How to Create An Effective Content Style Guide and Why You Need One

The content you publish online speaks loads about your brand and business. Without putting in the effort to achieve brand consistency, it could be hard to win your audience’s trust and build credibility for your content. There is so much content out there that if you don’t guide your content writers to infuse the brand personality into their writing, your blog or website might just get lost in the sea. This is where content style guides come to the rescue.

As a business grows, your team grows too and so does your requirement for content. Many people, and not just content writers, are involved in the content process. This makes it all the more important to have documented brand guidelines for content. Every business has a brand voice that should reflect in all the content they produce on all channels. From language to tone to grammar to punctuation, everything comes together to create a brand identity for you.

So when a reader engages with your content, they have the same consistent experience irrespective of who created it.

 

 

What is a content style guide?

A content style guide is a documentation of your brand guidelines that specifies all the minor details that need to be taken care of in order to express your brand voice and personality through content. A content style guide or an editorial style guide should be able to help anyone on your team understand what the content they’re creating should look like.

It must be shared with your in-house content creators, freelancers – if you’re working with any, or any content agency you’re hiring for the job.

An editorial style guide should be as descriptive as it gets. It should leave no room for assumptions and ambiguity because if you are looking to standardize your content the minutest details will matter. The content style guide can also be a part of every content brief that you create for your writers.

What is the purpose of creating a content style guide?

The purpose of creating a content style guide or a brand style guide for your content is simple – to keep your content on-brand. You may expect that content creators will be able to pick your house style by simply referring to old content, but that would leave things to chance. Every content creator has their own style and unless you are providing strict content guidelines to follow, it is possible that they could miss capturing your brand personality effectively.

There are very subtle hints in a brand’s voice that readers (including new content creators) might easily overlook, but without these elements, your content does not have the same feel to it. It is the same as having a design style guide for your website, say, where you describe in detail what elements will go on the site, what color schemes to use, where to place CTAs, and so on.

The content creation process is equally critical. So building a detailed editorial style guide for all content types that are a part of your content strategy is crucial. There are standard editorial style guides that have been in use for a long time. Such as the Associated Press or AP Stylebook often used in journalism, the Modern Language Association (MLA) Style Manual, or the Chicago Manual of Style for academic writing. These editorial style guides are used by business for content planning and creation and content writers too. But although they are tried, tested, and universally accepted, they are not the same as your brand guidelines.

Here’s why you need to move on from the AP style guide and add your own content style guide to your content briefs.

1. To align content with your audience personas

Every business has its ideal buyer personas and thus, target audience personas. And content marketing is all about connecting with this target audience, by understanding what they need. Following a generic style guide like the AP Stylebook may improve content quality but it will not always help you meet audience expectations.

There is so much content available on the web today that if you don’t set yourself apart with strong brand guidelines, to create a USP, it’s hard to keep people hooked. Having a custom-built content style guide means that your content is shaped around your audience’s needs, challenges, behaviors, and preferences.

2. To bring brand consistency in your content across channels

One of the biggest reasons why a brand style guide for content marketing is important is maintaining consistency. Brand consistency can actually increase revenue by 10 to 20% according to Lucidpress. Now, the AP style guide or the Chicago Manual may be great for all your long-form content types, like blogs, e-books, whitepapers, etc. But what about your social media posts? What about content that you post on other channels like Quora or forums or even your website copy?

Having a brand style guide that encompasses all content types, ensures that your tone and brand voice is consistent across all these channels. This kind of content planning is important to build a sense of familiarity in your audience and win over their trust. Try any major publisher in the digital marketing space, be it HubSpot, MailChimp, Ahrefs or others. You will notice how their content uses the same tone, structure, and voice to build a brand personality that their audience can easily identify with. Even the color palettes and graphics they use, be it on their blog, website or social media posts, will usually be consistent.

3. To maintain consistency in content quality

Apart from consistency in branding, it is also important to maintain consistency in your content quality. When you have many content writers creating content for you or outsource content creation, it can be difficult to keep a check on the quality.

Having an editorial style guide ensures that content writers have all the information they need in terms of grammar checks, readability, punctuation, etc. Imagine a blog where every article has a different font, title capitalization, tone or structure. Even the thought of such chaos makes us cringe, doesn’t it? That could be the result of not having solid brand guidelines.

