The Content Corner: The Joys of the Content Template

Nov 2, 2015
Website wireframe sketch on digital tablet screen

Many of us depend a great deal on subject matter experts (SMEs) to generate content that will eventually end up on our site. These are men and women that have critical knowledge to share with our audiences, and it is our job to make it match our various editorial and content guidelines. Using a simple tool called content templates can be very helpful in making our jobs as communicators and the SMEs’ job as straightforward as possible.

To Each Their Own

My first professional job focused mainly on getting complex information from computer scientists and turning it into easy-to-ready copy that was presentable online. It can be a great learning experience, but it can also be very frustrating if both sides (SME and writer/editor) don’t know and respect their roles.

It’s very common for SMEs to not be aware of content strategy nuances or the importance of keeping a post to under 1,600 words. This would be like expecting your all-star pitcher to also be great at hitting. We live in a world of extreme specialization, and this is no different.

Many of us are experts in various digital communication disciplines, but have only a minor grasp on many of the subjects we are called upon to share and promote to our users. Using content templates we can help guide an SME through the content creation process and leave ourselves with a much easier job before publishing.

Providing Clarity
Various website page prototypes

Whether you need an article about alloys, space travel or state labor regulations, you need to start by knowing exactly what you need from your SME. Why are you asking this person to take time out of their normal responsibilities? How does this new piece of content fit with your overall strategies? This information will be helpful in preparing the template that the SME will be able to follow when developing the content you requested.

And speaking of clarity, I want to point out that the content templates I am discussing here are not Web-based (in this instance). They are generally more of a straightforward Word document. Think of them as a reference guide with examples. The finished document should hopefully allow you to fairly quickly transfer it into your own content template or your CMS interface.

Erin Kissane explains that a content template should contain at a minimum:

  • The page title
  • A short description of each block of content, where it will appear on the final page, its purpose and what formats can and cannot be used, like paragraphs or simple bulleted lists
  • Examples of real content provided by other SMEs, with additional instruction or notes included alongside the examples for better clarity.

This allows the SME to get a full picture of how the content will be used and a rough idea of how it will appear in the final product. Some SMEs may be very possessive of their content and therefore concerned about its final appearance on the site. It will also help them think about the content both as a whole but also as individual components that may need to live on their own, depending on your publishing strategy such as COPE.

You may also want to consider including some guidance from a strategic perspective, depending on the page or set of pages the template is for. This is especially important if you are gathering content from various departments or offices that will build out their section of the site such as human resources or IT. For example:

  • You may want to make the SME consider if the page(s) will need maintenance. How often does the content grow stale or outdated?
  • Is there a specific audience that this content is for? If you have personas developed, does it fit with one of those? If so, how might you make additional suggestions for the SME?
  • Consider having the SME help with metadata or keywords; this helps ensure the highest quality metadata possible. Depending on the content, there may be terms that are known to those intimate with the subject, but are unknown to you.

Some of the Benefits

As stated previously, one of the greatest benefits for using content templates is their ability to improve the final quality of the content. This improvement also comes with less final editing and revision on your end and less back and forth with your SME.

Woman and man with website designs

It also helps each person involved to remember to review all the critical aspects of the content and its role on the site. A content template touches on many aspects of your content strategy in a subtle way. As you create them you have to focus on why you are asking for this content which also means you have a better idea of what its purpose is. Your SME needs to consider their role and gets a better understanding of the coordination and collaboration required to not only properly share their content (which they will probably feel is the best) but all content. It even occasionally has the impact of reinforcing the importance of the organization’s Web presence to staff that may be fairly disconnected from it.

Finally, I would be remiss to not point out how templates at this stage also help to improve consistency of your content and its structure. Just as a CMS will help provide structure to your content, content templates serve as a type of proto-CMS and help SMEs place their content in the appropriate blank or box. This consistency is valuable when their content is later being sliced and diced and possibly served up in a variety of ways based on open and structured content practices, such as providing an API.

Your SME took the time to develop the content; I’m sure they’d enjoy having it seen and used in as many ways as possible.You’ve just finished reading the latest article from our Monday column, The Content Corner. This column focuses on helping solve the main content issues facing federal digital professionals, including producing enough content and making that content engaging.