By Greg Verdino published September 29, 2016

6 Steps (And One Tool) to Clean Up Content Messes

clean-up-content-messes“Do our content reviews need to take so long?”

“Why do our writers keep reinventing the wheel?”

“Why do the articles in the same part of our website take such different approaches?”

If you’re up against questions like these, you have content messes on your hands. And you can bet that your prospects and customers get frustrated trying to find what they need hidden in those messes.

You’re not alone. We hear these things almost every time we revamp a website. A company has built a huge inventory of content, often created by multiple authors. What might have started as useful, usable content created in a consistent way has turned into a mess, which is made worse when the website’s sections are owned by multiple teams. Inconsistency reigns, and the content experience suffers — either for the whole site or for a section where a visitor might expect every page to deliver the same type of information in the same way.

What can you do?

Identify the types of content your audience needs most. Then, for each type of content, create a fill-in-the-blank template that all authors can use. A template like that — basically a form or a descriptive outline — improves the consistency and quality of your content assets. A content template is a tool your teams can use to clean up content messes.

In this article, I describe six steps to create your own content templates.

What is a content template?

In case you’re not sure what I mean by “content template,” let me tell you about one that my team developed for a private-equity firm for a certain type of content it creates over and over: the profile of a portfolio company. This particular content template includes elements like these:

  • Company logo
  • Company description
  • Company name
  • Date of investment
  • Team
  • Company website
  • Related media

The content template is a form that authors fill in. When content strategists talk about structured content, raw content, unconfigured content, or unformatted content, this is what they’re talking about. (In the image below, what look like multiple pages are, in fact, parts of the content template that I placed side by side to keep you from having to scroll.)

Example content template:

wayfair-raw-copy

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Web pages based on the content template:

template-example

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These three web pages were all created from the same content template. Even without reading the text, you can see that the same type of information — logo, a single-sentence description, the same six investment data points, etc. — appears in the same place, in the same format, at the same level of detail for each portfolio company. A visitor to any one of these pages knows exactly what to expect from every one of these pages.

Without a template in place, every portfolio company’s page would be a snowflake, varying with the idiosyncrasies of each author’s style, format, and structure choices.

A content template gives everyone a better experience.

  • It gives authors a better experience because it tells them exactly what content to provide.
  • It gives reviewers a better experience because it makes missing or inconsistent content easy to detect.
  • It gives readers a better experience because it results in content assets that have the same kind of information in the same place — patterns that make reading and skimming easier.

Technology helps, but content templates don’t require it

While my team often uses workflow and authoring tools when developing templates for our clients’ content, turning to technology is by no means necessary. If you’re just getting started, you can introduce content templates into your workflow without using digital tools at all; you could sketch out templates with pencil and paper. Content templates are easy for any organization to create, use, and refine, even in the absence of company-wide content management technologies.

You don’t need technology to create a useful content template, says @gregverdino. #contentstrategy Click To Tweet

Of course, if you do have content management technology in your organization’s future, your templates will provide a useful specification for moving your workflow into your new systems. Technology takes content templates to the next level. For example, authoring software like GatherContent, and content workflow-management systems like Kapost, and many enterprise CMS like SiteCore enable organizations to set up and support — even enforce — a structured-authoring process within the platforms themselves. But if your team isn’t ready for this kind of investment, your templates alone will get you off to a good start.

Content templates make so much sense that you might wonder why everyone doesn’t use them. In some cases, content owners just don’t know how to get started. Fortunately, creating your own content templates may be simpler than you think.

How to create your own content templates

Whatever your content mess, content templates can help clean it up. Here’s how to create them:

  • Identify your most common types of content.
  • Outline the elements needed in each type of content.
  • Define the relevant metadata.
  • Establish guidelines for each element.
  • Capture the guidelines in a fill-in-the-blanks template.
  • Roll out the template, and keep refining it.

When people talk about getting started with structured content, this is what they’re talking about.

Step 1: Identify your most common types of content

You probably already have a sense of your own organization’s most common types of content (aka content types). If not, a quick tour of your own website, intranet, or content repository will help you identify specific types that you are called upon to create repeatedly or publish in a series.

Examples:

  • Blog posts
  • Slideshows or presentations
  • Customer newsletters
  • Case studies or success stories
  • E-books
  • Team bios
  • Industry or challenge-based solution overviews

List the types of content you create most often. You can expand to a more comprehensive list over time.