An editorial style guide also guides them on the kind of sentiment they should capture and emotions they need to trigger with the content, based on your brand identity.

So having a detailed style guide as part of the content brief for writers can bring a vast difference in the quality of content you publish.

4. To answer all possible questions and save time

Unless you have everything documented, it is likely that someone or the other on the team will keep coming back to you with the same questions. To ensure that everyone has all the answers they need relating to brand guidelines, having a content style guide is essential.

Whenever someone comes to you with a relevant new question, it is best to add it to the style guide as well. This will save you and your team a lot of time, increasing productivity and turnaround time.

5. To evolve with time and content trends

The AP style guide or any of the other established style guides usually follow the same traditional standards. But the world of content marketing is changing at a very rapid pace and content marketing trends keep evolving. It is important that your content evolves with it too, to be relevant and relatable for your audience.

For instance, the AP style guide requires you to write words in full when you’re referring to them for the first time in the content. But the modern-day audience is familiar, and often more comfortable, with the abbreviated version. Let’s take, for example, SERPs, SEO, or CTR. The audience wants you to get to the point in as few words as possible. So using the rules set by traditional writing style guides may not always be relevant.

What should you include in a content style guide?

A brand style guide or editorial style guide for content marketing needs to specify everything under the sun to ensure that content marketers and creators understand what is expected of them. Ideally, every brand or business must decide what they want to include in their content style guide and make sure to include this style guide in their content planning process every time. But to give you an idea of what it should contain, here are a few common elements that all content style guides should have.

Brand personality and positioning

The first thing to include in your content style guide is a detailed description of your brand personality. In this section, you need to talk about what your brand stands for. Brand positioning is important in deciding what kind of content the brand should be putting out.

For instance, in this content style guide by Mailchimp, the company tells its writers the brand story of how it started and where they stand now. The guide even tells you how they write their company name to ensure that content writers understand their brand positioning and adhere to it.

Mailchimp content style guide

 

Content purpose and principles

Every time a brand creates content, there is a purpose behind it. It could be to generate leads, educate the audience, offer solutions, entertain, simplify complex concepts, or something else. All the content that you publish, on any channel, should ultimately contribute to this purpose and stick to the same principles.

So a brand content style guide should clearly define the content principles. Your content principles could also have things like inclusivity, progressiveness, future-focused, and so on.

Brand voice and tone

Your brand voice refers to how you put your message in front of your audience. The brand voice is usually consistent for a business and content writers are expected to capture this in every piece of content they write. The brand voice has to be in agreement with the brand personality.

So you can imagine your brand voice to be what you would sound like if you were actually talking to your audience. If your brand positioning is fun and casual, your brand voice can be laid back and easy-going. If your brand personality is warm and friendly, your brand voice has to be reassuring and calming as well.

Tone on the other hand is not always consistent for a brand. Similar to speech, in writing too the tone of voice can change depending on the situation. So based on the topic you’re addressing or the audience you’re facing, your brand’s tone can be different. For instance, your tone could be relaxed, happy, concerned, caring, or humorous.

But it usually does not cover the entire spectrum. You have to decide what kinds of tone your brand should stick to in different situations, without leaving much to the writer’s discretion. This ensures that there is no gross mismatch between your brand positioning, voice, and tone.

Here’s an example of how Microsoft defines its brand voice in the company’s style guide document.

Microsoft content style guide

Grammar and style

Now we get to the nitty gritty of content writing where you have to get into the finer details like grammar, punctuation, structure, and formatting. These may seem like trivial factors, but when you are creating loads of content these are the factors that contribute to content and brand consistency. For example, does your brand write e-books, eBooks, or E-books? Does your house style prefer web pages or webpages?

This can be confusing both for your content writers and your readers unless you have clearly set content guidelines that dictate the use of various elements of grammar and style.

