“What is your top tip for creating a content style guide?”
To help you create better content style guides, we asked content experts and other business leaders this question for their best pieces of advice.
From customizing a pre-existing style sheet to maintaining a living document, there are several strategies that may help you write a good style guide for your content efforts.
Throughout this article, we’re going to talk about creating a content style guide including what to include, how to define different elements of your style guide, and more. We’ll also share some quotes from some content marketing experts to hear what they think.
At the top of your content style guide, specify your brand vision.
Brand vision guides your approach to business and helps you maintain relationships. It orients your writers and team toward your business goals.
Your brand vision should be one simple sentence that encapsulates what you stand for and are trying to accomplish. Think of it as a living statement that you will update as your company grows and changes.
For example, EditorNinja’s brand vision statement is:
Upgrade the quality of content on the internet.
More specifically how we do that is:
We provide content editing services that help brands and agencies produce better content for marketing campaigns.
Your brand vision is what both employees and customers can get behind and align with personally.
Who Your Brand Is and Isn’t For
Your content style guide should include who your brand is and is not for. These may be specific, such as types of businesses with which you do not work because of ethical conflicts, or broader like “e-commerce companies.”
This section should also include the why behind why you do or do not serve these sections of the market.
Who You Serve And Don’t
In this section you are defining who you work with and who you do not. Don’t overcomplicate this – you can state it very simply to make it clear to your team.
For example, with my company Credo, we could say:
We serve US-based businesses with revenues over $500,000 per year who have either a marketing-focused founder or a head of marketing. We work with all types of businesses, especially SaaS, e-commerce, and service businesses with a local focus. We work with all industries except for adult, firearms, or politically-themed businesses.
It is important to define both who you work with and who you do not, so that you spend less time with unqualified prospects and more time with the qualified.
What You Do and Don’t Want to Be Known For (Brand Positioning)
Along with who you serve and who you don’t, you should define your brand values which include what you do and don’t want to be known for.
Vanhishikha Bhargava from Contensify says it well:
Most style guides will mention the language to be used and other little nuances to appeal to an audience.
But most miss out on the very basic and the most crucial aspect – highlighting what you want the company (or product/service) to be known for and what you don’t want to be known for.
It’s important that you create a specific image for yourself and associate phrases that add value to your overall branding, marketing and advertising efforts. Imagine having an AI-powered recommendation engine, but being called a solution for just upsell and cross-sell; the words you pick or use have an impact on how an audience perceives you, and we all know how important that is to drive growth!
These values can be most easily stated with just three to five words describing your brand’s content, which will then inform the tone and voice in the next section.
For example, at EditorNinja these words describe how we want to be perceived:
- Friendly (business is Human to Human!)
- Fun (editing should be fun, not boring!)
- Opinionated but correct (we’re not bucking trends, and we take strong stances held loosely)
Take a minute to write down a set of 8-10 words that could describe your brand, then eliminate those that don’t really describe how you want your brand to be perceived.
It is also ok, and even recommended, to have a few that are aspirational. At another company I founded, Credo, one of the brand values is “Respond Don’t React.” I used to reply too quickly to things that angered me, which was a reaction. By making this one of our Core Values, it encourages all of us to take a step back and respond well.
This is also known as Brand Positioning.
Creating Your Formatting, Tone and Voice
One of the biggest challenges brands face when creating their content guidelines and style guide is standing out. Too many companies simply don’t put in the work, and then end up sounding just like everyone else.
Defining your brand voice fixes this.
Your style guide needs to include how content looks and feels, which starts with your brand voice but also includes fonts, text size, and imagery.
Specifying your brand voice first in this section sets the tone for the rest of the guidelines.
Start With Your Brand Voice Section
Your brand voice is how you communicate to your audience. It’s who the brand is and how you come across as directed by your Brand Vision and Values.
Rachel Reid from Subtl Beauty says it well:
Start by identifying your brand’s voice. Things like grammar can always be added in later, but it’s critical that content style guides have a clear and coherent explanation of the brand voice. This represents who the brand is, and it needs to remain consistent. I’d suggest capping your description of your brand voice characteristics at four or five characteristics to keep the style steady and reliable.
Once your guide has your brand voice clear, then you can fill in the rest.
Focus On Your Unique Spirit
Part of your brand voice should be what makes you unique. Maybe you are a 20 year expert and that makes you authoritative in a way few others are. Maybe you’re a math genius and pro at helping people model and solve their financial problems.
No matter your unique genius, leaning into that as part of your brand and brand voice will serve you well. People want to collaborate with businesses that have a clear position. You may repel some people, but those you attract will be better customers anyways.
Nina Paczka from Resume Now had this to say:
The content style guide should reflect what is authentic and original about the company so that the content created is also unique and inventive. Thus, when writing a style guide, focus on the company’s spirit and soul and transfer those values into the guide. Include company missions, values, key messages, specialized vocabulary that differentiates your products or services, and other linguistic and stylistic measures that add originality to your future content.
