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Email How-To Tip

Q: How can I create effective HTML content templates in LISTSERV Maestro?

If you have a recurring mailing, for example a regular newsletter, that uses a consistent format and style every time, then it's usually a good idea to create a content template for it. The benefit of using content templates is that it separates the newsletter formatting and styling from the actual content, which will make your overall workflow more efficient.

The Benefits of Content Templates

Of course, you could probably get by without using a template. For example, you could create the mail job for the first issue of the newsletter and enter the desired format and style directly in the content editor. And for the second issue, you can make a copy of the first mail job and again edit the content in the editor, switching out the old content with that of the new issue.

However, this can be an error-prone approach because it's not possible to separate the newsletter formatting and styling from the actual content. The designer of a newsletter is often a different person than the content writers. The content team could, by mistake or unknowingly, change the structure in an undesired way, mess up colors or styles, or delete an important legal note or contact information.

If you instead create a template for the newsletter, you can put the format and style into the non-editable parts of the template so that the people who later supply the content cannot change it. You can fill the template with sample content or placeholders, which are easily recognizable as fillers that need to be replaced with real content.

Creating a Content Template

For our example, we use a fictitious "Newsflash" newsletter. It has two sections, "Hot Items" and "Top Picks", where one or more corresponding articles are supposed to be included in each issue. It also has an optional "Special" section that can be left out in a given issue. Finally, it has a "Contact" section, plus some smaller elements like a "View In Browser" link and a copyright notice, which are supposed to appear in each issue. And, of course, we have designed this newsletter using the fluid design widgets of LISTSERV Maestro so that it renders properly on larger screens and mobile devices.

The following image shows this newsletter, with the wide version on the left and the narrow version on the right, where the multi-column elements are automatically rendered one after the other instead of side-by-side:

To create this template, you would probably start off with a centered content box widget of a defined width (800px in our example) as the main element on the page.

At this point, we need to take a moment to talk about the concept of an "editable block". As explained earlier, one of the main purposes of a content template is to provide a framework that can be used later when adding the content of a mail job, where some parts of the framework are fixed and cannot be changed in the content editor, while other parts are editable.

Returning to our sample newsletter, we see that the user is supposed to make changes in various locations. There needs to be a unique issue number, date and an introduction. You also need to provide articles for "Hot Items" and "Top Picks" and, optionally, information in the "Special" section.

So the first idea may be to put all of this into an editable block as this image illustrates. In the image, the editable block is highlighted with the bright green frame. And as you can see, it simply encompasses all of the content of the newsletter, so all of it is editable. In other words, with this approach, we would put a single editable block into the template at a rather high level and simply define all the template content in this editable block.

But would this be a good idea? Probably not because it once again treats almost all details of the template as editable parts. So this template wouldn't be any better than not having a template at all, like simply copying and modifying the content of the previous issue. Again, the person who provides the content would have more control over the actual structure and design of the newsletter than we would like.

So instead, we use several editable blocks and make them as "small" as possible so that only those parts that are supposed to be editable are inside such a block. The following image illustrates this. It shows that we now have five different editable blocks, as highlighted by the green frames:

We now have an editable block for the issue number, date and introduction, another editable block for the "Hot Items", two editable blocks for the "Top Picks" (one for the left and one for the right column) and another editable block for the "Special".

Everything outside of these five editable blocks won't be editable when the template is used for populating the content. In our examples, that includes the various title bars, as well as the whole "Contact" section, which is not supposed to be edited. All of the colors and the actual structure and order of the sections are also defined outside of the editable blocks, so those are fixed too. The person who later supplies the actual newsletter content now only has access to those five editable blocks.

This is already a great improvement over having only a single editable block for the whole template, but there's more.

As you can see, now there is only one sample article specified in the "Hot Items" section. And there is only one sample article in each of the two "Top Picks" columns. So what happens if the newsletter is supposed to have more "Hot Items" or "Top Picks"? Well, of course, the person who later provides the newsletter content could copy and paste the first "Hot Items" article and create a second one inside of the editable block. But there is a more elegant solution. In the template editor, when you define an editable block, LISTSERV Maestro allows you to mark the block as "Cloneable" and "Deletable". This is done in the block's properties dialog.

In our sample template, we have set this "Cloneable" option for the "Hot Items" block, as well as for the two "Top Picks" blocks. So when this template is used in the content editor of a mail job, the user can easily duplicate (or clone) each of these editable blocks, simply by clicking a button in the editor's toolbar.

The first button gives the user access to certain properties of the editable block (padding and borders). The second button allows the user to clone (duplicate) the currently selected editable block (if the block has the "Cloneable" option set) and the last button allows the user to delete the editable block (if the block has the "Deletable" option set).

When an editable block is cloned, then a new block appears right after it in the content. This new block is initially identical to the cloned block, but it can be edited separately.

So if our newsletter's content team needs to provide three "Hot Items" articles, they would use the above button to clone the original article block twice, for a total of three articles.

It's important to understand that this cloning of the editable blocks is done in the content editor of the mail job, not the template editor.

In the template editor, during template definition, only a single editable block (with its sample content in it) is created, with the "Cloneable" option selected. And when this template is later used in the content editor of a mail job, the person who provides the content can then clone the block as often as required.

In our example, the two editable blocks in the left and right columns of the "Top Picks" section were also defined with this "Cloneable" option selected so that the user can later add more articles to each of these columns too.

Another notable case is the "Special" section in our sample template. When we described our "Newsflash" newsletter, we said that this "Special" section is supposed to be optional. In other words, some newsletter issues may have it, while others may not. The decision whether to include or omit it is up to the user who fills out the newsletter content, not the person who creates the template.

To facilitate this, we have defined the editable block of this "Special" section with the "Deletable" option set. This allows the user to delete this editable block, and the "Special" section in it, when using the template in a mail job's content editor. This works similarly to the cloning feature, but it removes the block from the content.

And if you look back to the third image in this tech tip where we marked the five editable blocks with the green frames, you will also notice that in the case of the "Special" section, we put the whole section, including the yellow headline bar, inside of the editable block. All of the other section headlines are outside of their associated editable blocks.

This approach has the drawback that the headline bar is now exposed to editing in the content editor, meaning we have to rely on the content provider to not mess it up. But it has the advantage that the headline bar is deleted along with the whole "Special" section if that block is not required.

To wrap up, the following image shows how our newsletter would look in the content editor of a mail job if the cloning feature was used to create two "Hot Items" and three "Top Picks", and the "delete" feature was used to the remove the "Special" section:

Bonus: If you want to take a detailed look at the sample "Newsflash" template, or maybe even use it as a starting point for your own template, you can download it at:

You can then use the downloaded template file by importing it into your LISTSERV Maestro account by going to "New" > "Content Template" > "Import Template" from the main menu. Then select the template ZIP file for import (do not unpack the content of the ZIP file first, but simply import it as it is).

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