The common elements under this section of your content style guide should be –

  • Fonts
  • Capitalization (In titles, headings, subheadings, and paragraphs)
  • Bold and italics in text
  • Contractions (shortening of words or combining two words together)
  • Punctuations (use of Oxford commas, hyphens, semicolons, etc.)
  • Bulleted and numbered lists
  • Numbers (in numerals and words)
  • Abbreviations
  • Dates, times, and metric systems
  • Spellings (US, UK, AU, etc.)
  • Active and passive voice
  • First, second or third person/ pronouns

 
There may be other parameters that you include in this section but these are some essential ones that you shouldn’t miss. These factors ensure that your content delivers the message correctly and has consistency. For instance, using bold text where there is no need for it can unnecessarily distract a reader from the main message. Or using numbered lists where the item sequence does not matter can give a false idea of priority, which is not your intention. So you need to be very clear and concise about your content guidelines in this section of the style guide.

Some brands also recommend using specific grammar checker tools and readability checkers to ensure that every piece of content follows these brand guidelines.

The Shopify content style guide has a very detailed and elaborate section on Grammar and mechanics, that serves as a good example.

Shopify content style guide

Visuals and graphics

Though you are required to have an exclusive design style guide for your graphic designers altogether, it is still important to set content guidelines around the use of visuals and graphics in your editorial style guide.

These guidelines don’t usually go into the details of design requirements, but they can at least tell your content creators a few important things like –

  • What kind of images are acceptable?
  • Where to source them from?
  • Does the text wrap around the images, go in line with the image or stay top and bottom?
  • Should images be left, right or centrally aligned?
  • How to add captions?
  • Is the numbering of images required?

 
This will also help you build better content templates for your content creators.

Accessibility guidelines

When you are creating content for a target audience, it has to be accessible to them to yield results. So if your target audience is children below 5th grade, you cannot expect results by writing in a style suited for college graduates. It is important that you set clear content guidelines around the accessibility of your content.

  • Who you’re writing for
  • What is their level of understanding/knowledge on the topic
  • Should you use industry jargon or completely avoid them
  • Will your audience be able to relate to the style you are using
  • Is your language inclusive enough to address a diverse audience, if you have one

 
These instructions will help your content creators ensure that the content is well received, understood, and enjoyed by a wider audience.

Citations and linking

You also need to set clear guidelines around how to acknowledge a source of data/ information in your content. If you often use data, statistics, or quotes from other sources, it is extremely important that your writers give the original source its due credit.

Some brands prefer to add links to the text itself, while others add references at the end of an article. Whatever your style is, it is important to maintain uniformity here.

Google’s developer documentation style guide has very effectively stated the company’s preferences for linking and cross-references. It even gives clear instructions on internal linking on the same page or to other pages on the same site.

Google style guide

How do you create a content style guide?

Now that we know what elements go into a good content style guide, let’s get to the actual work – creating a content style guide. Here are some key steps involved.

1. Refer to an established style guide

To start the process, it is always best to refer to one of the established style guides that already exist. Most businesses would ideally refer to the AP Stylebook. This will give you an idea of how to approach your brand style guide, what sections to include or omit and how to make the style guide standardized.

If you are using a major section from any of these style guides that you refer to, you should also acknowledge it in the very beginning of your own content style guide.

2. Always create a TOC

Having a table of contents at the beginning of your style guide is essential. Firstly, it will be easier for users to quickly scan through and understand what the brand style guide talks about. It will also make it easier for them to navigate to specific sections of the guide.

Secondly, it will also give you a quick view of what you have included and what you haven’t. If you plan to expand the scope of your brand style guide for content marketing in the future, the TOC will make it easier for you to identify gaps and opportunities.

3. Gather a team to create the content style guide

Creating a massive content style guide is not a one-man job. You will need a team of like-minded people from your company who thoroughly understand your brand identity, content strategy, and the demands of digital marketing in general. This team could include experienced content creators, editors, managing editors, product managers, marketing managers or anyone who you feel could add value.

Having more than one mind working on it will always unearth new ideas that you probably hadn’t thought of.

4. Decide where to save your content style guide so it’s easy to access and edit

Now, this is a very important part of the process that we often overlook. Your content style guide will keep evolving and require edits frequently. So it is important that it is housed somewhere you and your team can easily find it. It is even better if you can edit the style guide on the same content creation platform itself.

Narrato Workspace, for instance, has a Style Guides library, where you can create and save multiple content style guides.

Narrato Style Guides Library

You can apply these style guides to individual content tasks, so your writers can refer to them during content creation.

