What Is A Style Guide And Why Is It Important
What Is A Style Guide?
A style guide is a road map that helps you to communicate your brand’s character and voice accurately, authentically and consistently. It can include anything from key company messaging, to specific terminology you use, to grammar, spelling and punctuation, to tonal elements like jokes and abbreviations. The idea is to standardize the way your brand speaks to its users in a centralised rulebook. This means all writers, whether they’re your marketing department, content marketing agency, tech lead or CEO, can follow it to ensure high-quality communications that are true to your brand personality at all times.
Why Do You Need A Style Guide?
In particular, if you’re a small team, you might be thinking that a style guide seems like a waste of time: everyone on your team knows your product, the way you write, so why even bother creating a style guide? Let’s take a deep dive into what you stand to gain from developing a style guide for your brand or company.
1. A Strengthened Brand Identity
The way you communicate, whether it’s on your web copy, press releases, blog posts or Tweets affects the way customers see your brand. For instance, a message that reads: ‘Announcing $20m Series B Funding for 2018’ gives a very different impression to ‘Jump on board! Skyrocket into 2018 with our latest $20m Series B!’ There’s no right or wrong, but there will be one option that’s truer to your brand identity and will set you above your competitors. A style guide will allow you to strengthen your brand identity and show your audience what you’re all about. In particular, if you’re a young startup, sitting down to ask ‘how do we want to speak to our customers’ can also help you gain a better understanding of how your brand and product could stand out from the crowd, which is crucial for any marketing activities you might undertake.
2. Greater Consistency
When it comes to marketing, consistency is key. In order to appear reliable and dependable, customers will be expecting consistent experiences across channels and platforms. That means if you refer to your product as a ‘beauty salon solution’ on your web copy, it shouldn’t read as a ‘hairdressing technology platform’ in your blog posts: this will confuse your audience and means you’ll miss out on a key opportunity to reinforce your messaging and build trust with potential and existing customers. By standardizing your copy using a style guide, you can ensure that your content stays consistent and clear.
3. Flexibility To Use Multiple Contributors
Though in an ideal world, your content would all be written by the same small group of people, in reality, we know that the challenge to keep up regular content means you might need to resource content from a variety of locations. You might ask your Product Manager to write about a new update to your product, you might ask your Head of Finance to contribute some key statistics about how your startup has grown, your SEO to write a thought leadership piece, or even receive a guest post from a collaborator in the field. With all those writers there’s a lot of potential for a great variety of content, but also for a variety of writing standards too. Your style guide can provide a roadmap for even the occasional contributor to your blog to follow to make sure the quality and consistency of your content never suffers.
4. Streamlined Onboarding Flows
Having a pre-written style guide will also help to streamline the process of onboarding new team members, in particular, if they’re joining your marketing team. It can be difficult to grasp the tone and voice of a company you’re new to, and having your style guide to hand can help you equip new hires with all the tools they need to write great copy from day one. In particularly if you’re scaling rapidly and need to onboard a number of new hires at once, resources such as a style guide can help you to speed up introduction processes, save time and costs and make your new employees feel at home.
5. Better Results From Your Content Marketing Agency
If you’re investing in a content marketing agency, you’ll want to provide them with detailed instructions about the content they’re producing for you in order to get the best return on investment and the highest quality copy for your brand. That means specific instructions on, for instance, individual articles, but it also means the type of language you’d like them to use, whether you’d like to incorporate subtitles into your content. The more detail you provide your content marketing agency with, the better the results. A style guide can help streamline communications with your agency, and help you get the best results for your investment.
How To Create A Brand Style Guide
Before starting to compile your style guide you’ll need to have certain information clarified, and approved by all stakeholders in your organisation. Implementing your style guide and ensuring everyone follows it means everyone must be on board from the outset, so ensure the following details are approved across the board.
1. Know Your Audience
The way you write depends on who you’re writing for. So you’ll need to have clarified your target audiences for each different type of copy, in order to standardise tone and style. For example, you might identify your principal customer group as women aged 18-30 for your blog posts and social media, necessitating a conversational tone with a modern, millennial edge. However, your style guide doesn’t end there. You also might write press releases for publications, reports and proposals for investors, or web copy for a wider variety of target audiences. You’ll need to keep these various different audiences in mind as you put together your style guide.
This also involves an awareness of when you might be writing for translation, meaning your text will need to be translated into other languages with ease. It also contains an awareness of diverse audiences that might engage with your text who might have accessibility needs, such as those that use screen readers, braille interfaces or keyboard navigation. The golden role is to always know your readers and build your style guide with them in mind.
