Building Content Marketing's Most Valuable Tool: The Style Guide

Business.com / Marketing Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Creating a content style guide is essential to the overall tone your brand conveys when communicating with the world. Get started.

“We don’t need more content. We need better content, and we need to focus on creating better content.” – Ann Handley, MarketingProfs

Amen, sister. These days, content is everywhere you look. It consumes your Facebook newsfeed, Twitter feed, LinkedIn, email inbox—you name it, content is front and center.

I had the pleasure of hearing Ann Handley speak about this issue earlier this year at Social Media Marketing World.

She shared two stats that struck me: 

  • 75 percent of marketers want to create more engaging content
  • 69 percent want to be better storytellers

The reason why I find this impactful is because we’re in the same boat here at Business.com. Is our content good at engaging the reader and storytelling? Yes. Could it be better? Yes. 

These stats represent practioners in the field that are tapping content marketing, but think they could be doing it better. Very few are the examples of “what to do” and even those could use improvements. We’re all learning as we go, and we have to help each other in the journey to creating better content.

The secret sauce to content that moves mountains, according to Ann Handley, is a content style guide.  

Related Article: Streaming Happiness: Lessons From Netflix About Content Marketing

Why You Need It

If you don’t take a step back and think about your business as a whole when it comes to creating content, your content will be a lost cause from the get go. The reason, according to Handley, is that who you are, what you do and what you’re like to deal with is your tone.

The very culture of your business is your tone—it is the voice that becomes your brand ambassador to the outside world. In every piece you publish and share with the public, this voice not only communicates your mission, but also builds your brand image, empathy and story.

First Things First: Find Your Words

As the first part of the exercise, Handley recommends finding your “words”—three words that define your company. She says to steer clear of words like “friendly, reliable and honest” because those are things you should be regardless. 

Put your customer/client in it. Tufts University, for example, uses content marketing to appeal to applicants. Their three words were:

  1. Reassuring
  2. Helpful
  3. Humorous

Depending on who you ask in the company, you might get different responses, which is why this is a good exercise in branding in addition to content. To me, our three here at Business.com are:

  1. Data-driven
  2. Thought-provoking
  3. Actionable

Beyond your three words, it’s important to develop other brand specific “words.” This should be a list of words that you specifically employ to convey your tone of voice. Within this list, include jargon to use and to avoid.

Regardless of if you have just one person doing the writing on your team or if you have hundreds of contributors, this list will help you more clearly define a voice that contributes to your tone.

Related Article: Developing a Content Marketing Strategy...That Actually Works

Next Steps: Putting It Down on Paper 

Now that you have found your words, it’s time to put them into action—well, on paper that is.

Creating your own brand style guide might sound daunting, but thanks to the Internet, there are plenty of great templates and examples that exist to aid in your development.

Here are some we’ve found in our research, and that we’re currently using to develop our own Business.com Style Guide. It’s a work in progress that we’re looking forward to sharing with you when it’s complete.

Hubspot Internet Marketing Written Style Guide

HubSpot

Hubspot has established themselves as one of the go-to examples of content marketing. One of the things that this comprehensive style guide how-to helps you achieve is consistency, which is vital to your brand voice and tone. 

An added bonus is the section on how to implement your style guide and get buy in from those in and outside of your organization.

Kapost 

I currently have this template on my desktop. It is an easy-to-use template that includes all the style guide essentials. Depending on the needs of your organization, you can pick and choose what to keep, toss or expand upon. 

Or, if you’d rather, just place your logo on it and call it a day—it’s that good as is.

Buzzfeed Word ListA Glimpse of BuzzFeed's word list

Buzzfeed 

Buzzfeed has such a stellar example of a style guide that really captures tone. With hundreds of on-staff writers, plus a contributing community, it's clear why keeping everyone aligned on tone and voice is of utmost importance. A glance at their word list and it’s clear—yep, this is Buzzfeed. 

MailChimp

Handley called MailChimp the “poster child for B2B” style guides, and once you see it, you’ll understand why.

In their intro, MailChimp shares what their style guide will accomplish: “This guide will cover some grammar basics, explain the types of articles we publish, and give you a sense of MailChimp’s personality.” This should be your goal, too.

They go on to share their unofficial tagline and what they are. It’s also worth a sharing:

MailChimp’s unofficial tagline is “Love what you do,” and that spirit should come through in every piece of content we produce.

MailChimp is:

  • Fun but not childish
  • Clever but not silly
  • Confident but not cocky
  • Smart but not stodgy
  • Cool but not alienating
  • Informal but not sloppy
  • Helpful but not overbearing
  • Expert but not bossy
  • Weird but not inappropriate

In Conclusion

A style guide is really much more than that. It is your brand, wrapped up in a beautiful package, that’s ready to be shared with the world through the power of words. A style guide will allow you to share the vision of your brand and it's content with others, so that they can be a part of creating that content. 

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