What's in this article?
Perhaps you’ve been in a situation similar to this…
You crank out the majority of content for your company, or perhaps your clients’ companies, and it’s become overwhelming to keep track of everything.
Maybe you want to grow a team to manage this but you’re not sure how to get them onboard with what you know. This includes the ins and outs of your business or client’s business. You know which words and phrases they love, and which ones they detest.
But does your growing content creation team know “the rules”? If you haven’t created a Style Guide, then most likely they won’t, and your content’s quality will suffer.
If you’re at this point or you’re simply getting started with establishing your company’s brand through content, you might not have put that much thought into a consistent style.
Capitalize this word sometimes, other times, leave it uncapitalized. Change a word here or there in your company’s slogan or catchphrase. What’s the big deal? People aren’t going to notice, right? Wrong.
Your Content Marketing Style Guide is an essential tool for your content strategists and creators to consistently deliver your brand to your audience.
With it, you convey a sense of competency, authority, and trust to your audience. Without it, your messaging will become an unconvincing mess.
What is a Content Marketing Style Guide?
A Content Marketing Style Guide is a rulebook that marketers follow to ensure all content is uniform in its branding, voice, phraseology, and tone. A Style Guide provides guidance and order so that many writers can share one voice, and stay on brand at all times.
The Style Guide clearly defines which words, spellings, and phrases to use, while also specifically mentioning what words and phrases should be avoided.
Curious if a word should be hyphenated, capitalized, italicized? Consult the Style Guide.
Just as journalists use their AP Style Guide to create a consistent written style across thousands of newspapers, so too should your company’s writers consult your Style Guide for consistent branding across all blogs and pieces of content that can then easily scale.
Why Should Your Brand Have a Style Guide?
Brand consistency is important for communicating the appearance of confidence and competency for your organization.
Just as Visual Style Guides are important for establishing a consistent visual look through your logo, fonts, and brand colors, Content Marketing Style Guides establish a consistent written style.
For instance, I went to a restaurant that had three different names for the same sandwich — each listed differently on their website, menu, and their signage. Imagine my confusion when placing an order and how it impacted the way I felt about the business. “They don’t have their stuff in order,” I grumbled to myself.
Imagine what your customers would think going to your website and seeing one product name or slogan, and then talking to your salesperson and hearing another.
Consistency, whether it’s with a visual logo or written content, helps get your message across more effectively and efficiently. Repetition helps make your message stick. It’s also important for persuading and influencing your customers to trust you.
Put it this way, inconsistency is more noticeable than consistency.
Aim for consistency. Use a Content Style Marketing Guide.
What Should You Include in Your Content Marketing Style Guide?
From establishing your organization’s values and goals, to clarifying the voice you use, there are many categories of information that can be helpful to document in your Content Style Guide so that they can be consistently referred to by all involved in your marketing.
Your company’s description and brand positioning statement is an elevator pitch in written form. In a sentence or two, it should succinctly describe the following:
- What your company does
- What your values are
- Your mission/niche
- Your company’s personality
Think carefully about your company’s description, because it is the boilerplate description that will be referred back to again and again across various media.
How should you position your company? Check out Web Design for the Decided Customer
Ultimately, all of your content and marketing initiatives should reflect your company’s goals and objectives. Make your business’s objectives clearly known.
Business objectives give your writers context for why they’re writing that blog post, social media post, or website copy, and allows them to think critically and strategically about their work.
Listing your objectives clearly will also distinguish your company from your competitors and create a more distinctive brand for your company.
Knowing who your audience is dictates your approach to writing and producing content.
Because, who are you producing this content for, exactly? If you don’t know, how can you reach that person?
For truly effective communication, you must write in the language that your audience speaks. But you first must specify who is in that audience.
What do they like? What don’t they like? How old are they? What’s their demographic? What websites and apps do they use?
Include a targeted buyer persona so you have a name and a face for the type of person you’re trying to reach, and then write accordingly.
What makes your company stand out from the competition? What’s your X factor or secret sauce? Your niche?
People value novelty, so if there’s something your company does that the others don’t, let it be known clearly. Often the smallest differentiators can make the biggest difference.
Is your company woman owned, the oldest established, or an award winner? Was your restaurant on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives? Flaunt that to your competitive advantage.
