CMS Driven Theming in Sitecore.



Recently I came across an interesting challenge on one of our projects. As a result, I would like to share my experience by running through step-by-step theming for Sitecore EXM templates.


Before starting implementation my first thought was that we could simply reuse a previously implemented theming from another part of the project. However, it wasn’t possible as that approach wasn’t suitable for EXM emails. So we had to reinvent the wheel!


As you may know, probably the best approach on the implementation of email layouts for supporting the different email agents is to use table layout. That usually gives good results at supporting old browsers and agents however it isn’t that simple to make this layout component-based or to provide proper components theming to it.

Here is a piece of the cross-browser email markup so you can understand how complex it really is:



After we broke the main layout down to components and bound them to data, we had two main requirements:

  • the particular theme for component should allow us to set different component backgrounds, text colours and to have different buttons styling
  • number of themes is defined, however, it should be possible to extend that in future.


My main challenge was to provide a handy solution for the customer which would allow modifying and adding themes right in Sitecore, as I strongly believe this is one of the main goals of proper Content Management System.


Data template

From the CMS perspective I had to prepare a Sitecore data template theme, taking into account all possible theming variables:


Data sources

The next step was to create a bunch of themes basing on a previously created data template. This approach allowed us to leave the content manager with all the flexibility they need, allowing them to create new themes and to modify values of existing ones:


Parameter template

We also needed to create a parameter template for the renderings with “Theme” drop link field which then allow us to select a theme on a particular rendering.


Then I set ID of “Exm Themes” item from the previous step as a source for this field. In this way, we would have a possibility to select any of created themes via rendering parameters after this template is connected to component rendering by “Parameter Template” field.


The next step was to pick up the information from CMS and to use it in proper places in the .cshtml:


As it's shown on the above example we can either use these values in any places we need inside the corresponding component or skip any of them if they are redundant in the specific component.

And Voila!

Text Block “Red Cross” theme example:


CTA’s “White” theme example:


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Whatever your business, be it a regional or global brand, the content you produce plays a vital role in your success. You know that… hence you’re reading this.

A well formulated and executed content strategy not only drives more traffic, at the core, it defines what your business is and helps build a strong connection between you and your audiences.

So let's quickly look at why developing a coherent content strategy is important and how setting clear goals and understanding your audience will elevate your online performance. 

What is a Content Strategy?

It's basic right? Content is at the core of how you define the way your business presents itself and an effective strategy should look to ensure that tone of voice, messaging and the core values are surfaced across all channels, from service or product pages on your website, to blog posts, through social media updates blah blah blah.

But let's keep it simple - your content strategy should be a clear roadmap that connects your marketing activities to your business goals. Align to your customer’s wants and needs and engage them at every interaction point and boom, you're in business. 

Who are my Audience?

You likely start all your projects with this chalked on the wall because your business knows “exactly” who its customers are right? Sounds obvious but we often find its not been done forensically enough (not based on data), is too old (more than 12 months ago - forget it) or its a spin off from some brand work that was legitimately aspirational but doesn’t face the reality of who you your business is actually engaging today.

So start (or circle back) with audience research, building out those personas to understand their ambitions, their lifestyle, their pain points or concerns, and crucially their wants and needs - in your context. 

Do I need to tailor content?

As part of your research find out where your audiences spend their time online and how they interact with content: Some may spend time thoroughly researching a product or service, whereas other audiences may want their content to be quick, snappy or easily digestible in the form of a video, infographic or short blog posts.


Ultimately, the key is to produce a strategy that creates the type of content your customers want to see:

  • What are the problems that your product or service will help them solve?

  • Who are they most influenced by?

  • What voices influence their behaviour?

  • What type of content do they consume?

  • Where do they consume content and engage with brands?

Different Content, Different Objectives

 All content is not born equal: When producing your strategy, it is important that the objectives for each individual piece are defined, that these fulfil your marketing objectives and tie to the overarching goals for your business.

There are various content frameworks that exist to aid content development in this way, but one that is popular and effective is Google’s hero, hub and hygiene method: It provides a framework on developing content to achieve different goals and gives guidance on the effort needed to create each type of content.

Hero Content

Hero content is essentially campaign content, it is big splash ideas designed to appeal to a large audience with the aim of telling your brand’s story at scale. 

Ways of measuring hero include the amount of PR mentions or links from authoritative domains plus social interactions and mentions of your brand across all channels. 

Considering the scale of hero campaigns, this content is not regularly produced and is reserved for peak promotional times where it’s important for a business to stand out from their competitors.

Hub Content

Hub content is the stuff that keeps your audience engaged, it expands on the themes of product or service level content, educates users and helps create a connection between themselves and your brand.

Hygiene Content

Hygiene content is the bread and butter of any website, it is the BAU content for products and services, it is SEO focused and targets important keywords at a product, service or guide level.

How do I manage all this?

Content development is only one part of the ongoing work needed when working with an effective content strategy. We call it “feeding the beast” because it really is the fuel in your brand vehicle and once you start you really can’t stop (if it’s delivering results) but that’s where performance measurement comes in.

Your greatest gift in managing the outputs from your hero/hub/hygiene style efforts is to understand If your content is working. To truly deliver results your business must first understand the objectives and goals of each piece of content to effectively measure its success. That as a guiding light from day 1 will let you slow down, speed up, stop or start new content briefs and projects.

Remember - content strategies are not set in stone. They are living breathing things and should adapt and pivot as insights become available and your brand naturally evolves.

If ever you want to chat content and explore new initiatives we’re always here to help.

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09 May 2018 - 7 minute read
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