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  2. Content Strategy

Using Content Templates to Get Your Clients Thinking Content-First

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Late content causes project delays, and can ultimately stop you from getting paid on time.

One of my biggest personal challenges whilst building and growing our digital agency was getting content developed with clients. This became such a challenge that on multiple occasions it nearly put me out of business. Clients would only cough up their remaining payments once websites were launched. Delays in content would mean that website launches were delayed— which as well as just being a frustrating cycle, was a cashflow nightmare.

After a few near misses, I found an approach that helped keep my projects on schedule, and my sanity intact.

As well as getting me paid on time, this approach made the whole web development process a lot more pleasant, more efficient and more predictable. It also resulted in better websites, with better content.

There are two simple components of this approach (neither of which are incredibly new or complex):

  1. Convert my clients to a content-first state of mind
  2. Use content templates to define and gather content

Why Take a Content-First Approach?

Going 'content-first' is primarily a switch in mental models. It involves rearranging (and sometimes merging) already existing processes.

Rather than starting out with design work; like thinking about the structure of your website, the layout of your pages, and what visual design works best for your clients … you start with the content. What content works best for your clients, and their audiences?

You start with a concern for the message that your client is trying to express; what they are trying to say and do, and how best to arrange different chunks of information to communicate this message.

“At the end of the day, it is the content that will help your client achieve their goals”

The intricacies of a content-first workflow can vary, some people argue that rather than simply altering the order in which we would traditionally design interfaces and canvases, and then create the content, the idea is that we should merge the two processes absolutely.

This more purely agile approach enables content creators to work side-by-side with designers to construct websites. While this is obviously amazing as a means to align understanding and to encourage a consistent output and experience, the possibility of this working depends largely on your specific team and your specific clients.

In this article I'll talk less about the specifics of your organisation, and discuss more generally how you can use content templates to instigate, as well as simplify, the content-first approach with various stakeholders.

What is a Content Template and How Does it Help?

Once you've made it clear to the relevant stakeholders that you're going to focus on the message first, and that they'll be getting their hands dirty developing content before seeing any fanciful buttons; you can introduce them to the idea of content templates.

I've found that explaining content templates early on resolves a lot of the pressure and anxiety of a content-first approach. It lets your client know that you'll be holding their hand, and guiding them through the content development process.

…"Can you please just tell me what a 'content template' is."

A content template is a tool that helps you to collect high quality content from the people who write it. Content templates are documents that include a breakdown of all the individual chunks of content that will be appearing on a web page; the contributors proceed to simply fill in the spaces with the required content.

Each individual piece of required content will be introduced and explained with guidelines and examples to help authors understand the purpose of the content they are contributing – it’s audience, context and the style in which it should be written. This is a great way for everyone to validate why each piece of content exists.

Content templates are especially useful in large website projects where there are lots of different ‘subject matter experts’; each bringing their own unique perspectives on the products or services being communicated.

There are five components that should always be included in your content templates:

  • Audience: Who are you speaking to? Whether you have formal persona’s or not; it’s essential that your content templates give an outline of the people with whom your content is communicating.

    On a restaurant members page, your audience might be something like: You are speaking to people that have already eaten at your restaurant and enjoyed it enough to become a member. They are likely to return and so would like to hear about any upcoming deals and events, or new items on the menu.

  • Purpose: What is this page trying to do? You should include a simple summary of the function of every page in your project. This is a great way to strip out excess chatter.

    The purpose for your restaurant members page might say: You are trying to encourage members to come back and eat at the restaurant.

  • Context: Context is the setting in which your content is presented. It can be difficult to gather concrete contextual information, but doing so will help to remind your authors that they are writing for humans, in human situations. To empathise and answer.

    On the same restaurant members page, your context might be: The reader has received an email welcoming them as a first time member, they have opened the link in the email that mentions a 15% discount.

  • Meta data: Meta data is supporting information about your content that can be understood by machines. Your templates can include keyword considerations for search engines, internal site search information as well as guidelines for content organisation within your CMS.

    The meta data for your members page might be: Make sure the page includes both keywords and tags for ‘members’, ‘dino’s restaurant’, ‘dino’s deals’ and ‘dino’s members’. This will be in the category ‘members’ in the CMS.

  • Rules: What else do your authors need to know? Technical restrictions for different types of media? Legal obligations? Update schedules? Design implications for responsive sites? It's good clarify some ground rules.

    Some rules for the restaurant members page might be: The images of food should be high resolution JPGs. Last time they looked like they had been taken underwater! Dino will be responsible for updating this page with new deals and events every Tuesday morning.

Here’s Some I Prepared Earlier

Here’s a complete example of the template for our friend Dino’s members page:


This is how you might template a product page for a lawnmower product:


As you can see, the templates consist of three main sections:


You can choose to be as detailed as is necessary with the supporting information you include as well as with the examples for copy. Get to know your authors and what they need to produce the content you need.

As a rule of thumb I would always go back to the five essential components and make sure they’re referenced: audience, purpose, context, meta data, and rules.

Crossing the Finishing Line

Using content templates is a brilliant way to collect all the content you need foryour project. As we’re all aware, however, this is just the start of the process.

Following the collection of your content, it’s likely there will be a process of review, approval, and editing.

How this development workflow looks is hugely dependant on the specialists in your project, as well as the involvement of different stakeholders. You might be lucky enough to have a legal team to grill your content, you might not be ;)

Depending on the file format and storage of your templates, you can approach the editing and approval workflow quite differently.

There are some tools out there that can help with this part of the process:

  • GatherContent is an online tool that allows you to create content templates and set up an approval workflow around them which is a great way to centralise content development with your clients from the start.
  • Google Drive is also a really helpful online solution, allowing your templates to be easily tracked and governed in a shared online repository. This makes it really easy to manage revisions and communicate around content
  • Alternatively if you’re keen to keep it traditional , you can use Word documents to be filled out and passed on (using a shared Dropbox with folders for different approval states is helpful in this approach).

I hope this has been a useful introduction a key part of my content development process. Getting your clients to see the value in a content-first approach takes time, but using guided content templates can make this a whole lot easier. It alsosets a healthy expectations, and allows you to collect good quality, targeted, and structured content. To get the job done well.

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