Content style guide: A step-by-step guide to creating your own
When it comes to content, consistency is key. Companies and brands are finally considering content a team-wide effort, which is exactly how it should be. This is a move that needs to be supported by the right tools and understanding.
Consistency and brand messaging can suffer if documented brand guidelines aren’t in place. That is why a content style guide is an invaluable part of any organization’s content operations. This step-by-step article will take you through the process of creating your own style guide template.
Easy to create and use across your organization, your style guide will:
- Keep tone, voice, and messaging consistent
- Guide your team on how to write for your audiences
- Help maintain a recognized quality and brand identity
- Lead to more compelling content and brand consistency
Why do you need a content style guide?
A content style guide is a set of content rules that keeps the tone of voice and other elements of brand voice consistent across pieces of content, regardless of who creates it. This guide covers aspects of content style such as grammar, language, formatting, and tone — all the things needed to compose and present content.
1. To put your audience first
All style guides are about communicating more effectively with your audience. Their needs wants, and expectations shape every piece of content created. Staying in tune with their interests, behaviors, and activities dictates the language, mediums, and messaging you use.
A style guide recognizes a link between your audience’s needs and the best way to fulfill those needs impactfully.
2. To maintain consistency
Giving your audience a consistent experience builds loyalty and trust. The likes of Flickr and MailChimp are excellent at keeping their tone and brand voice consistent through everything on every level, from default text to terms and conditions.
With more than one person responsible for content creation, keeping the tone of voice locked down can be challenging. A style guide is a central reference that your content creators can use to keep the overall voice consistent across your website, blog, social media, and anywhere else you show up.
3. To encourage best practices
Creating a style guide starts with research. Your audience, brand, business goals, and competitors all influence your style, and thus your style guide.
Getting as much insight as possible will help you create the most effective guide. Use what you’ve learned about your brand so far using tools like:
- Discovery sessions
- Stakeholder interviews
- Content audits
All of these give you a pretty great starting point for identifying your style. Look at the bigger picture, too, and research your competitors. If they’re speaking to the same people you want to speak to, there’s a good chance you can learn something interesting from their brand voice and style.
4. To create better content
A style guide is about identifying and documenting how you communicate. As much as it is a practical resource, a style guide is also a commitment to more intentional content.
Grammar, punctuation, and formatting all contribute to the quality of your content, and a style guide keeps all this in check. Personality, trends, and brand values all come into play here, and it’s these elements that help your brand produce better content.
The Who, When, and How of a Good Content Style Guide
Now, it’s time to talk about logistics. Let’s look at who created the content style guide, when they create it, and how.
Who creates a content style guide?
You don’t need to be a writer to create a content style guide. Typically, someone on the marketing, branding or content teams would gather the information and create the style guide.
Here, the aim is to create a rundown of content do’s and don’ts for the whole team to follow. That’s why it’s important to consult with other departments and team members as they all have unique insight to bring to the table.
Your brand will also probably have some sort of branding style guide or brand book. The branding style guide will include typography, color palettes, logo usage, taglines, and any other branding guidelines essential to visual branding.
This branding guide may inform the editorial style guide as branding elements play a big role in brand personality and voice. Keep this in mind as you create the content style guide.
Need to Know: GatherContent allows you to embed your content style guide in your editing environment so authors can easily follow voice and tone content rules.
When do you create it?
Creating a content style guide is an open-ended exercise. It grows as your understanding, clients, and business do. Why not start right now?
It’s also something you can offer to your clients as a service. Tone and voice play an important role in creating content, so use what you learn in this guide to educate your clients and help them create their own style guide. It helps you create culture-rooted content, and it helps them stay consistent in the future. Win-win!
How do you present your finalized tone of voice guidelines?
When it comes to presenting the finalized guidelines, you don’t need anything fancy. In fact, a simple word doc is fine. Remember, the guide is something that writers and marketers can quickly reference when creating content.
Try to keep your guide to 4–5 pages, as anything longer will be too meaty to digest in those quick question moments. Also, make it easily available to the entire team. We recommend uploading it to your website so that it lives on a URL that anyone can see and share.
Understand your audiences
Audiences are complex and ever-changing, just like the content itself.
