Content style guides deliver consistent brand messaging and content quality. Here’s how to create your own style guide, plus tips, templates and examples to inspire.
Welcome to our blueprint to Content Style Guides. In this article, we’ll—
- Show you why style guides are the key to content marketing success.
- Help you craft a style guide your writers will love (and actually use).
- Share examples of content style guides you can use as models to create your own…
And so much more.
A well-designed style guide is where content excellence begins. And by the end of this post, you’ll be able to create a guide that saves time, money, and consistently delivers the content your writers and editors are capable of.
Let’s dive in!
What is a Content Style Guide?
A content style guide is a comprehensive set of guidelines ensuring quality, consistency and brand alignment in all aspects of content creation. It includes guidelines for tone and voice, grammar and punctuation, formatting and layout, editorial standards, and SEO best practices, among other elements.
How a Style Guide Makes Content Better
The purpose of a content style guide is to make sure all content (produced by any writer, on any channel) contributes to consistent brand messaging. It does this by setting standards for—
- Brand Voice and Tone
- Grammar and Punctuation
- Formatting and Layout
- Editorial Guidelines
- SEO Best Practices
- Specific Channel and Content Types
- Updating and Maintenance
Done well, a style guide streamlines content creation. It clarifies voice and tone, sets grammatical standards and levels up editorial quality. It facilitates onboarding, and greases the skids of collaboration. It supports SEO, and most importantly, it fosters brand loyalty by ensuring a consistently engaging audience experience.
Great content is about setting high standards and expecting consistency. A style guide makes that measurably easier.
Brand Messaging & Content Style
Brand messaging and your content style go hand in hand but they aren’t the same thing—
Brand messaging is WHAT you’re saying in your content, Style is HOW you say it.
That said, one comes before the other, so if you don’t have your brand messaging in order, do that first.
The Elements of a Content Style Guide
According to the folks at ImpactPlus.com, a content style guide should reflect your—
- Brand personality traits. (“We’re fun and approachable!”)
- Brand-specific copy guidelines and preferences. (“Don’t use big words!”)
- Basic editorial rules for grammar, spelling, and usage. (“We’re an Oxford Comma family!”)
The following style guide elements address each of these.
Voice & Tone
Tone and Voice seem inseparable from each other, but their meanings are quite different. Let’s define and differentiate.
Voice is the unique, consistent personality of a brand. It’s a brand’s values, its positioning in the market, and will take on attributes like authoritative, friendly, professional, or conversational.
A luxury fashion brand, for example, will have a sophisticated, elegant voice. A tech startup might be casual, aggressive and yet approachable.
Tone, then, is the emotional attitude conveyed through content. And where voice remains constant, tone is dynamic, adjustable to suit specific content types or audiences.
A fulfillment company, for example, may have a friendly voice, but it’s tone will vary, from empathetic, in a blog post, to enthusiastic or celebratory, for a product launch.
When your style guide is clear on voice and tone, you’ll get content that resonates AND reinforces brand image.
Voice, Tone, & Brand Personality
Nothing delivers brand personality like the voice and tone of your content. Here are four brands who get it right.
Voice: Simple, sophisticated, innovative.
Tone: Confident, inspiring, aspirational. Apple’s brand personality is reflected in its minimalistic design, focus on user experience, and cutting-edge technology. Its image as a premium, innovative brand is reinforced by clear, concise, and sophisticated messaging.
Voice: Friendly, approachable, and helpful
Tone: Conversational, informative, and casual, Mailchimp’s brand personality is all about being easy to use, approachable, and supportive. The company’s content uses a conversational tone that makes it feel more like a helpful friend than a faceless corporation, making it more relatable and accessible to users.
Voice: Motivational, empowering, and bold
Tone: Inspirational, energetic, assertive. Nike’s brand personality is built around empowering athletes and promoting a “Just Do It” attitude. Its communication is characterized by strong, motivational messaging encouraging people to push themselves and achieve their goals.
Voice: Playful, imaginative, and creative
Tone: Fun, engaging, and educational, Lego’s brand personality revolves around inspiring creativity, play, and learning. There’s an imaginative voice in its content that appeals to all ages, and reinforces the timeless wonder and fun of building with Lego.