Your company doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it exists in a competitive ecosystem with each company impacting the other.
List who your competitors are, what they do, and how you and the public perceives them.
Knowing who your competitors are and keeping tabs on them can help you understand their successes and failures, which will then guide your content and marketing initiatives.
Going through writers’ blog posts and reformatting them is a time-consuming endeavour. For this reason, create your own template that automatically formats the text for your writers.
In this template you can set your default typeface, text color, font size, and spacing.
This way your writers can go to the template, make a copy, and begin writing their content.
Acronyms can confuse your reader, so set up guidelines on how to use acronyms throughout your content. Does AP mean Associated Press, or accounts payable, for instance?
Some Style Guides only allow for commonly used acronyms, and state all others should be spelled out entirely. Other guides say you must write out the full term in the first introduction, and then use the acronym for further mentions.
Specify how you want your writers to use, or not use, acronyms in your content.
As for unique words, every industry uses them and should clearly spell out these “misspelled” marketing terms. These unique words are also referred to as “sensational spelling.”
For example, Chicken wyngz are not the same as chicken wings, and using the incorrect spelling could potentially count as false advertising.
(Personal tip: Maybe it’s best to stay away from foods with Y’s and Z’s in their name.)
How to Build a Content Style Guide One Step at a Time
Your Style Guide can start simple and grow more complex and useful over time.
There’s no reason to start at square one to create a Style Guide. If you don’t have a Style Guide yet, find another company’s Style Guide and copy it. (We’ve listed our favorites further down).
Use their structure and rules as a template, and make alterations to rules, spellings, and phrases, as you see fit to match your branding and tone.
Over time, your Style Guide will evolve with your company’s own distinctive personality and phrasing.
How to Organize Your Content Marketing Style Guide
We’ve seen a couple different ways companies go about structuring their Content Style Guide.
Some companies, like MailChimp, place their most important and general rules toward the top of their guides. These sections include voice, branding, grammar, and the company description to introduce writers to their company’s culture. Then rules handling more complicated or less common situations are listed toward the bottom of the guide.
Other companies, like Microsoft, also put the general voice and branding information at the top, but then follow an alphabetical order structure on rules to handle each specific situation. For example, writing about URLs and web addresses is at the bottom of their list.
No matter if you’re organizing your Style Guide based on alphabetical order, or in order of importance, always start by listing your company’s values, brand, voice, and tone information upfront to provide context.
Important Content Tools and Resources
Below are examples of resources and sections you’re likely to encounter in your company’s Style Guide to further explain stylistic and grammatical choices your company decides upon.
This checklist provides a brief summary of the most important rules to follow. Sort of like the Ten Commandments for your Style Guide.
Your Style Guide may have hundreds of rules, but your writer’s checklist should be a succinct cheat-sheet that your writers can quickly glance at to ensure they’re on the right track, and then get back to writing.
Style Do’s and Don’ts
Remembering every rule is hard. In addition to the writer’s checklist, do’s and don’ts also help simplify the rules.
- DO spell out numbers from one to nine
- DON’T use uncommon acronyms
- DO use a serial comma
- DON’T use abbreviations
AP Style or The Chicago Manual of Style
To AP-Style or not to AP-Style. That is the question.
There are pros and cons of each style and deciding for your own business requires taking a few things into consideration.
As you start to wrestle with this question of whether to use AP Style for your content marketing, stop and take a look at the writing around you. Refer back to favorite blogs or content pieces that serve as models for your content. Look at how they handle issues like the serial comma, what numbers they spell out, and what words they capitalize.
If you’re a fan of newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, you’ll find a pretty consistent use of AP Style. However, not all newspapers do it. Take a look at this recent Detroit Free Press story about 2 towns, not two towns.
Some content creators even make their own Style Guide. Take the New York Times, Wikipedia, or Yahoo, for example.
The Benefits of AP Style
AP is designed to be reader-friendly. That’s one of the reasons AP doesn’t like the serial comma as much as Chicago Style does — the thinking is that the extra comma adds yet another character for the reader to process.
There may be other reasons you want to use AP Style. To give your content an air of authority, or to blend in with other similar content producers who use AP.