2. Know Your Values
You want your copy to accurately reflect your brand. And it can’t do that if you’re not sure what your brand stands for. In particular, if you’re a young startup focussed on growth, it might be a good idea to sit down as a team and choose four words that you feel summarises how you want your brand to come across to your audience. This will help you to shape your style guide and roadmap for conveying these ideas through language!
3. Know How Your Competitors Communicate
A little bit of competitor research goes a long way. Sussing out the way your competition communicate with their customers online can provide you with guidelines to follow. There’s no need to invent the wheel – if you notice that they use a particular word to describe a phenomenon, you can be sure it will already be understood by your target audience. If you see customers responding well to a more informal tone of voice, with contractions, jokes and abbreviations, that can inform your decisions about your style guide.
4. Expect It To Change!
Your style guide isn’t a bible that you make at first, and you have to follow rigidly for years. You should anticipate your ‘roadmap’ as a flexible set of guidelines that will develop as your brand does, and that’s open to external input. For instance, in our rapidly changing digital ecosystem, you might find that certain language appears old-fashioned very quickly. You also might find that as you gain leadership in your sphere you want to choose a more authoritative tone that reflects your growing expertise in the area. Welcome input from other team members will make them feel involved in the process, and therefore will be more likely to follow your roadmap. Additionally, you’ll need to continue to update your style guide to best reflect your brand over time.
Key Elements Of Your Style Guide
So you’re ready to start putting together your style guide. What should it include, and how should it be structured? Here’s a rundown of the key elements of what makes up an effective and applicable style guide for your brand.
This is the most important part. Regardless of the type of copy you’re writing, the audience it’s for, the channel it will be published on, your brand voice should never change though it may be adapted to different tonalities. This should reflect your unique personality and offering as a brand, and forms the basis of the rest of your style guide. It should also include unchanging elements such as whether you write in US or UK English. Struggling to define your voice? You might want to think in terms of extremes: are we personable or corporate? Are we spontaneous or pre-planned? Are we cutting-edge or classic? Are we humorous or serious? Are we accessible or exclusive? The answer is probably somewhere in between. Define your voice in your style guide clearly and in straightforward terms, and the rest will follow.
Your voice never changes, but your tone should be constantly adapting. This will depend on the position, needs and relationship to your audience for every piece of text you write. For example, though your language should always sound like your brand, you’ll need a different tone for announcing a new functionality than for, for example, an error message. You’ll use different approaches when writing an Instagram post, to, say, a white paper. Therefore, in your style guide, you need to define your different tonalities: think of them as different roles you will play whilst still being the same actor with the same voice throughout.
This refers to all the elements that ‘decorate’ the way you write. They might seem unimportant, but in fact they contribute to making your copy look attractive, consistent and professional, and you’ll need to include your standardised approach to these questions in your style guide to ensure the best quality content. These include, but aren’t limited to:
- Capitalisation (e.g. will you capitalise subtitles or titles?)
- Punctuation (e.g. will you incorporate exclamation marks?)
- Dates (e.g. will you write 01/01/2018 or 1st January 2018?)
- Numbers (e.g. at which point will you transfer from ‘one,two,three’ to ‘13,14,15)
- Abbreviation (e.g. will you occasionally substitute ‘tech’ for ‘technology’?)
- Contractions (e.g. will you write ‘you’ll’ instead of ‘you will’?)
- Emojis (e.g. will you include smiley faces in your text)
This is an optional, but very useful, addition to your style guide. It refers to the way your content looks on the page, how you structure it and how it’s formatted. This includes, but isn’t limited to:
- Font (e.g. will you use a combination or a specific single font?)
- Images (e.g. will you incorporate photos/graphics, and will they have captions?)
- Links (e.g. how will you reference resources and supporting information?)
- Subtitles (e.g. will you break up articles under subheadings?)
- Lists (e.g. will you publish listicles which contain a specific number of sections?)
So there you have it – all you need to build your own style guide and construct a cornerstone for your brand to ensure to better, more consistent content. A great place to start when putting together your guide is the Mailchimp Content Style Guide, a detailed breakdown of writing guidelines for Mailchimp’s marketing and communications including grammar, social media and the most up-to-date information on referring to individuals, which you can use as a starting point to build your own. Buzzfeed’s style guide might also provide some useful insights, and the Conscious style guide is an excellent reference for writing about people, gender, ethnicity and disability.
Aside from perhaps a few grammatical rules, remember that there’s no right or wrong with your style guide! There’s only what matches your brand and the way it engages with its users. By building a writing roadmap for your company you can strengthen your brand identity, bring consistency to your content, and lay solid foundations for agile and scalable writing teams. It’s an invaluable resource for any company looking to optimize their content marketing.