no doubt seeks a consistently good and appropriate experience.
We’ve also explored using prescriptive content inventories to guide content creation. While Word-based content templates can offer example copy, they also leave open style and length constraints. A spreadsheet-based version can help control those variables: create a row for each content chunk on each page, and note per row the ideal character count, structure, keywords to include, etc. While all writers can benefit from these guidelines, some writers don’t do well working within such a tight structure—though the opposite can also be true. When newly-minted writers are actually engineers, they seem to thrive in structure and constraints of a spreadsheet!
You note the templates are “particularly effective when you’re working with whole classes of pages . . . all of which need to contain similar information, presented in a consistent way.” That’s where I’ve also found the greatest value in a spreadsheet-based solution. Just by scanning down a column, an editor can check to see if similar chunks of content are about the same length across all the product pages, or if all bios start with the same part of speech.
.@Ben Shoults: Thanks for clearing that up. From his/her commenting history, I’d say @forex is a comment spammer, so future posts from that account will be watched closely.
@vancouver web design: I’m always in favor of hiring web writers (whether they’re “technical writers” or not) — but even if you have a writer or a writing team, you still have to organize the information and move it around, which is the part that content templates help with. (I’ve used content templates as a consulting web writer.)
@Margot: Thank you for the excellent comments, Margot! I think you’re spot on about the spreadsheet version (including the part about which writers are likely to embrace spreadsheets), and that’s a great point about using an expanded version of content templates as a starting point for a larger content plan.
Over the years we found that it’s tremendously important to create/deliver a “wysiwyg”-like process for content creation to our clients. That’s why we use a CMS (Drupal) to setup content. We use possibilities like “previews” and “review chains” (via the workflow module) to make the client create his content with our help – and provide a “publish now” button to finally push the content to the right position on the project’s site.
Maybe that’s just a motivational kick, but actually it works fine for us and it increases the “fun factor” for our clients 🙂
I work with very small businesses, which means there are usually one or two people who have all the content knowledge stored in their heads. The are also usually very busy, and exceptionally hard to pin down. I read this article Yesterday, and am already incorporating it into my workflow. Thanks!
I have always laughed at the ways web professionals describe getting content from their clients. From many blogs, websites, magazines, and my own thoughts I have heard just about everything. I would love to keep track of these and make them public.
As for the content templates, they are a great idea! Especially with designs where the content must be a fixed size and length to not break a layout. I will most definitely be using this technique in content extraction as I call it. Thanks again A List Apart!
Your post covers all the intricate details. It deals with the problems encountered while making a big web project. Content templates do help up to some extent. The tips you have put will surely help speeden up the things. Thanks!
Before reading this article, I had never heard the term ‘content template’, but I think it’s a great idea. I will definitely recommend this article to the web designers and copy writers I know.
Thanks for your insight, Erin!
This concept is fantastic, and it makes sense as part of a seamless content-gathering process for web projects.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, however, on a what is certain to be a taboo subject: writing content without the guidance of a specialist.
How do you see a content template working (if at all) inside small web projects where the client writes everything?
As part of a small company, I serve as one part project manager, one part information designer, and one part aspiring front-end developer. We can claim there’s no room for a copy writer, but that would just be a serious flaw in our logic. As a temporary solution for gathering quality copy quickly, could something like a content template help to achieve decent results, even without a writer or specialist?
There are some great tips out there, We always tend to use a good writer that helps out our customers to create good content. Content templates is a great technique we definitly can use !
You have provided some real good information! This is like creating wireframes for content. One of the most important things in writing content for websites is consistency. This goes a long way in ensuring a nice look and feel on the website and also earns brownie points with the search engine crawlers.
I love workflows and templates as they give structure and green/red flags in discussion process.
This is a great tool and our team have looked at using it along with the other tools they use to guide content development, also use Drupal.
Workflow cuts down on time wastage not to mention resources
I’ve been writing and working in web in different kind of tasks for how many years but I Don’t have really this kind of brilliant strategy.. I thought my skills and knowledge are enough to use..SO I am very thankful that I’d read this article. You have taught me so much. Again Many Thanks!