Your writers may also be familiar with it already, making it a universal style that is easy for others to pick up and use.
The Benefits of Non-AP Style
Of course, you wouldn’t be alone if you decided not to go with AP Style. Thousands of publishers go with more informal Style Guides, both adopted and original. Many blogs and even some major publishers like The Atlantic, aim for a “conversational voice” that may be suited better to a Style Guide like Yahoo’s. You may want to think about whether your readers would also prefer a more relaxed style of writing.
However, casual doesn’t work for all businesses or audiences. Say you need to write authoritative content for a specialized audience, like doctors or therapists. In that case, your business should probably stick with the AMA (American Medical Association) or APA (American Psychological Association) Style Guides.
Picking Your Side
You’ll notice we can’t tell you whether your business should AP or not AP. That’s an existential question you’ll have to decide for yourself. The important thing is to make a decision and go forth with your content marketing plan. If you want to switch sides down the road, you can. This is content marketing, not a Shakespearean tragedy.
Unique Brand Voice and Tone
Each company has its own personality that will show through its writing, reflecting their values. Style Guides advise writers on the appropriate brand voice and tone to establish a consistent culture through its content. They’ll usually say something like:
- “Our voice is sophisticated, but not snobbish.”
- “We can be snarky, but always good-natured.”
- “Avoid fluffy jargon and use plainspeak.”
- “Be quirky, but not weird and inappropriate.”
Many Style Guides are now eschewing outdated, violent, and ableist terms when writing about people and their products to stay current with political correctness.
For instance, they might say:
- Don’t refer to older people as “elderly.”
- Don’t list a person’s age or race unless it’s relevant to the story.
- Don’t say somebody “suffers” from a disability.
- Don’t use violent terms like “killing, bombed, scorched, etc.”
In college you may remember using MLA Format. Do these rules sound familiar?
- Use 12 point Times New Roman
- Lines must be double-spaced
- Leave only one space after each period
- Indent each line of the first paragraph
These rules now seem outdated, perhaps even silly in the digital era of blog writing. Can you imagine reading a blog that’s double-spaced with each paragraph indented?
But for recent college graduates, they might think this writing style is expected of them when writing blogs.
As we mentioned before, create a template for your writers to use with formatting and font choices programmed into it.
Problematic Words and Grammar
“Web site” used to be two words. Now it’s website.
There are countless technological terms that are tricky to spell, leaving you unsure if they should be hyphenated or not. Spelling out these problematic words in a Style Guide ensures greater consistency.
Even grammatical phrases and rules should be written out. According to Microsoft’s Style Guide, “nouns shouldn’t be written as verbs, and verbs shouldn’t be written as nouns.”
So instead of writing “open an invite,” Microsoft advises saying “open an invitation.”
How to Make Your Content Style Guide a Success
Your company’s Style Guide will most likely be a Google Doc or PDF uploaded to a shared repository that’s easily accessible to all of your writers.
Your digital Style Guide should be a living document that’s easy to update and redistribute to your team. And if you plan on making sure your writers actually use it, then make it easy to find and access. Print physical copies and hand them out to your team so they’ll actually use it.
The AP Stylebook updates every two years to stay current with evolving trends and terminology. But because it’s a physical book, it can’t update as rapidly as digital documents can.
Because your Style Guide is digital, you can update it as much as you’d like. But show restraint and only make revisions every 6 months or once a year, or else risk confusing your writers: “Wait, is this word supposed to be capitalized now? I can’t remember with all these changes happening.”
Example Content Marketing Style Guides
MailChimp’s Content Style Guide is among the most highly regarded guides online. Many of our examples listed in this article came directly from Mailchimp’s Style Guide. They are playful and easy to understand.
Uber’s style is considerate, simple, and direct. Friendly and helpful, but not playful. Like what you would expect from a professional chauffeur.
Even though they’re a tech company, Microsoft speaks plainly and warmly. They put people first, and use simple, easy-to-understand sentences. Because technology is confusing, they use short, simple sentences that easily guide you through important steps, never using fluffy or pretentious language.
If you’re working on your Content Marketing Style Guide or strategy, Kaleidico would love to help. Schedule a discovery session to accelerate your content marketing goals.