Wondering where your brand falls on the spectrum? Here’s how to define your own tone and voice.
Voice and Tone Guidelines
Voice and tone can be inconsistent when they’re not spelled out in a style guide. Here are a few tips for making things clear–
- Review your branding documentation and highlight any branded words, phrases and slogans.
- With brand message in mind, define your voice. (Ben & Jerry’s Stylin’ Guide uses a “we’re ____ but not ____” format to describe their voice).
- After defining brand voice, decide how tone should convey your brand.
- Identify your audience’s buyer persona. (Buyer personas are closely tied to style and tone, so if your brand doesn’t have a set of audience personas, get that out of the way first).
- As part of your buyer persona work, pin down audience demographics, identifiers and challenges to fine-tune tone of voice guidance.
- Stipulate how tone will vary as content appears on different platforms.
- Create an editorial review process to ensure voice and tone align with brand.
Grammar, Style & Punctuation
Few things betray professional image like inconsistent sentence structure, usage and spelling. The preferred grammar and punctuation rules you work into your style guide will increase content quality and streamline the draft-and-edit process.
AP, Chicago & Yahoo! Style Books
Consistent grammar and style begins with adopting a style book to model your guidelines from. You’ll have a few choices, but the most common of them are the AP Stylebook (AP), The Chicago Manual of Style, (CMS), and Yahoo! Style Book.
The AP Stylebook is used mainly by news organizations. Focusing on brevity and clarity, the AP guide covers fundamental style elements (grammar, punctuation, and usage) along with journalistic conventions like titles, quotations, and citations.
In contrast, the CMS is used across the academic, publishing, and corporate fields. From citation styles to manuscript formatting, the CMS is known for its comprehensive, detailed rules. It’s a go-to resource for writing and publishing.
The Yahoo Style Book was written specifically for creators writing for online audiences. Its topics cover conventional grammar, writing headlines, optimizing for search engines, and online ethics.
Preferred Grammar and Style Rules
At this point, you might be wondering what rules of grammar and style you should prefer.
The answer ?
Whatever looks professional, and matches your brand and audience. Begin with the style book that works for you, and be sure to work these conventions into your style guide–
Rules should cover subject-verb agreement, verb tenses, pronoun usage, contractions and passive voice.
Specify preferred capitalization rules for proper nouns, titles, headings and others.
State preferred spelling conventions (e.g., Use American English spelling, as outlined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary).
Style will address sentence structure, vocabulary and the preferred degree of formality (Use a conversational, yet professional writing style that reflects the brand’s voice and tone. Use short sentences and paragraphs to improve readability).
List common formatting preferences (Use bolding and italics sparingly to highlight key information. Use subheadings and bullet points to break up content and improve readability).
Commonly Troublesome Words
Decide on preferred spellings and formats for troublesome words like these, courtesy of Hubspot.com’s content style guide–
- ebook vs. Ebook vs. e-book
- ecommerve vs. e-commerce
- internet vs. Internet
- website vs. web site
- Facebook Like vs. Facebook like
- Retweet vs. re-tweet vs. reTweet vs. ReTweet
Preferred Punctuation Standards
Given its impact on professional appearance, punctuation standards must be given space in your content style guide. Here are a few to address–
- Use the Oxford comma (comma used after the penultimate item in a list) to avoid needless inquiry and edits.
- Use double quotation marks for quotes, single quotation marks for quotes within quotes.
- Use en dashes ( – ) for number ranges. Use em dashes ( — ) for emphasis or interruption.
- Use ellipses ( … ) to indicate omitted text.
- Use the colon ( : ) to introduce a list, summarize information, or emphasize a point.
- Use the semicolon ( ; ) to connect related independent clauses without a conjunction.
- Use parentheses sparingly, to provide additional information not essential to the sentence.
The Hyphen, the En Dash and the Em Dash
The hyphen, en dash and em dash are dashes serving distinctly different purposes.
