A complete process for developing a content style guide
Nic Evans • 9 minutes
When it comes to content, consistency is key.
Companies and brands are finally considering content to be 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 guidelines aren’t in place. This is why a content style guide is an invaluable part of any organisation’s content operations, or ContentOps.
This step-by-step article will take you through the process of creating your own style guide template.
Easy to create and used by your your clients organisation, your style guide will;
Keep tone, voice, and messaging consistent.
Guide your team on how to write for your audiences.
Help maintain a recognised quality and brand identity.
Result in more effective content.
Why do you need a content style guide?
A style guide is a set of content rules that keeps everyone’s tone of voice on the same page.
It covers aspects such as grammar, language, formatting and tone – all the things needed to compose and present content.
Reason #1: It puts your audiences first
All style guides are about communicating more effectively with audiences. Their needs, wants and expectations shape every piece of content created. Staying in-tune with their interests, behaviours and activities dictates the language, mediums and messaging you use.
A style guide recognises a link between what your audience needs and the best way to fulfil that need in most impactful way.
Reason #2: Breeds consistency
This is content 101. Giving your audience a consistent experience builds loyalty and trust. The likes of Flickr and MailChimp are great at running their tone and voice through everything on every level, from default text to terms and conditions.
With more than one person being responsible for content creation, keeping the tone of voice locked down can be tough. A style guide can be a central reference to keep the overall voice consistent.
Reason #3: Encourages good practice.
As with many agency or brand practices, creating a style guide starts with research.
Your audience, brand, business goals and competitors all influence your style guide. Getting as much insight as possible will set you in good stead.
Use what you’ve learned about yourself to date. The likes of;
Look at the bigger picture too and research your competitors. They might be tapping into a client base you want, how are they achieving this?
Reason #4: Creates better content
A style guide is about pinning down how you communicate.
As much as it is a practical resource, a style guide is also a commitment to more considered content. Grammar, punctuation and formatting all contribute to the quality of your content, a style guide keeps all this in check.
Personality, trends and brand values all come into play here and it’s this that produces better content.
Who, When & How
Who creates a content style guide?
You don’t need to be a writer to create a content style guide. The aim here is to create a rundown of content do’s and don’ts for the whole team to follow. Consult with your departments and team members, they all have unique insight to bring to the table.
When do you create it?
Creating a content style guide is an open-ended exercise. It grows as your understanding, clients and business do. Creating your own guide for in-house use can start at any time, 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. It helps you create culture-rooted content and it helps them stay consistent in the future. Win win.
How do you present your finalised tone of voice guidelines?
Nothing fancy, a simple word doc is fine. Try to keep your guide to 4-5 pages, anything longer will be too meaty to digest in those quick question moments. Also, make it easily available to the entire team. I recommend uploading it to your website so that it sits on a URL that anyone can see, at any time.
Understand your audiences
Audiences are complex and ever changing, just like content itself.
You can’t start creating content until you have established who your audiences are. It can be as simple as some light demographic research or go as deep as individual personas.
It’s all up to you.
Getting to grips with your audience is about more than objectives and actions.
How do they speak? What’s important to them? What sources do they trust? How do your competitors tap into the same market? What values matter to them?
Here’s an example of how to break down what an audience may want and need.
Looking at the bigger picture and seeing your audience as fully formed people, not search engine keywords, gives your content style guide more weight and relevance.
Example: The car seat company
Imagine you’re creating content for a baby 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 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 an affinity and sincerity.
Validation They want to know that other parents have used and trust 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’s some great articles that could help you figure out who your audience are;
Now you have a wealth of information and insight at your fingertips, you can start to create your brand tone.
1. Use three words to express your personality.
Choose three words that capture your 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 are renowned for their clean, simple and inspiring content. Their list might compose of;
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?
Jason Fried once said “When you write like everyone else, you’re saying, “Our products are like everyone else’s.”
Example: Old Spice
Watch this ‘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 the modern times but it put many of the unrealistic, cinematic cologne ads to shame.
They appealed, mocked and humorously invited men and women to enjoy the joke – something that immediately gained them a following.
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 favourites and are looking for something new. Pay attention.
How do they communicate? Are they formal or casual? Do they have a sense of humour?
Example – MailChimp
MailChimp are acclaimed for their voice. At a time when many companies offering a similar service, were heavy and uninspiring, MailChimp changed the game.
