Businesses are cranking out a tremendous amount of content these days. But the more content you publish, the greater the risk that inconsistencies in voice, usage, and style could confuse readers — and even tarnish your brand.
That’s why many companies develop a content style guide: a document that lays out all of the organization’s standards and policies for any published content. But content style guides do more than just keep contributors all on the same page; they are also invaluable planning tools to ensure that all content serves its intended purpose and accurately expresses the brand.
Let’s look at a few of the essential questions your company’s content style guide should answer:
1. Who are you writing for?
On the craft of writing and how to find the inspiration to get started, literary legend John Steinbeck once wrote, “I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person — a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.” The same holds true for marketing writing. To truly connect with audiences, you’ll have to know exactly who you’re speaking to.
Develop specific personas for each of your target customers. Go beyond their roles and responsibilities and get to understand what truly motivates them. Dive into their demographics as well as their psychographics. Explain the attitudes and preferences that drive their behaviors. Spell out their specific pain points and what frustrates them. The more your writers know about their readers, the more effective their content will be.
2. What is your brand’s voice and tone?
Whether consciously or not, every piece of content your company publishes — from website copy and sales collaterals to blog posts, emails, and even customer support responses — serves as an extension of your brand. That’s why it’s so important to lay out what kind of brand personality you want your writing to convey.
Do you want to be seen as serious and professional, or lighthearted and fun? Do you want to be witty and humorous, or more straightforward and matter-of-fact? Are you the thoughtful, reflective type, or more of the community cheerleader with the rah-rah attitude?
That’s not to say that all writers have to use the exact same voice when writing. There’s certainly room for individuality, especially if people are writing under their own names. And that’s where “tone” comes into play. When you speak, you use the same voice all the time, but your tone changes from moment to moment. Depending on the situation or whom you’re addressing, you may choose to get technical or keep it light, for instance. Consistency in voice is essential, but that still leaves room for flexibility in tone.
3. What are your guiding principles?
Another important element that your content style guide should address is how you convey your company’s values through writing. Companies often talk about holding values such as empowerment, inclusion, honesty, and more. Your content is one of the best ways to express and affirm your values and live up to their standards.
Say, for instance, that respect is one of your company’s core values. Your content style guide should remind writers that they should always treat readers with the respect they deserve. They should demonstrate respect for readers’ time, intelligence, individuality, etc. In other words, treat them like real people, not “targets” or “prospects.” From a stylistic standpoint, that means that you’re writing should be clear, direct, and truthful, free of grandiose claims.
4. What do writers need to know about grammar and mechanics?
Hopefully, your writers all have some base level of grammatical knowledge. But even so, there are plenty of inconsistencies even within the various style guides. How should your company handle capitalization within titles and subheads? Do you refer to people by their first or last names? Do you spell out numbers less than ten or write them out numerically? For basic questions such as these, you can point writers to the AP Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, or whichever style book you choose.
More importantly, your style guide should answer any questions writers might have about usage specific to your brand and its industry. How should they handle industry acronyms? When is it okay to use slang or jargon, if ever? Are there specific terms they should either use or avoid when talking about your products and services?
Providing answers to frequent questions like these in your content style guide will tell writers what they need to know to save you time and effort in the editing process.
Do I really need a content style guide if we’re just getting started?
Good question, and yes — absolutely! Although many companies wait until they have multiple contributors and are cranking out large volumes of content, the best time to create one is when you’re first getting started in content marketing. Not only will it help you think through who you’re writing for, what you’re trying to accomplish, and how you want your content to make readers feel, but it will build a solid foundation as you grow.
To help get you started, here are a few excellent examples of companys' content style guides: