As a content marketer who is often called upon to write brand content, it’s important for me to understand the voice of the brand I’m writing for, who their audience is, and what actions they want someone to take after consuming a piece of their content. That’s why one of my first requests upon working with a new brand is to gain access to their style guide.
Unfortunately, many brands have not taken the time to develop their own style guide, and instead direct me to take a look at their website, or their CEO’s regular contributed column on a popular website.
This is what you call a missed opportunity.
First, I’m going to have to spend time searching out these sources and reading them (and those are billable hours if it’s a consulting project). Then I’m going to have to follow up with all the questions that are still unanswered for me after reading them (do you use the Oxford comma or not? What is the current brand description? What tense should I be writing this in?).
My final piece will then likely have to go through a couple rounds of edits to meet your actual internal style, which is locked in the head of your primary proofreader and editor. Now you can never completely avoid edit rounds, but I’ve found that having a well-thought-out style guide can considerably cut down on how extensive those edits end up being.
I know that creating your own style guide can seem intimidating if you’ve never done it before, so I’ve outlined the steps I take when creating a new brand style guide from scratch.
Step 1: Compile Existing Documentation
Start your style guide creation process by gathering all of your current brand documentation. Chances are you already have a significant amount of your brand’s preferences outlined across an assortment of documents that your typical content creator doesn’t need to have access to in order to complete his job. You’ll want to gather your visual brand guidelines, product messaging, press release boilerplate, executive team organizational chart, blog post guidelines, and any cheat sheets or other style documentation you have squirreled away.
Step 2: Draft an Outline and Share it with Your Content Team, Agencies, and Regular Freelancers
One of the quickest ways to put your style guide on the fast track to the marketing team’s policy graveyard is by not making it useful enough to become a regular go-to resource for the team. If it’s just one more annoying policy document, your team is likely to file it and forget it—which doesn’t help you create consistency across your organization’s content.
Likewise, your style guide needs to be available and relevant for the agencies and freelancers who create content for your brand. When you are paying by the hour for creatives time, it’s in your budget’s best interest to have a comprehensive, authoritative style guide that can help provide guard rails and guidance. If there are specific templates or online tools that must be used as part of your content creation process, this is also the place to include that information.
Not sure what you should include in your content style guide? Ask your key stakeholders what other questions they regularly have when creating content. What organizational terminology or verbiage are they frequently copying and pasting for myriad documents in the course of their daily work? What grammar or style rules do they get tripped up on? What are the recurring edits or comments that come back from content approvers? This is what should make up the core of your style guide’s content.
Step 3: Write the First Draft of Your Style Guide
Now that you have your team’s feedback, you’re ready to flesh out your outline. Whenever possible, don’t just share the rules content creators should follow, also include or link to examples showing the rule in action. Providing concrete examples of how to apply your style across a variety of content types will leave fewer things open to differing interpretations across all the people both inside and outside of your organization who are created branded content.
Step 4: Get Feedback—Lots of Feedback—From Your Content Approvers
Although your CMO and CEO should be supportive of your creating a style guide in theory, even if they didn’t necessarily request that you create one, you may be surprised to find that they have some very specific feelings about its contents once it’s been drafted.
One of the most heated conversations I’ve had, in multiple organizations, has to be about the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. Although most content creators have VERY STRONG FEELINGS about using it or not using it, what’s most important is that your organization decides which way they are going to go, and sticks with it. As an editor, it drives me crazy when I see an inconsistent use of the Oxford comma across a website, and even in the same piece of content.
If your CMO or CEO have very specific pet peeves that pop up either in their ongoing review of content or during your review of the style guide draft with them, make sure your guide incorporates that feedback. If it doesn’t, and you don’t gain their buy-in for the rules you’ve documented, this style guide won’t be seen as cannon.
Step 5: Train Staff on Using the Style Guide
Now that the style guide has been blessed and published to the company shared drive or intranet, now all you have to do is email it out to everyone and you’re set. Right? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
If you want people to internalize your style guide, and see it as a valuable resource, you’ll need to invest some time in training them on how to apply the rules to their content creation. If possible, gather your primary content creators together in person and walk through the entire document, taking the time to answer questions, and doing a few exercises including one on rewriting content to reflect your brand voice. Give participants the opportunity to review each other’s work, and discuss how it does—or doesn’t—meet their understanding of the guidelines.
In a large organization it’s not practical for you to personally train each new team member on the style guide, which makes it important to train key content creators outside of your team, such as in the HR, training, and customer success departments, to be able to incorporate this training into new employee onboarding. You can also create an abbreviated video version of the training, with tip sheets, to accommodate onboarding remote employees and agency personnel.
Step 6: Revisit and Revise the Style Guide Regularly
I typically end up revising my style guide directly following my final training session, to clarify anything that has been a sticking point across the training sessions. As I send out a note that the style guide has been updated, I also make sure to make it clear that it’s intended to be a living document, that changes over time. When regularly updated, your style guide becomes the place to reflect how your brand evolves over time and keep everyone updated on how you are positioning your company and its products and services in the market.
So stop procrastinating and get started on your style guide today. Your writers will thank you for it!
An example of the typical elements I include in my style guides.