Infectiousness friendly and straightforward, their tone reflects their respect for their audience.
They don’t talk down or dress it up – they wanted to offer audiences a more considered service that didn’t pertain to industry hoo ha.
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 enjoy it.
Express personality in the most ‘you’ way possible.
Example: Innocent Smoothies
Look at the The Innocent Big Knit:
Innocent are the kings of humour. They saw a significant gap in the market and leapt 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.
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. It 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 it down. Add a visual or limit the scope to make it readable.
Tumblr do this wonderfully, adding some character into theirs:
Think bigger: it’s not all about copy
A style guide isn’t just about blogs and website copy.
Any content you publish, written or otherwise, is a representation of 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
Film is the perfect medium to tell a story from a user’s POV. This is a really effective way to tell your brand story. Tone of voice and personality can be translated to screen perfectly.
Watch Lurpak’s ‘Weave your magic’ video campaign:
They manage to encompass everything Lurpak values – mystery, quality, intimacy and the joys of kitchen creation.
Use infographics to explain long, or complex ideas
Valuable and easy to understand, infographics are a great alternative to wordy blogs or stat-heavy articles especially when breaking down complex concepts, processes or ideas. The same voice, language and grammar rules apply here.
Using a brand-familiar font and format, they created an interactive, quirky study that sums them up in a nutshell.
Creating the Content Style Guide
Now you can start creating your content style guide.
There’s no right or wrong way to create it, specific additions and changes can be made at any point. After all, your style guide should always be a work in progress.
1. Pick an external style book
There are several established style manuals out there that can offer you a solid foundation for yours. Many companies or brands have one of these as a general go-to and they are great for team-wide use.
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.
Any common issues that arise for your team? Outline them here.
What do you capitalise? – Product names, titles etc
What do you abbreviate and how?
What’s your standing on the oxford comma?
Any terms or habits your team experience – ‘web site’ or ‘website’ etc
Why not list some quick hit questions and answers? They can act as a problem pitstop for any writers or content creators. Keep adding to the list and be sure to adhere to your guide consistently.
3. Style & Tone
You’ve already undertaken pretty extensive voice and tone research and have ideas about your tone of voice for varying contexts. 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 the audience, not to you. Be sure to cover the specifics such as;
Should I use a passive or active voice?
Do I write in first person?
How do you handle jargon and legal language?
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? Tips & 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-taking voice wouldn’t be suited to long-winded articles or hour long seminars. Think direct and opt for short videos or snippets of copy.
How not to convey straight-talking!
Using a passive tone: Stay active and use first person. – Avoid repetition and try and keep bodies of copy to short paragraphs and no jargon.
Steer clear of cliches and overused metaphors: they will dilute your voice.
The personas that feature in your style guide don’t need to be as detailed as other business use ones. Just 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.
Who are 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 pains?
What benefits do they get from your solutions?
How do you tie them together for this persona?
These personas act as instant confirmation of audiences and the questions that they might ask. This is something writers can keep in their mind’s eye when creating content.
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 in your decision making, more isn’t always better.
Keep your audiences in mind first and foremost.
Video: How-to guides, promo vids, interviews and user POV stories.
Audiobooks / podcasts: A weekly, collaborative news cast filled with industry-relevant chat and insight.
Infographics & images: Promo stills, data-based infographics and studies.
Blog: Articles, case studies, reviews and interview pieces.
Your style guide is a practical resource that will used by the whole team. This formatting section will be a godsend when it comes to designing your content.
This section of your style guide doesn’t need to be full of in-depth specifications. 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 etc placed? Centre, left, wrapped?
What font and colours do you use? – Is bold, underline and italics allowed? In what context?
Here’s an example of a Google + format guide. It’s simple, on brand and informative.
7. Approved and unapproved content.
Research is a necessary part of the content process. Creating a list of recognised and valuable resources makes a writer’s life much easier.
Just as with voice examples, include the ‘never mentions’ for reference too.
Key brands / competitors
Market research sources
Data-centred reports and studie
Controversial or unfounded topics / opinions
Keep adding to this list with every piece of content created and published. As like your style guide itself, your understanding will continue to grow and develop.
Example content style guide templates
Using everything outlined above here are some example templates to help you get going.
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