We always have problem when it gets to the content. It always delay our projects. On top of that, clients do not understand the importance of quality of the content. All they focus on is the Design Work. Extracting the info for writing the content is extremely difficult job. I think this article is very helpful but the same Content template can not go for all the clients.
Thanks for the great post – I have been using something very similar for government & non-government web-writing roles to help structure the sites content for clients big & small.
A few little additions I find useful (obviously some aren’t needed in different circumstances)
1. Versioning control – Putting a version table in the front of the document and/or tracking changes helps keep everyone on track to where the content has currently evolved to. Often in larger corporations (or government) the content will change hands multiple times and undergo multiple revisions – without some revisioning history it can be very difficult for the end developer to finally insert all the content in it’s most present version.
2. Media Tracking – I usually put another field at the bottom of the content document for the client to list any nessecary media & files that need to be included inline or linked externally with the content. Depending on your styling, I usually get the client to make notes in a different font colour or in [ ] square brackets (to differentiate between normal bracketed content) letting the developer know when a PDF/File needs to be downloaded or an image inserted. The client then lists all files/images/media to be included on that page at the bottom with the filenames, image/file descriptions. The client then collates all media onto a CD/Zip archive and sends through. Makes it so much easier to make sure all media & files are included in the page.
I’ve used the spreadsheet option too – excel can be great for basic wireframing and the linking to multiple sheets can also give the client the feel of actually “clicking” through the site and the ability of the content to flow through the pages in a sequential manner.
I’d be interested to people’s favourite writing for the web guides & blog writing guides, I often send through a few URL’s to the client as many will have had no previous web-writing experience.
Far from it. I have found content templates to be even more useful to small to medium enterprises who have no large marketing or communication departments.
It helps if in your initial meetings between your designers/account managers and the client you focus 25% of even half the meeting explaining and emphasising the importance of content and the fundamentals of writing for the web.
Many of these clients have paid no thought to this or even know they need to, and the experience and professionalism this exhibits to your client strengthens your relationship and gives you a more successful end result than if you “design” your site and then dictate to your client where and how the content should fit.
The early adoption of “content is king” also prioritises the need for the client to pay attention and spend time collating, editing and reviewing their content before publishing, an attitude which helps immensely down the track when trying to chase content and media in the final stages of the project and keeping your go-live dates on target.
I work at a small firm and we do not have the luxury of one dedicated person to retrieve and manage content. Being so small as a firm, my troubleshooting of our workflow is hindered and not addressed as frequently as I like. I’m glad you wrote this article because it’s a need I’ve seen at this firm for a long time. The usual process is we request information from a client with no guidelines and the content that is sent back is almost always less than desirable. One page will have one sentence of copy, another five paragraphs.
I plan on taking your advice and working on some “general” content templates and then customizing them appropriately for each specific project’s needs. I hope this will help our firm’s content gathering from clients and keep it organized but most importantly useful.
Just when you think no one “gets” what its like for the managing directors, etc…out there who actually care what kind of site they are putting out, as well as standing behind. Just when you think empathy to be a lost cause that suddenly turned into some kind of inside joke you have yet to be let in on. Just when you think you’re the only one who understands that the content is the single, most important factor, that determines whether the site is set up to be a failure or a smashing success that you feel is worthy enough to put your name on. Just when you think you’re alone, you read an article like this, and you feel…….heard. And amazingly enough, hope is renewed again.
Thank you for posting this content.
This is a great idea. I have developed some templates that I use for posting to my blog. It saves time and makes the process easier. Not the same as what you are suggesting, but usefl nonetheless:
Thank you so much for this! It’s terribly practical. It’s one of those CS details that I was in dire need of. Kudos.
Small correction to the first sentence of the last paragraph in the ‘Content Templates to the Rescue’ section:
Currently reads, _”… 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.”_
Should read, _”… if your project doesn’t have a dedicated content specialist, the templates can *be* produced by *an/the* information architect, project coordinator, or other person who is in charge of your content.”_
Now, with that out of the way, I can tell you that I love this article. As someone who frequently collects information from sales managers who’d rather eat thumb tacks than write more than one sentence at a time, I appreciate your straightforward approach to prying content from their little brains. (I say this with all due respect to said managers, of course.)
Also, I’m a sucker for any reference to the Turbo-Encabulator.
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