You can’t start creating content until you have established who your audience is. It can be as simple as some light demographic research or go as deep as individual personas. It’s all up to you.
Understanding your audience is about more than objectives and actions. As you begin to research your audience, ask questions like:
- What’s important to them?
- What sources do they trust?
- What values matter to them?
- How do they speak?
- How do your competitors tap into the same market?
Look at the bigger picture and see your audience as fully formed people, not search engine keywords. This gives your content style guide more weight and relevance.
Here’s an example of how to break down what your audience may want and need.
Example: A car seat company
Imagine you’re creating content for a car seat company website. What do you think the message, language and tone, and content should be?
- Message: Our product is safe. Your baby will be safe. We understand that this is your baby’s safety we’re talking about.
- Language: Simple, no jargon, and clear. Active voice.
- Tone: Reassuring, informative, and understanding. Relatable and sincere.
- Content: Testimonials from other mums, reviews from parenting magazines, and a video to showcase the simplicity of using the car seat.
- Voice: Trusted experts who understand what it’s like to be a parent.
The audience, mothers, and parents, in general, are looking for:
- Information: Clear and professional. Fact-driven and confirmed by industry bodies.
- Reassurance: This is their child’s safety, so they need to feel affinity and sincerity.
- Validation: They want to know that other parents have used and trusted this product.
Although this content and tone might drift between emotional and functional, the voice remains consistent. This is what builds loyalty and trust between you and your audience. There’s no uniform way to uncover and relate to an audience. Some use team-wide insight, and others opt for online tools.
Here are some great articles to help you figure out who your audience is:
- How to find your target audience
- Five critical tips for identifying your target audience
- How to define your target audience
Getting to know your brand
Before you reach out and start connecting with audiences, you first need to know your own brand inside and out.
A mistake many companies make is being too involved with their own idea of their brand. Your brand is purely based on the perceptions of your audience.
Uncovering how much you know about your brand doesn’t have to take hours of workshopping. It just takes a few simple questions:
- What is your purpose? What do you promise your customers?
- What makes you unique?
- What do you stand for?
- Who are your competitors? How do they talk and present themselves?
- How are all the above communicated?
You’ll want to ask your entire team these questions. Inconsistent answers across your team can indicate that there isn’t a clear and cohesive brand. However, if their answers consist of the same words or ideas, then you know that everyone is on the same page.
Discovering your mission statement, values, and character all go towards creating a rounded content style guide.
Developing your voice and tone
Your voice and tone come from what your audience needs and how your brand can deliver. Let’s discuss the difference between voice and tone.
Voice: A voice is consistent. It’s your style and point of view. Ultimately, voice encompasses your brand personality.
- Are you casual or formal?
- Do you use slang?
- Do you have your own recognizable words like fave, totes, etc.?
Tone: Tone is specific to your messaging. It is the attitude and can change depending on the type of message conveyed.
- Are you sarcastic?
- Super friendly?
- Cutely funny?
Exercise: Create your brand personality
Nailing down your brand personality is an important first step in developing an effective content style guide. Take a few minutes to do this exercise with your team.
Developing your voice in 4 steps
Now that you have a wealth of information and insight at your fingertips, you can start to understand your brand voice.
1. Use 3 words to express your brand personality
Choose three words that capture your brand personality. At the same time, be sure to add a brief explanation of what this doesn’t mean. A word can mean something different to the next person, so by offering some context, you can combat any issues straight off the bat.
Apple is renowned for its clean, simple, and inspiring content. Their list might look like this:
- Calm, but not passive
- Confident, but not arrogant
- Innovative, but not flash
2. Identify what makes you stand apart
This doesn’t mean resorting to controversial content to gain attention. What differentiates you from your competitors?
Basecamp founder Jason Fried once said, “When you write like everyone else, you’re saying, ‘Our products are like everyone else’s.’” If you really want to stand out, you have to carve your own path.
Example: Old Spice
Watch the ‘Your man could smell like this’ ad:
The Old Spice team achieved something pretty amazing with this witty video ad. Not only did it bring their aged identity into modern times, but it put many of the unrealistic, cinematic cologne ads to shame.