To help your team identify the types of content to put on your short list, consider questions like these:

  • If you were to put all your instances of one content type side by side — all your blog posts, all your newsletters, all your case studies, all your team bios, etc. — would they have a similar structure?
  • How consistent are those assets in terms of the elements of information they present, the logical flow of that information, and the level of depth provided?
  • Will visitors understand how to use those assets to get what they need based on their experience with other similar content you publish?
  • Are you concerned about whether your content meets an audience need completely and consistently?

Vet your list of key content types with stakeholders. Refine your list based on their feedback.

Step 2: Outline the elements needed in each type of content

For each type of content you’ve identified, list all the elements that make up that type just as you would outline the elements of a recipe (title, ingredients, photo, instructions, etc.). Outline not only what that content type looks like today; define its ideal structure. This is your opportunity to set a new standard for content excellence in your organization and move your content beyond “blobs” and into “chunks.”

Let’s consider one common type of content for B2B brands: the customer spotlight. This content type might include elements like these:

  • Headline or title
  • Subhead(s)
  • Main body of the story
  • Call-out quote(s)
  • Quote attribution (e.g., name and title)
  • Featured image(s)
  • Summary of key points
  • Call to action (and call-to-action link)

Think about the right level of granularity, breaking your content into the smallest logical chunks without (a warning here!) making your structure so cumbersome it distracts from the fundamental job of content creation.

content-template-image-1

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Step 3. Define the relevant metadata

At this stage, it’s important to think about your metadata — the content behind the content. Your metadata makes it possible to deliver the right content to the right user at the right time.

You might want to create a consistent set of metadata tags that identify when, where, and how the content is relevant or how the content relates to other content you create. Going back to our customer spotlight example, we might tag each content asset of that type with the following metadata:

  • Relevant buyer persona the content speaks to
  • Stage of the purchase funnel it relates to
  • Regions where it’s relevant
  • Business unit it’s owned by
  • Author who wrote it
  • Products it supports

content-template-metadata

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Step 4: Establish guidelines for each element

Letting the content creators across your organization know that each blog post must have a title is somewhat helpful. If you want to take your content to the next level, though, give guidelines on how to create that title.

Content templates give you the opportunity to establish the standards by which your authors should create content and by which your editors review and approve it. Here are some examples of guidelines for a given element in a template:

  • Character or word limits
  • Image requirements (file type, size, etc.)
  • Notes as to whether hyperlinks or multimedia can be embedded
  • Type of text (paragraphs, phrases, bullets, etc.)
  • Whether the element is mandatory

In fact, you might even want to explain why certain standards are in place. For instance, instead of simply stating that titles need to have 60 or fewer characters, you might explain that titles longer than 60 characters get truncated in search-engine results, leaving searchers to wonder what lies beyond the ellipsis and making your company look a bit less polished. Or you might describe a rationale for using short bullets in one section based on what you know about your audience’s preference for scanning snippets over reading a nuanced narrative. (These are just examples; your guidelines will vary.)

Your template is also a great place to point authors to your written tone of voice guidelines and editorial standards guide to help ensure consistency at that level, too.

Step 5: Capture the guidelines in a fill-in-the-blanks template

Now, bring it all together in a straightforward, easy-to-use content template, table or spec sheet that your authors can follow to produce complete, consistent, high-quality content every time.

Let’s look at a content template that we created for a client in the corporate-social-responsibility space. This client wanted to begin a web-based customer spotlight series that would also be used for nurture campaigns. The content team knew that this type of piece would be written by a variety of people: their own marketers, agency writers, even an occasional salesperson. We came up with a customer spotlight template that looks like this:

content-template-sample

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Download a sample template here.

This content template includes elements that authors need to include in each customer spotlight (such as “content title”) as well as guidelines for each element (such as “Put the content title in title case” and “If possible, match the content title to the meta title”).

Step 6: Roll out the template, and keep refining it

Any tool is only as good as your team’s ability — and willingness — to use it. Train your people — your content creators and subject matter experts — on how they can use your templates to streamline and simplify the process of developing, reviewing, revising, and approving consistent, quality content. Make sure that the templates are easy to access.

And evolve your templates as you learn what works, what can be improved, and how your content can be structured to best meet the needs of your audiences and employees. Don’t expect to set and forget. Don’t live with an outdated template just because “the template is the template.” Your needs change. Templates should be living documents.

Should you apply new templates to your existing content? That’s up to you.

