If we're all publishers now, why don't we all have content style guides? I'll rephrase that: Why don't we all have useful, user-friendly web content style guides? Accessible style guides that maintain editorial consistency and brand tone and voice across all content. Style guides that help the content creators rather than confuse them. Style guides that help to emphasise the brand's voice rather than dilute it. Style guides, style guides, style guides. Say it with me: style guides.
The Importance of Style Guides
If a brand wants to be a publisher, it needs to look at what publishers do. Whether they're using print or online platforms, publishers have style guides. The Guardian has one. The New York Times has one. The Economist has one. These aren't sticks to beat serial grammar and punctuation offenders about the head with - they're important resources for writers and editors. What's more, a good content style guide is an essential part of any web content strategy. You should never unleash your content into the world without one.
Why? The content brands create is there for a reason (or at least it should be -- it is if they have a content strategy in place, but that's an entirely different blog post); it's there to do a job. It helps to support the brand's identity -- it's what gives it credibility and separates it from competitors.
But how can content effectively do its job when it's produced by several disparate voices, none of which compliment each other or the brand's message? How can you expect to gain an audience's trust when they don't know who they're talking to? A good style guide lays the foundations for consistent, on-message brand content to be created (be it in-house, agency or freelance) and approved.
Creating a Solid Style Guide
Creating a great web content style guide takes time, but it's time well spent if you're working towards a long-term strategy. Here are a few guidelines to get you started.
1. Find an external style guide: No, this isn't cheating. An existing style guide will answer the majority of your content creators' questions. The Chicago Manual of Style is an ever-popular choice, while The Yahoo! Style Guide is fast becoming the go-to option for online content creators. Make sure you only use one though. Cherry-picking bits from multiple guides and making people refer to a number of different sources will only create confusion and won't be user-friendly.
2. Highlight the differences between the in-house style guide and the external one: Let's face it, you're not going to agree with everything that's in the external style guide. So you need to make the differences clear to your content creators in your style guide.
3. Clearly define your tone and voice: Do you know how you want your brand to sound? If the answer is yes ... well, kudos. Now give me an example. It's not good enough to say that your tone should be professional and informative, or humorous, or knowledgable, or bright and breezy, or dripping with irony - those things mean different things to different people. You need to give people clear examples of how to write in your preferred tone and, if possible, clear examples of how not to.
4. Lay down some writing for web guidelines: Outlining some simple guidelines on how to write for the web is an essential part of any web content style guide. It's wrong to assume that everyone that creates content for you - now and in the future - knows how to write for the web. Setting down guidelines on structure, as well as best practice for SEO and metadata, will help maintain consistency throughout.
5. Social style: If your brand is creating content that's being published off your main site and on your social channels, then you need to specify some guidelines for this. Writing for Twitter is different than writing for Facebook - and both are different than writing for a dot-com or a content marketing hub.
6. Visual content: Creating content isn't just about writing web copy -- it's about making videos, infographics, data visualisations and more. If you're creating any kind of visual content on a regular basis -- either in-house or through agencies and freelancers -- you need clear guidelines to make sure what's being created reflects your brand's voice. That includes everything from the font used in lower thirds on a video to the tone of the presenter. Again, don't just specify what you want -- give examples.
Evolve Your Style Guide
Creating a web style guide shouldn't be seen as a one-hit job. Once it's created you need to nurture it and help it evolve.
This isn't something that needs to be done on a monthly basis. Most publications only update their style guides once a year. An annual update will give you the time and space to track any regular issues that occur when creating content. Find yourself a style guide champion - let him or her have full control over the style guide and feed all issues back to them so they can make the changes when it's time for an update.
The purpose of having a solid style guide is not to restrict your content creators. It's there to give them a structure which they can work within. It's there to generate consistency and make sure a brand's content is always clear and on-message.
If you're in the process of putting a style guide together or already have one that meets or goes beyond the criteria given above -- I salute you. It proves you're taking your content seriously. You're no longer treating it as the poor cousin; you're no longer seeing it as something that gets shoehorned into a designed shell (please, don't think of it as something that should be shoehorned into a designed shell). It proves that you see there's value in creating good, consistent content - now and into the future. And that's a good start.