Let the content guide be a piece of work that includes practical instructions and advice and serves as a guide to company identity. Conveying additional messages is essential as all further materials and text would take inspiration from what you create. This will give your content guide itself a unique spirit that distinguishes it from others created by other companies.
Besides, generic and template-based content style guides make you one of many when your goal should be to become someone special, standing out from the crowd.
Create Buyer Personas
“Create buyer personas” is common advice from marketers, though the efficacy of them and return on investment of the effort to create them is debated.
But the heart behind the advice is good – have a good idea of who your ideal customer is and what they care about so you can more effectively market to them.
By understanding your audience and ideal customers and what they care about, you can create a brand style that speaks to them.
For example, if your ideal customer is lawyers billing over $1,000,000 per year, you will write and speak to them very differently than if your ideal customer is a brand new lawyer who just passed the Bar and is looking to get their first clients.
Brenton Thomas of Twibi Digital Marketing Agency had this to say:
To create any content style guide, you need to know who your audience is. That’s why when creating buyer personas, you must start by understanding who you are talking to and what their needs are.
After gathering data, you can use it to build proper buying personas to ensure that your style guide matches your audience’s needs and expectations.
Stick With What Works – Customize a Pre-Existing Style Sheet
A lot of brands get hung up on the formatting of their content, but there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.
While some areas like academia require a certain style, and journalists are mainly trained on AP style, business and marketing writing is much less academic and has some more room to break the rules to truly stand out.
That said, it is good practice to start with what works, such as MLA style and Capitalized Headings, and then adjust from there according to your brand styles.
Ashitha Jayaprakash, Klenty had this to say:
Back when I was working as a journalist, we followed AP’s style guide. And when I moved to B2B content marketing, I realized nobody used any news-ish style guides. Come to think of it, all of the journalistic style guides are perfect for B2B content marketing because our audience is actually not that different–most of them are educated, mature, experienced people who have no time.
So, if they’re already used to reading the news or are accustomed to reading good quality content with proper grammar, it’s best to follow one of the styles guides news agencies follow.
Using A Style Guide For Marketing
Something that a lot of companies forget is that every piece of content is a potential marketing opportunity. If you’ve invested the time in creating a style guide that you are proud of, share it with others so they can get to know your brand better and potentially take inspiration from it, giving you credit in the process.
Do Not Hide What Defines You
Stephan Wenger of B2B Marketing World had this to say:
The biggest mistake you can make is to hide your content style guide. Sounds obvious? In reality, most companies have no public available corporate design and corporate identity. The wrong assumption is that accessible design guides make copying your brand and content easier. It is no effort to copy your style, assets, and brand from your publications. There is simply no reason to hide anything from the public
Once you realize this simple fact, your content style guide will start to get rich in details. Add everything there is, from brand colors (including RGB, Hex, and CMYK codes) to logo dimensions to image moods, channel usage, and asset types. The more details you share, the easier it is to build a consistent brand.
You can even create your style guide online, e.g., with a subdomain website like: brand.yourcompanyname.com. This makes accessing the guide easy for everyone and increases acceptance of your guide.
Maintain a Living Document
Companies make a mistake when they create a style guide and then don’t keep it updated over time as the brand and market changes.
Sofie Couwenbergh of Let Me Write That Down for You said:
The content style guide you create before you actually start publishing content will likely have a lot of holes in it. That’s why it’s best to train your writers and editors to update it as new rules are being established. Perhaps you’re in month three of publishing content, and you realize a writer’s been using a phrase that doesn’t fit well with your brand.
Don’t just tell them to stop using it; let them add it to your style guide to keep the document up-to-date so that you won’t need to correct the same phrase again.
Keep It Simple
Finally, a style guide does not have to be complicated! In fact, it really just needs to contain four things:
- Your brand vision
- Your brand positioning
- Formatting, voice, and tone
- Brand style guidelines like fonts, font sizes, and colors
Anything after those four is a bonus, but not required.
Ishu Singh of Starting to know said this about keeping a style guide simple to make sure that writers and editors follow it:
A content style guide is not a marketing plan or a brand strategy—it’s a blueprint that makes sure all your content teams have the same information they need to create their work.
A content style guide should be clear and concise, with examples of how each piece of information should look when it’s done. It should be easy to read and understand so that anyone can use it, even if they’re not familiar with the brand.
If you want people to use it, make it useful for them—and then make sure they actually use it!
Ready to work with editors who follow your style guide?
Here at EditorNinja, all of our professional editors are trained to edit according to your style guidelines. In fact, they’ve studied all of the common style guides and know how to adjust their editing to your needs.
Schedule a free editorial assessment today to talk about your editing needs and see how EditorNinja can help you produce better content and therefore better results.