Content templates pit consistency against creativity

Is it a good idea to create content templates for marketing collateral? Or do they stifle creativity and create boring papers and web pages?

I’m not talking about Word templates or formatting templates. I’m referring to writer’s guidelines that indicate how a piece should be structured, how long sections should be, and so on.

Templates and guidelines have been much on my mind lately. One client recently presented me with a 5-page document outlining the company’s guidelines for writing a ‘strategy’ white paper. It included very detailed instructions, including a word count for the introduction and the overall outline and topics to cover.

How much is too much when it comes to predefined content guidelines for marketing collateral like white papers, customer stories, data sheets and web pages?

The case for content templates

As a freelance writer, I welcome guidelines and style guides, as they help me deliver what the client wants more quickly. And I recognize that templates and guidelines can bring welcome consistency to content marketing efforts, particularly if many people are engaged in creating content. This especially important for marketing content such as:

  • Website text: consistency in navigation, style, and content structure helps visitors find what they need most effectively.
  • Data sheet or spec sheet materials – particularly if customers might need to compare across them.

Yet, let us not forget the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The case against content templates

Very detailed guidelines can actually  slow the content creation process by forcing the writer into a path they may not want to take.  Good writing is never just ‘filling in the blanks’ in a template.

Sometimes, following a set format or template is an excuse for not rethinking or evaluating how the format is working.  This is why you see uninspiring, “cookie cutter” customer stories on many websites.  To tell a customer story, you have to find the narrative thread, and following a fixed format creates a fill-in-the-blank-and-it’s-fine mentality.  Some stories need a different format or approach.

White papers are another case.  You’ll want different formats, styles and approaches for the different audiences you’re trying to reach, at the various parts of the sales cycle. Sometimes a checklist or table will be the most appropriate way to deliver content, other times a narrative or instructional approach will work.  It’s hard to imagine one white paper format that will meet all of your needs.

I know that I’ve just argued both sides of the ‘content template’ question.  The best advice I can come up with is this: experiment, test and measure the results of your content marketing pieces in different situations.  Templates and style guides are useful, but they are no substitute for creativity and good writing.

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