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Using Microsoft Word Templates for Structured Web Content

Here is our current content development process, which uses Microsoft Word templates to structure web page content:

  1. The writers write the writing that needs to be written.
  2. Those words are in a completely vanilla Word doc, complete with 12pt Times New Roman. That Word doc gets passed like the dutchie in a dorm room to all the subject matter experts, proofing samurai, brand enforcers and legal beagles obligated to review. This sometimes takes awhile, but all spirals of editorial purgatory eventually end, and once blessed, the content is flushed of tracked changed and comments.
  3. The approved text is poured into a highly structured Word doc that contains myriad fields for the on-page content, metadata, organization cues, as well as production notes. This template acts as a self-contained FAQ for all things This Web Page.
  4. That populated template is passed to the web production team, who grab their cigars and welding torches and update the website in a hail of sparks, electrical ozone smell and CMS fortitude.

This seems complicated. And maybe less than ideal. But if you’ve ever opened a browser, you’ll agree that little about web development was ever ideal to begin with. The best way to keep the teams sane is to use Word templates for content production.

(Download a sample template if you’d like to play along at home.)

Here are a few advantages to using Word templates to structuring web content:

Our Superest Bestest Friend, Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word has a thousand competitors. OpenOffice, Google Docs, Editorially. They all provide significant productivity upgrades. None of that matters, because either by choice or by restriction, the business world still revolves around this software in the same way Thanksgiving revolves around mashed potatoes. We all use Word because we all know Word; we all know Word because we all use Word. Snake, meet tail.

Your team may have achieved the next level of writing software evolution. If so, great. The point, however, is to create a core template in an easily distributive format the writers don’t need to figure out, and keep them away from tiny textareas and shitty WYSIWYG editors during the editing and review process.

Schema is Not a Dirty Word

Using a template asks writers to think about content from a web technician’s perspective. This might seem like asking a chicken to eat hay and pull a plow, but there are many benefits to exposing content structure early on.

When authors see how their text components are segregated in the CMS, operate independently, and then are woven back together into a page — or re-used across a different places like indexes and homepages — it reinforces the need for modular content structure. In the end, the web is all just a pile of Lego bricks assembled into whatever the organization requires.

In addition, writers can often pinpoint areas of improvement in the schema. This field should be required; this data should be combined; this date should be in this format; a name should be one field, not broken into first and last. Consistently applying text to a template provides perpetual stress-testing of the structure. This is valuable for both writers and developers.

Easing the Pain of Translation

Any website of any business of any caliber in any relatively global market that cares at all about expansion into non-native dialects will have to deal with localization and translation. If you’re selling bubblegum, it’s tough. If you’re selling B2B enterprise applications, stock up on Maker’s Mark and enroll in anger management classes because holy hell are you in for it1.

Luckily, a content template can mitigate the pain. Next to each block of text, create a column for that text’s translation. Will your document be double in length? Yes. But now the implementation team has each component’s Klingon version mapped and cataloged without ambiguity.

When Final Means Final and Not “Final_Final”

The best part of passing a Word doc through a review cycle is playing the “extend the filename” game. What starts as WebPage_v1.doc grows to WebPage_v1_paul-2-14_john-2-16_ringo-2-17A.doc which of course mutates into WebPage_v1_paul-2-14_john-2-16_ringo-2-17A_FINAL-v1_FINAL_FINAL-with-edits_FORREVIEW.doc.

Of course text on the web is always changing and unlike print it’s a living thing and yada yada we know the digital hippy spiel. But if you’ve ever worked on a large corporate site, the truth hurts. Pages that get published may sit, untouched, for years. This is no one’s fault. While solid content strategy and content governance can deter the effects of aging, attrition is inevitable. So we need to be sure that what does get published is correct.

The template provides firm demarcation between “still in review” and “ready to go live”. When our crack team of producers get content delivered in the Official Template, they know — explicitly — that it’s approved. Might it get tweaked once the author reads it in the context of the site? Perhaps. But for all intent and purpose, the review abattoir is behind us.

Governance

Governance is a vogue word, but when it comes to content, it connotes real meaning. The template attempts to articulate how the writer’s words should/will be used. Some examples of governance an organization might face with any given website:

  • Does the text live behind authentication? If so, who can see it? Customers? Employees?
  • Does the text need to launch on a specific day and time?
  • Does the text have a shelf-life? Should it be taken down after a certain amount of time?
  • Does the text need to be fully purged at a certain point to comply with retention policies?

Some of these are legal requirements, others such as expiration date might be tied to a marketing campaign.

Again, if you’d like to check out a sample template, you can download mine.

1 I may or may not have years of experience that may or may not have jaded my outlook.

commentary + criticism

Alan Gerstein

wrote the following on Wednesday February 13, 2013

Very enjoyable read, and thanks for sharing the template. Templating should grow even more interesting as copy is deconstructed into more shareable chunks to prep it for various devices.

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