  • You might want to update every historical asset of a certain type to conform to a new template.
  • You might want to update popular assets only.
  • You might want to use the new template for new content only.

For example, while it might make sense to refresh a dozen case studies to align with a new case-study template, you probably wouldn’t rewrite 50 landing pages from 2007 to align with a new landing-page template.

Conclusion

Content templates improve both your content process and your content itself. Luckily, getting started is simple. And you have good reasons to start today:

  • Content templates make it easier for your content creators to do their job.
  • Content templates reduce the time it takes for your reviewers to do their job.
  • Content templates produce a more consistent experience for your audience, increasing the likelihood that they’ll engage with your content and, ultimately, take the actions you want them to take.

If you’re looking for a powerful tool that can help you clean up content messes — with or without the support of content management technology — give content templates a try.

Want more on managing your content strategically? Sign up for our Content Strategy for Marketers weekly email newsletter, which features exclusive insights from CMI Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose. If you’re like many other marketers we meet, you’ll come to look forward to his thoughts every Saturday.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Greg Verdino

Greg Verdino is managing partner at VERDINO & CO a boutique content strategy consultancy and content marketing studio that works with technology companies, financial services firms, and a select set of top B2B and B2C brands in other complex sectors. Greg is a frequent conference speaker who has been quoted by such media outlets as Bloomberg Business, Investors Business Daily, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He is the author of microMARKETING: Get Big Results by Thinking and Acting Small and a contributing author to Reinventing Interactive and Direct Marketing (both published by McGraw-Hill).

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  • http://www.billwidmer.com Bill Widmer

    Great stuff, Greg!

    I’m definitely going to create a template for my own blog. It may not be huge and it may be an incredible team of 1, but I think a template would streamline the process and make it much faster.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Cheers,
    Bill

    • Greg Verdino

      Thanks Bill. Glad you found it useful — and I’d agree, templates can even help a team of one. G

  • https://www.effectivemarketingkeys.com Jireh Gibson

    Great post Greg!
    What do you believe has been the greatest benefit to implementing the content template? Since there are so many tips and tricks to creating consistent content, what makes what you present stand out among the crowd?
    I have been a freelance writer for about two years and it’s articles such as this that helps to feed my inner-desire to become better every day.
    Thanks so much.
    Jireh

    • Greg Verdino

      I’d say that two of the benefits are tied for the top — first, the benefit to the audience (higher quality, more consistent content); and second the benefit to the organization (more efficient content production by a team that already has plenty on their plate). In terms of making your content standout from the crowd — consistency is important, as it so easily and obviously contributes to a better content experience (better content = better customer experience = a great way to standout from other, less consistent experiences). But obviously standing out takes more than just that. I’d look to things like having a solid strategy, a point of distinction (what Joe P calls a “tilt” that differentiates your content from other similar content, in a way that is uniquely you), and a compelling, authentic voice. All in all, the short answer that takes all of these things (and more) into account: content strategy.

      Thanks Jireh for your kind words and comments. Glad you enjoyed!

  • Courtnie Ridgway

    We have pushed for content templates! They are not well received by our MANY editors (over 200) managing nearly 26,000 web pages! We are working to limit their access within our CMS and allow them to only make editorial changes (not structure or design), but web governance is time consuming… especially when “it’s always been done that way”. We also struggle with people coming up with useless content to fill a field in a template. Just because it is possible to include something, they think they must. Any tips for creating buy in for a template, and for convincing users to take a content first approach even when a template is available?

    Forever Hopeful,
    Courtnie R.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/20f29a2dc8a5eb9a54066d4c415e363485d550e625e06891b944c67818e5a515.png

    • Greg Verdino

      Hi Courtnie – Thanks for your comment. You’re pointing to some big challenges — and (good news or bad) they’re not unique to your organization. I think there are some obvious benefits to your stakeholders (such as editors) — templates make their lives easier. What we’ve seen with our clients who also have hundreds of editors, hundreds of creators, and lots and lots of content is that if we involve them in the decision to move to templates, in determining what those templates look like, and in socializing the templates and the benefits of using the templates to their teams and stakeholders we have been more successful in gaining their buy-in and adoption. Education and communication is also key — training and clear direction around how they use the template (including what’s required vs optional) can help alleviate problems around filling fields for the sake of filling fields. Hard to address such complex topics in a blog post comment — but hope this helps!

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    thanks for sharing this one…its really understand the content marketing field….

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