As your company produces more content with more authors, finding consistency in formatting, brand word usage, and style becomes increasingly challenging. A well-structured content style guide helps get everyone on the same page so that multiple authors can create a wide variety of content with the consistent formatting, design, and voice that projects the professionalism and brand style you’re aiming for.
What is a Content Style Guide?
Definitions vary, but for our purposes here:
“A content style guide is a brand document that outlines clear standards and expectations for branding elements, writing style and formatting concerns, and design elements such as logo placement. The intent is to improve communication between the organization and its audience and achieve consistency in branded documents.”
This means that a content guide encompasses quite a bit — everything from the minutiae of grammar (for instance, where does your company fall on the all-important debate over the Oxford comma?) to the nitty-gritty of how wide the margins should be around your company logo.
The question for you, brand manager, is what is worth covering and what isn’t?
Choosing Your Battles: What Should Your Content Style Guide Cover?
You’re probably beginning to see how your style guide could become a sprawling 50-page document that no one will ever do more than skim. To avoid that, it may be best to focus on what really matters. Take into account what is most important given the stage of growth your company is in.
For Google and Apple, it may be worth getting out a ruler to measure the margins around their logo. For scrappy startups, that time may be better spent ensuring everyone is using brand terms correctly in customer-facing emails.
In any case, your content style guide should be thought of as a living document that is updated yearly as your content strategy evolves, new content creators are added to your team, and additional stakeholders bring new perspectives.
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Choose a Widely Recognized Writing Style and Work Off That.
There are well-established, well-documented guidelines for everything from spelling, commas, word usage, formatting, and more when it comes to grammar and writing style. Rather than trying to define these standards yourself, it can be helpful to simply proclaim, “We follow the Chicago Manual of Style, and all stylistic concerns should adhere to those standards.” That clears up a lot in one sentence, and any uncertainties can be settled by consulting the very thorough, very well-documented guidelines of those standards that are published online. You can even keep print copies on bookshelves around the office.
Where things become tricky is that your team probably consists of people trained in a mixture of different styles, including:
- AP Style (Associated Press Stylebook, a.k.a AP Stylebook)
- APA Style (American Psychology Association)
- MLA Style (Modern Language Association of America Style Sheet)
- Chicago Style (Chicago Manual of Style)
Deciding which style guide to follow may be a matter of majority rules, but your team may also want to look at the major differences to see if there’s a style that best fits the brand. It may not be the familiar style guide you followed in college.
What Does a Style Guide Look Like? Here Are Some Great Examples…
There aren’t any hard rules to what a style guide looks like, so this a chance to unleash your creativity. Here’s some inspiration from some brands you’re already familiar with…
The Mailchimp Content Style Guide is a masterpiece of a style guide. It’s a hosted document, so there are fewer issues with outdated versions of PDFs gumming up the works. It’s meticulous and thorough, even going so far as breaking down specific style concerns for legal documents, accessibility, and social media. If there’s one to emulate, this is it. The one shortcoming in this author’s opinion is that they focus on the written word, whereas a complete content guide should encompass visual content and concerns so that all guidelines related to content are handled by one all-inclusive document. This prevents having to switch back and forth between “a style guide for design topics” and “a style guide for written word topics” and having to figure out how to meld the two sets of guidelines to produce, for instance, a slide deck or email newsletter, which would have both written and design elements.
Spotify’s Partner Brand Guidelines are deceptively short and to the point, with a lot of emphasis on design, colors, and logo. Keep in mind that this is an external-facing document intended for partners, so its brevity is intentional. Your internal guidelines will probably be more thorough and detailed. This is kept pithy and easy to digest in an effort to focus on the 20% that makes 80% of the difference to the brand. They know they aren’t going to be able to force their partners to adhere to all their branding guidelines, so they’ve pared their content style guide down to the basics. This is included here mostly as a great example of how to communicate design guidelines and less so for how to communicate writing and messaging guidelines.
From 2015, The Urban Outfitters Brandbook is starting to show its age, but it’s included here because it does a fantastic job of communicating not just the do’s and don’t of its branding but also the tone, voice, and personality of the brand image it wants to project. This isn’t easy to capture or communicate, but it’s a key part of your brand. Your content style guide is a rare opportunity to document and convey this elusive aspect of your branding (your company’s brand voice guide is another opportunity) so, if you’re feeling up to the task, don’t pass up the chance to devote a few pages to it. There are only so many opportunities you’ll get to steer and influence that aspect of your brand.
University of North Carolina
If there’s one content style guide example to use as a template, it’s the University of North Carolina’s. It’s complete, covering both written and visual content, and it’s well-organized. It gets down into the details without being overwhelming. It’s colorful and visually engaging. It’s worth emulating for your own style guide.
A Template: What Should Your Content Style Guide Cover?
As already mentioned, your style guide is going to be unique to your company — a younger, faster-moving company with fewer resources is going to want to focus on the major details and add in the minute details over time as needed and as resources permit that kind of granular attention to detail.
But, there are some fairly standard elements almost everyone is going to want to cover.
Here’s an example template you can use with a list of common guidelines for your consideration:
Reference Style Guide
What external style guide has your company chosen to follow? MLA, AP, APA? Provide the link to the web version and/or any apps and resources they provide.
- Abbreviations and acronyms
Every industry and company has unique jargon that can be difficult for customers to comprehend. Help avoid misunderstandings by teaching your employees what terms they’re familiar with that customers won’t be. Provide the term, and then provide the “customer-friendly alternative.” This translation will help everyone stay on the same page during customer-facing communication.
Consider your company’s content marketing efforts and make a list of each content type and the standards you want to adhere to during the content creation process.
- Social media posts – Should your company use a different tone on LinkedIn versus Twitter?
- White papers – Should whitepapers adopt a more serious, authoritative voice than a blog post?
- Infographics – What design elements and colors should your company’s infographics use?
Search engine optimized (SEO) content – Although often not considered a separate content type, it may be worth documenting some basic SEO standards so there is consistency between teams on the usage of headings, links, bold, etc.
- Blog posts
- Help docs
- Website copy
- Display ads
- Hex codes
- RGB values
- Header font, color, and size
- Subheader font, color, and size
- Standard paragraph font, color, and size
- Permanent link to .zip file containing most recent versions.
- Illustrations of logo placement for different content types.
- Illustrations of do’s and dont’s for logo usage, including background colors, placement relative to text and images, margins, etc.
Other Design Considerations:
- Background textures, colors, and photo treatments
- Photo framing
- Text callout templates
- Shapes and patterns
Distribution: Getting Your Style Guide Read
Once your content style guide is complete, the battle is only half won. Now you need to get it read by your target audience, which includes not only your fellow marketers and team members but also partners, freelancers, and every person in every team of your company. It’s not going to be easy.
To set yourself up for success, it’s recommended to create a hosted version of your style guide, similar to Mailchimp’s example above, rather than a PDF. It’s tempting to just “Save as PDF” from Google Docs, email it out, and call it a day. But down the road, you’re going to have issues with out-of-date versions floating around. It’s better to put in the extra work now to create a hosted version that can be easily tweaked and updated as needed.
Finally, remember not to make perfect the enemy of good. The first version of your content style guide may not be on par with Spotify’s or Urban Outfitters. That’s okay. This is an ever-evolving document that will grow and change as your company adapts to new situations. What’s most important is getting the first version into the hands of your team, where it can start making an impact on your brand consistency.