They appealed to, mocked, and humorously invited men and women to enjoy the joke — something that immediately gained them a following. This unique and refreshing brand voice stood out in a sea of other similar products.
3. Listen to your audience
If you’re trying to reach an audience, you need to uncover who they are and what makes them tick. Maybe they’re bored with their usual favorites and are looking for something new.
Pay attention. How do they communicate? Are they formal or casual? Do they have a sense of humor? Your voice should match what appeals to them most.
MailChimp is acclaimed for its brand voice. At a time when many companies offering a similar service were heavy and uninspiring, MailChimp changed the game.
4. Don’t force ‘engagement’
Engaging an audience is the next step up. Your tone should set the path, but you want them to follow it. The best way to do this? Relax.
The voices that fall flat and summon nothing from audiences are the ones that are too persistent, too forced. If you’ve invested that time into creating a tone that works for you, now it’s time to enjoy it.
Express personality in the most ‘you’ way possible.
Example: Innocent Smoothies
The Innocent Big Knit is a great example of how you can engage your audience through an authentic, unique brand voice.
Innocent are the kings of humor. They saw a significant gap in the market and leaped in. With organic and health products being advertised with elitism and ‘preachiness’, Innocent took it somewhere else. They listened to their competitors, audience, and the wider community and delivered fun and a world-famous brand voice.
Their ‘Big Knit’ campaign was them all over — fun, inclusive, and enthusiastic.
💡 Remember: Not all content types call for your voice or preferred tone.
Communicating effectively means putting the message of the content first. This means you may have to stretch or adapt your voice or guidelines a little. The likes of legal content, which may need to remain intact, and terms and conditions are highly functional features. This doesn’t mean they need to be corporate and stiff.
They can and should be:
- Plain English: Audiences still need to understand it, so try to present complicated info simply.
- Explain jargon: If you do need to use a specific legal term, be sure to take the time to explain it in clear language.
- Tech talk: If technical terms need to be included, break them down. Add a visual or limit the scope to make it readable.
Tumblr does this wonderfully, adding some character into their legal disclaimers:
Think bigger: It’s not all about copy
A style guide isn’t just about blog posts and website copy. Any content you publish, written or otherwise, represents your brand, so it needs to be consistent with your style.
Copy isn’t always the easiest or most fitting way to communicate a message. A tool, graphic, video, or soundbite might tick the box better. Storytelling via any medium needs to stay in keeping with your content style guide.
Use video to tell a story instead
Video is the perfect medium to tell a story from a user’s POV. This is a really effective way to tell your brand story. The tone of voice and personality can be translated to the screen perfectly.
Watch Lurpak’s ‘Weave your magic’ video campaign:
In this video, they manage to encompass everything Lurpak values — mystery, quality, intimacy, and the joys of kitchen creation. This is a great example of keeping the tenets of a content style guide in place using a visual medium.
Use infographics to explain long, or complex ideas
Valuable and easy to understand, infographics are a great alternative to wordy blog posts or data-heavy articles, especially when breaking down complex concepts, processes, or ideas. The same voice, language, and grammar rules apply here.
This infographic from Neomam is a fantastic example of branded content that adheres to a consistent brand voice. Using a brand-familiar font and format, they created an interactive, quirky study that sums them up in a nutshell.
What to include in a content style guide
It’s time to start creating your content style guide. There’s no right or wrong way to create it, and specific additions and changes can be made at any point. After all, your comprehensive style guide should always be a work in progress.
1. External style guide
There are several established style manuals out there that can offer you a solid foundation for your style guide. Many companies or brands have one of these as a general go-to, and they are great for team-wide use.
2. Grammar and punctuation
Your external style guide will serve as a great rule of thumb for your team. It’ll cover all your basic must-knows. Alongside this general overview, create your own tailored rundown of grammar and punctuation rules.
- Any common issues that arise for your team? Outline them here.
- What do you capitalize? Product names, titles, etc
- What do you abbreviate? And what abbreviations do you use?
- What’s your standing on the oxford comma?
- Any common terms your team uses, like ‘website’ or ‘website,’ etc.
- What rules do you have on spacing?