The hyphen (-) is the shortest and most common. It connects words (farm-to-table meal) or compound words (self-esteem), and it separates syllables of words at the end of a line.
The en dash (–) is longer than a hyphen and is typically used to indicate a range or connection between two things— like dates (2010–2020) or geographic location (the New York–Boston route).
The em dash (—) is the longest dash and is used to set off a phrase or clause within a sentence. It adds emphasis, interrupts a thought (I’m not sure if I — oh, never mind.), or gives additional information (The results of the experiment were inconclusive—despite months of planning and execution.).
Formatting & Layout
Formatting and layout guidelines lend to cohesive appearance, ease-of-reading, and SEO optimization. Each of the following should be considered as you build your content style guide–
Logos & Brand Assets
Logos and other visual assets are a big part of your brand and should be safeguarded with guidelines for their use, including the following—
- Note what colors, fonts, image sizes and visual elements designers can use in new graphics for your marketing.
- Stipulate what size, proportion, color scheme and placement modifications creators can make on logos and other assets.
- Headings should be clear, concise (<580 pixels), descriptive, and accurately represent its body content.
- Use a consistent heading tag (H1 for the main title, H2 for subheadings, H3 for sub-subheadings) hierarchy.
- Use bullet lists when order is not important.
- Use numbered lists when sequence matters.
- Keep list items brief and to the point.
- Start each list item with a capital letter and end with appropriate punctuation.
- Use white space to break up large blocks of text.
- Use header tags for consistent spacing between headings, list items and body content.
- Use visual elements every 200 words to break up text and create appealing layout.
Images and Multimedia
- Use quality, relevant images to complement your content.
- Always include descriptive alt text for images.
- Compress image files to ensure quick page-loading.
- Incorporate proper media as you cater to audience preference.
- Properly source-credit any images or multimedia used.
Editorial guidelines promote content that’s ethical, accurate, and fair. Fact-checking, source referencing and sensitive topic best-practices are the surest ways of meeting those guidelines.
Fact Checking & Source Referencing
- Whenever possible, verify information and cross-check data with multiple sources.
- Clearly indicate information sources and quotes using in-text citation, external link, or bibliography.
- Avoid using sources known for misinformation or bias.
- Establish a peer-review system to fact-check for accuracy, relevance, and bias.
Content style guidelines for sensitive (and off-limit) topics are critical. Here’s why–
- Intelligently managing sensitive topics builds brand image.
- Content creators have an ethical responsibility to deal with sensitive topics respectfully.
- It’s impossible to gauge audience expectation or response, so prudence is wisdom.
For these and many other reasons, the following best practices should be considered–
- Clearly outline any topics that are off-limits or require special approval before publishing.
- Develop a creative culture based on empathy and an appreciation of the impact of your content.
- Give guidance on inclusive language and offensive or insensitive words and phrases.
- Encourage balanced perspective when addressing controversies.
- Emphasize thorough research and fact-checking when dealing with sensitive subjects.
- Establish a review process for sensitive or controversial content.
SEO Best Practices
Standardized SEO best practices boost content visibility and enhances user experience. Guidelines for keywords and On-Page SEO maximize the ROI on your content marketing efforts.
- Follow Google’s Helpful Content Guidelines by creating helpful, reliable people-first content.
- Expect natural keyword integration from your writers and editors.
- Maintain a target keyword density of between .5% and 1.5%.
- Use semantically related keywords to target a wider range of search queries.
- Use strategic keyword placement in titles, meta descriptions, subheadings, and intro and closing sections.
- Use compelling title tags with target keyword, CTR boosters and benefits.
- Write engaging meta descriptions that combine target keyword with a compelling content preview.
- Use header tags (H1, H2, H3, etc.) to organize and structure page content.
- Create high-quality, relevant content that satisfies the user’s search intent.
- When possible, optimize for featured snippets.
- Use descriptive, relevant alt tags and file names for images.
- Link internally to relevant pages within the brand website. Link externally to authority sites.
- Optimize for fast page load, mobile responsiveness, and easy navigation.
- Use Schema markup to improve page appearance in search results.
