Crafting Content and the Myth of Content Templates

Jun 07, 2016

It happens on nearly every project: Clients get antsy. They grow impatient with the process. They just want the damn thing--a blog, video strategy, editorial playbook, newsletter, or PDF of something (shudder). It's natural and, to be honest, expected. As I've refined my consultative practices, I've coached clients on my process through setting expectations and communicating the goals of the content project I'm guiding them through. However, not every client engagement-or any internal content project-is perfect. So when a client feels she isn't seeing the end result soon enough, she asks for the dreaded T-word: template. 

So many clients and organizations view content creation and maintenance as a craft. But if we look deeper at this emerging trend, the concept of craft is born of individuals who have honed their skills over time. Bakers, blacksmiths, and carpenters all grew their trades and were often restricted to trial and error before achieving the desired outcome. As a result, they developed tricks and time-saving practices using jigs and templates.  

I love the concept of applying craft to content and its surrounding maintenance. To me, it shows organizations are valuing content through care rather than one-off efforts that reduce your content to a depreciating asset. However, the model of content as craft breaks when we talk of templates. 

Templates are not a deliverable-If you hire a finish carpenter to remodel your kitchen, you don't ask for a stack of wood and his templates. Instead, you trust he will use the skills he needs to complete the task. We have to apply the same methodology to our content practices. Handing over templates for audits, content guides, reports, and articles may seemingly satiate an immediate client or organizational need, but it perpetuates a false directive of providing value as a content professional. 

Resist stock content outputs-Recently, I was working with a major healthcare network. In addition to solving its gnarly redundant content ecosystem, I was tasked with establishing a better way for patients to navigate the hospital system. As I was creating a taxonomy and information architecture (IA), I was challenged by a client stakeholder to "just give us the template IA that all other hospitals have." It was as jarring as it was shortsighted. It showed me that so many of today's clients and organizations not only believe there is an out-of-the box content solution, but that they are satisfied with it. 

Stock solutions are a dime a dozen in the content world. However, by going for one, you are doing nothing to differentiate your organization from others. There are templates and stock content models for nearly every digital interaction. However, adopting them already puts you at a disadvantage against your competitor, who is a step ahead with her own custom solution. 

Use templates to your advantage-I would never counsel my clients to not use templates. Templates help expedite mundane activities (content audits) so you can focus on more refined practices such as adaptive and personalized content. They also allow your content teams to push beyond tribal knowledge transfers. In many ways, your content templates can help document your content strategy over time, establishing a system of record for your content activities.

However, be judicious in how you socialize and circulate your templates. Distributing this type of intellectual capital without providing context can confuse content teams and, if put in the wrong hands, can jeopardize the content best practices your organization has developed over time. 

Protect your assets-Content and the templates used to create it are some of your organization's greatest assets. Do grow and refine your templates so that you can expedite content creation and maintenance. However, be cautious when distributing them. This will maintain the craft of your content process and ensure you continue to create valuable information that will differentiate you from your competitors.