Why not list some quick-hit questions and answers? They can act as a problem pitstop for any writers or content creators working on your content. Keep adding to the list, and be sure to adhere to your guide consistently.
3. Style and tone
You’ve already undergone pretty extensive voice and tone research. Your style guide doesn’t need to feature an essay’s worth of detail. Keep it short and snappy for the best results.
Remember to drive home the idea that voice is about how content should sound to your audience, not to you. Be sure to cover the specifics such as:
- Should I use a passive or active voice?
- Do I write in the first person?
- How do you handle jargon and legal language?
- Are there any times you would NOT follow AP style?
- Does your writing style vary based on the type of content?
Create a refined list of 3–5 words that describe your brand voice. Alongside this list, create a ‘what we’re not’ list for context. This will be just as useful to your team as the ‘yes’ one.
Here’s one of the most effective voice qualities — being a straight-talker.
- What does it mean? Clear, concise, and direct
- What it doesn’t mean: Rude, dumbed-down, or aggressive
How do I convey straight-taking? Here are some tips and tricks:
- Be focused and get to the point. Plan your key messages and action points before you create the content. Stick to one theme at a time.
- Think about the audience. Is price, service, or reputation important to them? How can you be as simple as possible without losing impact?
- Consider your content options. A straight-talking voice wouldn’t be suited to long-winded articles or hour-long seminars. Think direct and opt for short videos or snippets of a copy.
And here are some tips and tricks for how not to convey straight-talking:
- Don’t use a passive tone. Stay active and use the first person. Avoid repetition and try to keep paragraphs short and free of jargon or fluff.
- Steer clear of cliches and overused metaphors. They will dilute your voice and could potentially make things less clear for the reader.
The personas in your style guide don’t need to be as detailed as those you use for other business purposes. Pull a few highlights to use as quick-fix versions.
A simple collection of target audience profiles is enough to keep your team on the straight and narrow. Consider the following:
- Who is your target audience?
- What values do they look for? What ones can you offer them?
- How do they prefer to interact, connect and share?
- What are their pain points?
- What solutions do you have for their pain points?
- What benefits do they get from your solutions?
- How do you tie them together for this persona?
These personas provide an overview of your audience and the questions that they might ask. This is something writers can keep in mind when creating content for their brand.
5. Content types
Content comes in all shapes and sizes, but not all are right for you or your audience. Your content style guide should take the time to outline and list what content is welcome.
This is a list that will grow and develop but be focused on your decision-making because more isn’t always better. First and foremost, keep your audience in mind.
- Video: How-to guides, promo videos, interviews, and user POV stories
- Audiobooks and podcasts: A weekly, collaborative newscast filled with industry-relevant chat and insight
- Infographics and images: Promo stills, data-based infographics, and studies
- Blog: Articles, case studies, reviews, and interview pieces
Your style guide is a practical resource that your whole team will use. This formatting section will be a godsend when it comes to designing your content.
The formatting section of your style guide doesn’t need to be full of in-depth specifications. The visual protocol can be the subject of a whole separate guide, so remember to keep this light and focused.
- How do you credit references and images? Do they appear in the copy body or footer?
- Do you add captions to images?
- Where on the page are images and videos placed? Centre, left, wrapped?
- What fonts and colors do you use? Is bold, underline, and italics allowed? In what context?
7. Approved and unapproved content.
Research is a necessary part of the content creation process. Creating a list of recognized and valuable resources makes a writer’s life much easier. Just as with voice examples, include the ‘never mentions’ for reference, too.
- Industry guides
- Specialized blogs
- Product videos
- Key brands/competitors
- Market research sources
- Data-centered reports and studies
- Taboo competitors
- Unreliable resources
- Controversial or unfounded topics/opinions
Keep adding to this list with every piece of content created and published. Like the style guide itself, your understanding will continue to grow and develop.
Create your own content style guide
Now that you know how to create your own content style guide, it’s time to dive in! Your style guide will become a valued company resource that will evolve as you do.
Content isn’t just written; it’s designed. A style guide such as this empowers you to explore your brand and express your personality in new, creative ways.
Great job on reading, I hope you learned the correct dos and don’ts from this article. appreciate the support and until your next read
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