5 Steps to Your Very Own Style Guide
We hear often about organizations working to “eliminate silos” and encourage collaboration and shared ownership. When it comes to content strategy, this process also can mean increased opportunities for inconsistency, disjointedness, and maybe even conflict.
In days past, a single person or a small team was responsible for a handful of direct marketing pieces and e-mails, and brand management was a much easier and simpler task for associations. Today, our brands extend far beyond a printed brochure to social media, websites, blogs, and more, including accounts and feeds that we do not own or control. Content is generated and shared at a speed and volume that’s impossible for a single person to manage with any effectiveness.
Style guides can help make your association’s many pieces of content cohesive, complementary, and effective by establishing a common set of guidelines. It also keeps all individuals who touch content in some way focused on what’s most important—the messaging—rather than whether a bracket or hyphen is the correct punctuation.
Create your own style guide with these 5 steps to make sure your brand is communicated consistently and accurately by anyone creating or reviewing content on your association’s behalf.
1. Know Who You Are.
Is your association’s identity explicit and clear or is it hidden between the lines of vague mission and vision statements? The association can slowly lose control of its personality when writers create content based on a collection of their own personal assumptions. Before you end up with a library of content entangled in misconceptions and oversimplifications, take your brand identity out of the abstract by naming specific characteristics.
I like Gather Content’s suggestion to briefly describe what you are but also what you’re not. Choose at least 3 words that convey your personality as well as 3 words that are the opposite. For example, you may want to present the association as “professional but not stuffy” or “compassionate but not overly emotional.”
Certainly, you’re aiming for consistency in how you represent personality, but it also makes sense that your tone, and not to mention the content itself, will have slight variances depending on the delivery vehicle. For example, your casual, conversational tone on Twitter might be fairly different from the formal one you present in your printed membership brochure. While it may seem obvious, the subtle nuances of the different voices can get lost or be misunderstood if not expressed clearly. Consider every outlet through which your content is delivered, and establish a tone for each.
2. Know Your Audience.
Gather Content makes clear the importance of knowing your audience when it says, “A style guide recognizes a link between what your audience needs and the best way to fulfill that need in the most impactful way.”
Target audience segments can be made more accessible and tangible with personas. They also encourage prioritization of the audience over a writer’s own agenda, inherently making that content more effective. Personas are particularly helpful when enlisting the help of freelancers and volunteers, in other words, people who may not intimately know your organization or who are inexperienced writers.
For associations, it’s especially important to remember that your website visitors, for example, are not all highly engaged members. Your audience also includes inactive members and prospective customers who are interested in your offers but don’t know the language you use to talk about your products and services.
Be careful not to get carried away in your descriptions of these personas, though. Keep them simple and easy to absorb. Your goal here is to provide writers and reviewers someone to envision, not to distract or overwhelm them.
3. Set Guidelines for Graphics and Formatting.
A branding style guide will include instructions for brand colors, logo use, etc., but for our purposes, you’ll want to include some guidelines for formatting different types of content, such as images, headlines, and list styles. It will also be helpful to include examples of appropriate and acceptable sources for borrowed content and how to indicate credit. Tip: results from a Google search are not free for the world to use.
Here are some questions HubSpot suggests you consider:
- Where can writers source images, and how do they properly attribute them?
- When should images align to the right, to the left, or in the center?
- Should text wrap around images?
- What are the RGB and hex codes for your text and headers?
- What typefaces can be used?
- Can writers use italics, bold, or underlining? If so, is usage limited to certain occasions, like bolding headers and hyperlinks?
- Which kind of bullets should be used (square, round, or other), and how should they align with the rest of the text?
- How should numbered lists appear: "1", "1." or "1.)"?
4. Get to the Specifics. Provide Examples.
This is where you get to the technical nitty gritty, which is more effectively communicated when examples accompany the principles you’re describing. Most style guides include an alphabetical list of common grammar, spelling, and punctuation issues and other frequent considerations. If you have an editor on staff, he or she may already have some form of this that they use.
It’s also important to know (or choose) which external style manual you will use, because they each have different rules (more like standards) on comma use, how to list references, etc. Associations whose content is highly technical also would benefit from lists of preferred terms (or spellings) and commonly used jargon.
Other areas where I’ve often seen high variability from one communication to the next include
- time, date, and address formats (11:00 AM or 11 AM or 11 am)
- credential and title formats
- acronym treatments
- use of hyphens in words like e-mail and online
- use of the “%” symbol or spelled out as “percent”
- inclusion of the “www” prefix in a URL.
5. Share It. Enforce It. Update It.
Now that you have crafted this formidable document, don’t make the mistake of placing it some nondescript binder in your “resource library” where it will be forgotten and inevitably become outdated. HubSpot recommends including others in every step of the process, even when drafting the style guide, to get not only their input but also their buy-in.
“Instead of mandating the rules your entire company must use when writing, get a few people together to help create the style guide as a group. Ideally, this little committee will span more than one department to increase the likelihood of widespread adoption.”
The document itself should live somewhere easily accessible by everyone who touches content, preferably on a shared drive or intranet. The hope is that it will be referenced often, hopefully every time content is written or reviewed.
The Content Marketing Institute recommends launching your style guide much like you would a product. “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.” Make everyone aware of the standards, and reference it to help settle differences of personal opinion (serial comma or no?).
Finally, another way to make sure your style guide doesn’t suffer the fate of who-knows-how-many New Year’s resolutions is to update it frequently. It’s inevitable that you will run into a number of items to add, even the very day you “complete” it. By making the document easy to update, you’ll keep it relevant and useful.
But remember to relax your grip on the red pencil as well. The style guide is meant to encourage consistency, elevate the quality of your content, and support the values of your association. Don’t let it get in the way of creativity and progress. Continue to play in the sandbox—just give the sandbox some walls.
June Pinyo, MA is a managing editor in AMC’s Creative Media Services department and co-lead for the AMC Content Managers User Group. For more tips and conversation on content marketing, follow June on Twitter.
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