You can also edit and modify these style guides on Narrato when you need to. And not just style guides, you can also create and save free templates for different content types on Narrato.

Having a central repository like this for your style guides makes the whole process much more organized. And if the repository is on your content creation and collaboration platform itself, like Narrato, it becomes a lot easier to manage.

 

 

5. Create the content style guide but keep it running

With everything else sorted, including who should contribute to the style guide, what elements it should have, and where you should save it, You are now ready to pen everything down in a structured format. But it is important to remember that the job does not end here.

The content style guide should be actively revisited and updated from time to time as content marketing trends evolve and your content strategy evolves with them. Brand image and positioning can also change with time and you have to be on your feet to modify your content guidelines to align with the new requirements too.

6. Share your content style guide with everyone who matters

If there s anyone who is contributing to your content marketing efforts in any big or small way, share the content style guide with them. There is no point in creating brand guidelines if everyone representing the brand in some way is not aware of it.

Notify your team when the content style guide is ready. Notify them even when minor changes are made to the style guide. And make it a ritual to follow the content style guide for every piece of content anyone creates for your brand.

How do you structure a content style guide?

Every content style guide you will come across usually has a similar structure. The names or terminology for each section may be different but the idea behind them is nearly the same. So, as we mentioned above, most content style guides start with a table of contents. This is followed by an overview of their content goals and their brand values. And after this, you can go ahead with adding the different sections that you wish to include.

So the sequence looks something like this –

  • TOC
  • Overview/ brand story/ content goals
  • Brand voice and tone
  • Grammar and mechanics
  • Accessibility guidelines
  • Specific guidelines for different use cases like legal content, product content, social media, etc.

 
Each of these sections can have as many sub-sections as you need depending on which elements you want to focus on.

Here’s a free template for a comprehensive content style guide we created for you. Feel free to download the template and add your own brand guidelines as well as more sections where you need to.
Content style guide free template - Narrato
 


How should your brand voice be used for social, press releases, marketing emails, or product descriptions?

Your brand voice ideally should not change between different channels. As we’ve discussed above, the brand voice usually stays consistent. But your tone can change depending on your audience, topic, medium, and the situation. If your audience on social media, a press release, marketing emails, and website are the same, you can use the same brand voice and tone everywhere.

But that does not always happen. It is likely that people who are reading your product descriptions are high-intent potential customers, while someone following you on social media may not necessarily have an intention of buying. Similarly, if someone has subscribed to your marketing emails, they may show interest in your product at some point in the future.

Your content style guide has to take these different scenarios into consideration and define how to change your tone for each of these media. This is why most well-crafted style guides have a list of guidelines for various content types that they create. For instance, Mailchimp’s content style guide has specific guidelines for educational content, email newsletters, social media content, and more.

What is the difference between a style guide and a style sheet?

A style sheet is a shorter version of a content style guide. It may not be as elaborate as a content style guide, but it lists down the most important and specific points to take care of during content creation.

A style guide, on the other hand, is much more elaborate and covers all aspects of branding and brand identity.

The style sheet can be used as a quick reference and works fine when dealing with experienced writers who only need to brush up on the key points now and then. The style sheet can be pinned on your work desk or on your boardroom wall if you wish to.

Style guides, however, are extremely important when onboarding new team members, content writers, freelancers, or agencies. It helps you better manage freelancer writers, in-house writers, and writers at a content agency in terms of the quality of content they create.

What is the difference between design guidelines and content style guides?

Design guidelines are generally used in an entirely different context. These apply to web designers, graphic designers, and the likes. Design guidelines are broader guidelines referring to principles of design to build a framework that designers can work on and create consistent designs that hold all the elements together perfectly.

Content style guides may also have instructions on the use of visual design elements, but these instructions are with respect to content. They don’t dictate how you’re supposed to design a graphic but can give you a general idea of what color palettes to use, what layouts to apply and how to position the visuals within the content.

Conclusion

The content style guide is an often neglected but extremely useful piece of resource. Most brands create extensive content style guides putting in a lot of effort and time, but eventually fail to implement them. But do it right, and you could see tremendous improvements in user experience and engagement. The consistency that a content style guide can bring to your branded content and its quality is a reward in itself. So without wasting any more time, get your team to brush off the dust from that content style guide and start following it.

 

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