Journalists rely on the AP Stylebook to guide decisions for spelling, language and punctuation. As a brand journalist you’re not necessarily locked into AP style, but guidelines are every bit as important for keeping content consistent.
The bigger your content marketing program becomes, the more writing participants you’ll have (hopefully, at least). Whether you’re working with writers inside your organization, external guest posters or freelance writers, you’ll need to set forth consistent content guidelines. While your guidelines will be unique to your organization’s mission and content needs, there are a few things every style guide should include.
Every contributor should be familiar with the overarching mission of your content. This “content mission” should concisely answer two questions:
What’s the goal of the content?
Who does the content speak to?
For example, here at lonelybrand we make sure that all contributors understand that our overarching mission is “to help mid- to senior-level brand marketers solve problems in the digital space.” We see this as a clear and concise way to let our contributors know what they should be talking about and who they should be talking to.
If you invite contributors to pitch their own topics, you’ll want to be clear about the subject matter that your content can and should cover. You could simply list your topic categories, but if relevance becomes an issue, you could also provide a more specific list of topical “dos” and “don’ts.”
On lonelybrand, for example, we list some of our most common categories and link to that content so that contributors can see what articles within that topic actually look like.
- Content Marketing
- Customer Relationship Management & Email Marketing
- Digital Paid Media
- Mobile Marketing
- Search Engine Optimization
What is the overall tone of your content marketing? Take a stab at describing that voice, whether it’s academic, conversational, professional or somewhere in between. Should readers feel like they are being sold to, like they are taking a class, or like they are having a casual conversation? Here’s an example of a conversational tone suitable for a how to article.
Chances are one of the first questions you’ll get from writers is, “how many words do you need?” Use the style guide to communicate basic formatting questions, including:
- What is your recommended word count?
- Should blocks of text be broken up with headers?
- Are lists or slideshows acceptable?
- Are images required? If so, what size and resolution?
Put your best work forward
Link to a handful of what you consider your most successful posts so that writers can get a realistic idea of what they should be producing. This will help them understand all of the concepts above, from your content mission to acceptable topics to voice and layout.
If you are working within a highly regulated industry, you’ll want to highlight your legal department’s content policy up front. If there are topics, language or sources that contributors should not broach, be sure mention that here.
You might also want to include notes on content ownership. Do you claim ownership to the content that is published on your site? Do you reserve the right to modify or edit content? The style guide is a logical place for this disclaimer.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
For the nitty gritty grammar, spelling and punctuation decisions, go ahead and select a standard style guide to refer your contributors to. Depending on your industry and personal preferences, this could be the AP Stylebook, the Chicago Manual of Style, the Yahoo! Style Guide or otherwise.
At the same time, don’t feel pressured to adhere with every rule in your selected guide. As copywriter Lisa Fahoury points out, your brand might have its own preferences on a number of technicalities including:
Preferences on hyphenation and capitalization
Preferences on common terms in your industry
Periods in bulleted lists
Use of contractions
Oxford comma usage
Formatting your style guide
As you build your style guide, be aware that it will likely evolve over time as you produce more content and fine tune your brand preferences. With that in mind, you’ll want a format that can be quickly and easily altered. We chatted with a few content producers about how they structure content marketing style guides.
“I work with a small team of in-house and freelance writers and we’ve found that the best way is to use a document we share on our Google Drive,” said Julie Davis, Director of Content and Marketing at TotalHousehold.com. “This allows us to make additions and changes as needed and everyone involved gets immediate notification.”
Alex Baker, Director of Communication at Screenpush noted that his team also uses a live document. Whenever he updates the document, he “sends out a company-wide notification” to make everyone aware of the changes.
What does your brand’s content marketing style guide include? Share your tips with us below.