- Use short, descriptive, keyword-rich URLs that accurately reflect page content.
SEO is ever evolving, so the content style guide must be revised with up-to-date guidelines reflecting trends, Google algorithm updates, and other search engine developments.
Blogs, social media and email each have a unique style and audience expectations. Likewise, distinct guidelines for each channel ensures content that’s effectively written and well-received.
- Length: Craft blog posts with the depth needed to cover the topic while retaining reader interest.
- Formatting: Use subheadings, bullet points, and white space to enhance visual appeal and break up text.
- SEO: Adhere to SEO best practices, including strategic keyword usage, meta tags and high-quality content.
- Links: Use internal and external links to add context.
- Platform-specific guidelines: Adapt content to each platform’s best practices (character limits, hashtags, etc.).
- Tone and voice: Embrace a casual, conversational tone that fosters engagement and interaction.
- Visuals: Incorporate striking visuals like images, GIFs, or videos to boost shareability.
- Frequency and timing: Set an editorial calendar based on optimal intervals to maximize engagement.
Email, Podcasts & Webinars
- Platform-specific guidelines: Adhere to best practices and technical requirements unique to each platform.
- Audience targeting: Customize content to match interests and preferences of your target audience.
- Tone and voice: Modify tone and voice to align with platform and audience expectations.
- Call-to-action (CTA): Incorporate clear, persuasive CTAs.
As with other style guide sections, you’ll build upon these foundational best practices as needed.
Style Guide Maintenance
Brand message, audience preferences, industry trends– everything changes. So too, the best practices to ollow. Here are a few ways to keep your guide current–
- Schedule regular reviews. Establish quarterly or biannual reviews to keep current with industry best practices.
- Assign responsibility to an individual or team to maintain and update the content style guide as needed.
- Monitor industry trends. Stay informed in your industry, niche, and content channels.
- Solicit feedback from team members to improve, clarify, expand, or revise the content style guide.
- Track content performance across platforms and channels to detect trends and improvement opportunities.
- Communicate updates to the content team and give needed guidance regarding new guidelines.
- Keep the guide accessible by hosting it on a shared drive or content management system.
The success of a content style guide will be seen in its buy-in from the creator team, and their continual input for making it better.
Examples of Great Content Style Guides
Putting a content style guide together is easier with some inspiration under the belt. Here are a few samples to model your own style guide after. And if you need more, our friends at Writer.com have plenty.
Mailchimp Content Style Guide
The hallmark of a great content style guide is how closely it mirrors its brand personality. The Mailchimp Content Style Guide has few peers.
Famous for its clarity, comprehensiveness, and generally unassuming character, the Mailchimp content style guide describes its voice as human, helpful, and humble, calling for content that reads like it’s coming from a friendly, knowledgeable, and down-to-earth person who genuinely wants to help the reader.
The guide itself covers grammar, punctuation, formatting, editorial best practices, and industry-specific terminology guidelines. Its user-friendly design eases referencing by content creators.
Google Developer Documentation Style Guide
The Google Developer Documentation Style Guide gives clear, concise, and consistent guidance specifically for technical content. It addresses terminology, grammar, punctuation, and formatting to ensure uniformity across developer documentation.
With an emphasis on simple language and inclusive terms, this comprehensive style guide excels in user experience and adapts well to various technical subjects, making it an exemplary resource.
Microsoft Writing Style Guide
The Microsoft Writing Style Guide is an exceptional resource for content creators seeking clear, concise guidance for writing across a variety of platforms and audiences.
Covering a broad range of topics like grammar, punctuation, tone, and voice, this well-organized guide emphasizes plain language and accessibility, prioritizing user experience. Its practical tips and comprehensive approach make it an invaluable tool for both content marketers and writers in general.
The Economist Style Guide
The Economist Style Guide exemplifies its own voice and serves as a quintessential resource for journalism and writing.
Comprehensive and authoritative, it offers clear, practical guidance on grammar, punctuation, style, and tone. Its attention to detail and commitment to clarity accessibility make it a valuable resource for those who want to create engaging, informative, AND respectful content.
