You can’t escape having a content style guide for very long. While it’s easy to share standards between one or two content marketers, it’s very hard to scale without a system in place. If your organization is among the 45% of companies with plans to expand their budget for content marketing and inbound practices in 2013, there’s no better time than the present to start brainstorming a style guide for blogging.
What is a Content Style Guide?
For hundreds of years, publishing organizations and media have used style guides to define standards in-house, and quickly get new writers up to speed. Don’t think of it as a tool to train your writers on how to use grammar and spelling, but instead as the experts of Intelligent Editing put it, “to provide [guidance] for instances when many possibilities exist.” Your company’s content marketing is your online voice, and a consistent tone will ensure you’re able to achieve memorable branding. Whether you’re planning to scale from one to two dedicated content creators, or you’re starting to utilize freelance copywriting services, a content style guide can help your whole inbound marketing team write in the same voice:
1. Buyer Personas
Even the world’s most brilliant writers can’t deliver relevant web content unless they know their audience. Dr. Steven Hale writes “if you don’t have a particular intended audience in mind…your writing will be as general as your intention.” Include thorough buyer persona profiles in your content style guide, which include psychographic characteristics. Define the demographics, priorities, budget, and emotions of your ideal customer.
2. Acceptable Web Resources
Is it possible for a writer without any knowledge of your industry to deliver unique and high-value content? Yes, but it’s much more challenging. Regardless of whether you’re creating content in-house, outsourcing, or a combination, tools for ongoing education need to play a role in your style guide. Curate a list of the blogs, social media users, and publications that are defining thought in your niche, so your content creators can keep up on trends.
3. Optimal Length
How long should blog articles be? Even the world’s foremost experts are pretty divided on the topic. ProBlogger’s Darren Rowse advises between 250 and 1000 words per article, while the experts at HubSpot typically deliver content that’s in the 1200-1400 word range. The best way to determine the ideal length for your audience is in your blog marketing metrics. Whether your readers love short snacks, or much longer articles, define your length standards clearly in your content style guide.
Every industry has it’s own unique language of insider terms, and acronyms. Even if you don’t realize you’re using jargon, these terms can alienate readers. Define the ways your company should, and shouldn’t use buzzwords, as well as the importance of explaining acronyms.
Don’t feel that you need to delve into defining every grammar rule for your company. In fact, if your content marketing staff are experienced writers, they’ll probably have an easier time if you don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Corey Eridon of HubSpot recommends looking towards either The Chicago Manual of Style, or the AP Style Book as a de facto standard, and taking time to define the following factors:
- Is your company name, and job titles capitalized?
- Are you going to be using the Oxford comma?
- How do you spell industry terms that don’t necessarily appear in Merriam Webster dictionary, like longtail versus long tail keywords?
There’s a strong chance your content style guide will recommend writing blog posts in first person, but it’s up to you whether you use that as a rule across all forms of marketing. For some industries, using second person for whitepapers and case studies may be a better choice.
An appropriate tone can build an instant rapport with the reader, while writing in a style that misses the mark will likely alienate others. The most-effective way to define your tone could start with a list of adjectives about how you want your content marketing to be perceived. Are you sophisticated and slightly aloof, or irreverent and fresh? Are you technical, or more accessible?
8. Use of Examples
Are you clear? Are you sure? Even though your definitions might seem perfectly apparent to you, they might not be quite so clear to your content creation staff. Illustrate the do’s and don’ts of your inbound marketing policies with clear, and potentially humorous, examples.
9. Content Formats
The available options for formatting your content marketing are only as limited as your imagination. However, that doesn’t mean that your buyer personas will react well to comics. Create a thorough section in your style guide blog that spells out the various forms your content can take, which could include some of the following:
- How-to Guides
- Numbered Lists
- Product Reviews
- Guest Posts
- Case Studies
- Content Mashups
- Tip Sheets
- Competitive Comparisons
Sourcing images is serious business, and if your content creators have simply been pulling pictures off Google images, your company could be held legally accountable for image theft. Whether you ultimately decide to purchase a stock photo subscription or rely on some of the tried-and-true free resources like freedigitalphotos.net, ensure your content style guide spells out appropriate sources for graphics, as well as how often images should be used in your content.
11. Text Styling
Some studies have found that the average blog visitor only sticks around for 96 seconds. If your content creators aren’t carefully formatting blogs for maximum scannability, it’s time to start. Spell out the following factors in your content style guide’s section on formatting:
- Use of headers and subheaders
- Placement of image credit
- Image placement, alignment and text wrapping
- Use of bold and italicized text.
12. Your Personality
Wading through your company’s content style guide shouldn’t feel like a chore. Make it fun by mapping your policies to corporate culture or pop culture whenever possible. What would your CEO or Chef Gordon Ramsey say about the Oxford comma? Remember, a style guide won’t do your content marketing strategy any good unless your team actually uses it.
13. Organizing and Reorganizing
Even though your average content creator loves to read, that doesn’t mean they want to read your entire style guide start to finish every time they have a question. A thorough document is likely going to turn out pretty hefty, so by all means, make it easy to navigate. Add a table of contents, page numbers, numbered lists, and easy-to-read headers.
14. Constant Revising
The end goal of your content style guide should be a living document that’s so incredibly comprehensive, any writer could instantly contribute the perfect blog article. Kevin Cain of Content Marketing Institute points out “a good style guide will evolve over time.” Continually work to add updates, expand the text, and improve the efficacy. The average B2B marketer today is using 12 different content marketing tactics. It’s critical to invest in a quality content style guide to ensure a consistent prospect experience across every platform your company is using. Take it from us, it’s much easier to define your standards from the start than before you’re trying to train a whole team of new writers.
Have you written a content style guide? What components do you recommend adding?