Style Guide – An Essential Tool in Your Content Strategy

I was pleased and amazed at how passionate the web content community is on the topic of style guides. I shared my article on style guides, with one of my LinkedIn groups a few months ago. That post generated a lively discussion and some of the comments were the size of blog posts. Here is a screenshot:

Let’s revisit the purpose of style guides and determine how relevant they are today. Content marketing has changed in a big way in the last few years. Everything is geared to the customer’s tastes and an informal tone and voice to online communications is the norm. However, informal can easily meander towards being downright sloppy. Let’s discuss how we can draw the line, maintain an informal tone and voice but at the same time appear consistent across all our communication channels.

What is a Style Guide?

Your style guide’s primary function is to serve as a guide for anyone with web writing and editing responsibilities. If you are a single business owner running a blog, then a style guide could also help you set the tone for your site. At the macro level:

  • Your style guide could include the writing style you will use to set the overall tone of your site.
  • You could include a brief description of keywords that you are optimizing your site for and
  • It could also include a quick overview of your content driven seo strategies.

At the micro level, as a content writer or blogger, creating an editorial style guide will take the guess work out of the small editorial decisions you need to make everyday, such as:

  • How will you treat every day web terms: website, web-site or web site? Email or e-mail?
  • How will you handle headlines? Will you capitalize every word or only the first word?
  • How will you treat acronyms and abbreviations? What about industry-specific terms?

You could make your style guide, a small, basic 10 page document that’s easy to remember or an entire manifesto, with detailed instructions. In today’s day and age of quick thinking and deadlines, it’s not a good idea to make a style guide too restrictive.

Most corporate style guides include:

  • Official Reference Guides – CMS (Chicago Manual of Style), AP Stylebook (Associated Press) or any other reference guide
  • Grammar conventions
  • Syntax
  • Punctuation
  • Capitalization
  • Treatment of industry specific terms
  • Copyright issues
  • Treatment of numbers and numerals:
    • Dates
    • Numbers
    • Measurements
    • Currency
    • Format for phone numbers

    Main Objections to Style Guides

    Going back to my LinkedIn thread, the main discussion revolved around whether style guides were relevant anymore in this day and age of instant updates. Some content strategists and professionals had the following objections to style guides:

    • Style guides encourage a corporate monotone.
    • Style guides don’t produce uniformity in style, diction, or terminology usage, for the very obvious reason that they are far too big to hold in your head.
    • Social media has changed the way we communicate. Today’s communication world is about exchange, dialogue and interaction. It’s no longer a tightly controlled mechanism with a handful of experts at the reins.To be “real” and get as many people within a company engaged and interested in communicating they have to feel comfortable to do so. Fear that the language police will come down on their heads for hyphenating e-mail is not going to help.

    4 Reasons Why I Think that Style Guides are an Essential Tool in any Content Strategy

    In my experience, style guides are still relevant to our content marketing efforts today and here are some of the reasons why I think that they are an important tool in any content strategy:

    1. They help create a consistency in style

      A lot of the formality of yesterday has gone from our presentations but the number one reason for having a style guide for me is the consistency in style through the entire site.The most important objective for all web disciplines from design to architecture to content strategy is to create an awesome user experience. If you maintain consistency across all these disciplines, your site will automatically be user friendly. Even though blogs lend themselves to an informal style of writing, your blog will look more polished and professional with a basic style guide.

      Yes, communication has changed. Yes, it’s great to have employees interacting directly with customers and providing a human face to the company. But I don’t believe that these things and a style guide are mutually exclusive. Individual emails and communications sent out by employees don’t need to adhere to a style guide.

    2. Style Guides enhance the quality and professionalism of your site

      The fact is that if you don’t have a style guide, you don’t have rules. In a corporate environment, we may end up borrowing content from colleagues, or editing topics previously written by someone else. If the writers don’t follow the same rules, it can look sloppy and unprofessional.

      How would you view a company whose “official” marketing collateral, emails, press releases, websites, were inconsistent? Sometimes they used one term, and sometimes another? They used e-mail in one part of the data sheet and email in another? One transactional email used one voice, and another used a different one? For me, personally, that company would definitely lose a little credibility; I would question how much they care about quality and consistency in general.

    3. Style Guides save writers time, effort and research

      I’ve worked in several environments where having a basic style guide to refer to, has saved me time, effort and research. The style guide has spelled out for me the tone and voice of the site as well as basic rules of the style used that have helped me immensely to produce content in the voice of the client.

      Content authoring in many companies, is often outsourced, so a ‘style guide” – which is really a repository of agreed-upon style, grammar, spelling, and terminology usage – will help promote the one concept/one image/one brand idea which is essential to content marketing.

    4. Style Guides do not need to create a corporate monotone

      While I agree that in some cases style guides may dictate a corporate monotone, a style guide does not have to do that. I’ve worked in environments where the style guide was a 240-page master work, and in others where the style guide was a 10-page leaflet. You can decide what goes in the style guide, and what doesn’t.

      Many style guides don’t work. The problem stems from whether or not the users of the style guide (the writers) actually know what’s in the style guide, and whether the rules are usable in a regular, practical, day-to-day manner. If you find that your style guide is not usable, you should start anew with a basic, streamlined set of rules that that are easy to remember and incorporate and are not burdensome to writers with each and every grammatical rule.

    The bottom line is that style guides are not what they were 100 years ago or even a decade ago. Having a simple, basic, style guide today could make your content stand out, rise above the noise, look professional and above all be outstanding.

    Do you agree? Do you think style guides are an essential tool in your content marketing efforts? Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks.


  1. says

    I had not heard the expression “style guide” before reading your post, but I know what it’s about. I usually refer to it as an “editorial policy” or “editorial guidelines”, which is pretty much the same. I absolutely agree with you that it’s imperative to have this, specially if a brand has many people generating content on various platforms: blog, Facebook, Twitter, corporate newsletter, etc.

    As you say, it allows for a coherent brand image, style and tone, so that people can quickly recognize the brand. A great example of a brand doing this is Social Media Examiner: throughout its online (and offline) content, one can tell they are adhering to a certain set of style guides, which in now way impedes creativity and out-of-the-box content, yet makes it recognizable no matter on which platform the content is consumed.

    Frederic Gonzalo recently posted..Commentaires sur L’avenir du web mobile passe par le responsive design par Frederic GonzaloMy Profile

  2. says

    Nice post Gazalla. Whenever you engage other people in doing things they need guidance on how to do things the right way. This could be writing articles or responding to customers online. It’s important that there’s a degree of uniformity in how things are done so that customers know what to expect.

    Of course the challenge is to ensure this is done, and to therefore not just make great guidelines but make guidelines such that people read and act on them.
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