By Kevin Cain published March 5, 2012

6 Steps to Creating Your Content Marketing Style Guide

Let’s face it: The words content creator and writer are no longer synonymous. The internet and social media have made it so easy to share our thoughts (even if only in 140-character increments) that last year people sent an average of more than 144 million tweets a day and contributed to over 156 million public blogs.

As amazing as this proliferation of content is, in the business world, where writing is a very public reflection of a company’s professionalism, it can also be problematic. A company’s content — including its website, blogs, collateral, thought leadership, and social media — can help create and nurture a strong brand if it is clean, crisp, and consistent. Conversely, if your content lacks these characteristics, it can quickly undermine your brand.

That’s why every company needs a content marketing style guide. Good style guides document and standardize everything, from the unique terminology a company uses to describe itself to its spelling and punctuation preferences. In doing so, the style guide becomes a basic road map that everyone can follow to help create consistent, high-quality business communications.

Admittedly, creating a good style guide is no small undertaking. But, if you follow the six steps below, you’ll make the process a lot easier and your end product more valuable:

1. Clearly define your objectives and audience

Your company’s style guide is never going to be a substitute for “The Chicago Manual of Style” or the AP Stylebook, nor should it. Instead, focus on addressing a finite number of common issues or pitfalls that will help improve the overall quality of your content. In the process, remember who your end users are. Style guides aren’t just for the marketing team or freelance writers, they’re for everyone in your organization. Craft your style guide to account for people with a wide range of writing skills.

2. Create a structure that’s well organized and easy to navigate

Once you’ve assessed your objectives and audience, you’ll need to build a logical framework to organize your style guide. Starting with broad categories or buckets like these can help:

  • A writer’s checklist: A cheat sheet with the key reminders every writer needs
  • Style A to Z: A catch-all list of stylistic do’s and don’ts
  • Company-specific issues: A repository of the unique words, phrases, and spellings your company uses to describe itself
  • Punctuation: A place to educate writers about when to use colons versus semicolons, hyphens versus dashes, etc.
  • Problem words: A section to help ensure that your content creators will know the difference between commonly confused words
  • Spelling: A helpful time-saver to promote consistent spellings

In addition to categorizing your content into buckets like these, organize the relevant points in each group alphabetically to make them easier to find. Doing so, as well as creating a detailed table of contents and index, will make your style guide more user-friendly.

3. Pick your pillars

While company style guides often reflect unique nuances (or exceptions to rules) that are specific to that company, they should primarily align with those of widely recognized sources. For example, you might choose the AP Stylebook as your definitive source for grammar, punctuation, and style issues, and “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” as the basis for your spelling preferences. Limit the number of sources you leverage to avoid confusion and don’t hesitate to direct your readers to them for more information.

4. Add personal touches

A little creativity and humor can go a long way toward making dry subject matter more fun and engaging. Try incorporating pop culture or, better yet, corporate culture, into your style guide. Illustrate key points with made-up examples about well-known public — or even company — personalities to make them more memorable. Consider also breaking your style guide up with famous quotes about writing, or other personal touches.

5. Promote and enforce

Launch your style guide internally with the same enthusiasm that you’d have in launching a new product with clients. Create a mini-campaign to ensure that copies get into everyone’s hands, as well as to let them know why adhering to a style guide is important. After all, a style guide can only be effective if everyone, including you, is held accountable for the standards it sets.

6. Make it a living document

A good style guide will evolve over time. Be prepared to incorporate feedback, add in new content, and make other tweaks as needed. Each new version will be that much stronger.

Image Credit

Author: Kevin Cain

Kevin Cain is a content and communications strategist based in Sydney, Australia, and has more than a decade or experience working in the financial services and consulting industries and helping expansion-stage software companies develop their content strategies. To learn more, follow him on Twitter @kevinrcain or check out his blog on language, content, communication and strategy.

Other posts by Kevin Cain

  • Carl Friesen

    I think that the last point is vital — keeping it a living document. Maybe not think of it so much as a “document” but more as a “resource” — through the company’s intranet, with freelancers given access to this part of the internal site. Maybe take a Wiki approach, so that others’ wisdom gets incorporated too. Any additions and changes would need to be moderated, and checked with legal counsel if appropriate.

    • Kevin Cain

       Great suggestions. Thanks, Carl.

  • Carla Johnson

    A great article. I think promoting and enforcing the document is something that many companies stumble with. They check this creation off their “to do” list and move on to other, more pressing demands. But making people aware of its existence and ensuring that it’s followed are what make the style valuable.

    I also agree with Carl that it’s vital that the document continue to evolve over time.

  • Dechay

    Great tips. I like the points about making it a living document. As Carl mentions, we find it helpful to deliver content marketing style guides to freelancers and designers before diving into any content creation. It sets the foundation for all content initiatives and is a great reference point to keep client’s on track with their messaging when new ideas come up.

    • Kevin Cain

      Thanks, Dechay. You’re right. It is always a good idea to share a company’s style guide with freelancers from the outset so that everyone is on the same page from day one. But as Carla notes, style guides can quickly be forgotten if they’re not actively enforced. It’s essential to hold people accountable to their standards at all times. 

  • Janet Robbins

    As a freelance writer and editor, I very much appreciate companies sharing their style guides! I’ll just add, though, that it’s so important that the style guide you share is kept up to date: There’s nothing worse than following the guide only to find out that your company stopped using a particular style or convention at some point yet no one updated the style guide.

    • Kevin Cain

      Absolutely. Part of ensuring that your style guide is a living document is making sure that you regularly update and redistribute it. Thanks for your comment, Janet.

  • Janice King

    I recommend including a list of the companies trademarks (registered and non-registered) and examples of when and how to use trademark notation correctly in order to protect legal status. I find that many companies either overuse trademark symbols or use the trademarked word or phrase incorrectly simply because the content author doesn’t know the rules.

  • Entreb

    Great tips Kevin. In this very competitive marketing world, we really need to not just promote but also do outreach. When creating content, it’s always good to create the content that we will be happy and zealous to promote and announce it to our target audience.