The Economist’s established reputation as a trusted authority only further enhances its appeal and usefulness.
Shopify Content Style Guide
With a focus on friendly, conversational voice that’s approachable and informative, the Shopify Content Style Guide encourages tone that’s personable and upbeat, reflecting Shopify’s brand identity and values.
Offering clear, practical guidance on grammar, punctuation, formatting, and layout, the Shopify Guide prioritizes user experience and emphasizes plain language and inclusivity, making it a valuable resource for those who want to produce engaging, accessible content for diverse audiences.
The BBC News Style Guide
The BBC News Style Guide stands out as a resource specifically designed to help journalists produce high-quality, accurate, and engaging news content.
Setting itself apart with an emphasis on accuracy, impartiality, and clarity, The BBC style guide gives practical advice on sensitive issues like politics, crime, and civil unrest, while taking on bias, stereotypes, and other ethical concerns.
For those who strive to create high-quality news content, the BBC News Style Guide is a reliable and authoritative resource.
The Guardian and Observer Style Guide
With an emphasis on creativity and innovation, the Guardian and Observer Style Guide reflects the publications’ unique voice and identity.
Designed to help writers create bold and engaging content, the Guardian style guide combines practical guidance with an encouraging push toward experimentation. An advocate of inclusivity and respectful language, the Guardian and Observer Style Guide serves as a valuable resource for quality, innovative, and socially responsible content.
7 Steps To a Style Guide of Your Own
You know what goes into a content style guide, and you’ve seen examples of how it’s done well. It’s time to create one of your own. Here are 7 steps to a successful style guide launch–
1. Identify Key Stakeholders
Save time and effort by involving primary individuals from the start. Key stakeholders include writers, editors, and anyone else invested in content marketing outcomes.
2. Define Scope and Purpose
With each piece of content created, we want to—
With your style guide design team assembled, begin with that statement. This screenshot from Mailchimp’s style guide shows how simple powerful statements can look—
Once this is done, decide which content style guide elements should be included in your guide.
3. Know Your Brand Messaging and Target Audience
Go deep into brand messaging and buyer persona so your content is tailored to both brand and audience.
4. Analyze Existing Content
Examine existing content to pinpoint key elements and best practices the content style guide should focus on, regardless of whether they were mentioned in Step 2.
5. Develop a Style Guide Framework
Create a content style guide template to serve as framework and to collect input from the design team.
Write It So They’ll Use It
Remember that a content style guide is a reference tool, consulted when a question or problem arises, rather than a book to be read as a training tool.”
That’s one perspective, and yes, the content style guide should be written with reference in mind. That said, there are things like voice and tone which– if I’m new on the scene– I’m going to want to know before I put Word One down on paper.
So here’s the happy medium—
Organize and Index your content style guide with sections that MUST be read, SHOULD be read, and MIGHT be referenced as needed.
Use a jump-linked, color coded TOC at the top, and write the guide with the same skimmable ease-of-reading rules you expect your writers to deliver.
Create a Beta version, test it with staff, get their input, and revise for final approval from the people you’re writing it for.
6. Consult with Key Stakeholders
Reconvene stakeholders and present the prototype for feedback. Ensure the content style guide model meets their needs, expectations, and reveals areas for improvement or revision.
7. Regularly Review and Update the Style Guide
Content style guide maintenance won’t happen on its own. Get agreement from stakeholders on the process for reviewing and updating the style guide to ensure its continued relevance and usefulness.
Content Style Guide Templates & Toolkits
Brand Messaging & Positioning Strategy
Content Style Guide: Content Written Well, Every Time
There’s no question that a style guide makes your content marketing better. With that claim, though, comes a caveat–
The SUCCESS of your style guide rests on how faithfully it’s used by your creators.
Good news? With input from everyone involved, your content style guide will get buy-in from writers, editors and marketers alike. Because a well-planned, well-written content style guide streamlines work, saves time and money, and makes excellence identifiable and repeatable.
It’s hands down the best way to guarantee content that’s in tune with industry best practices, ambassadors your brand, AND builds audience.
So, get yourself a content style guide of your own and watch your content team come together.
And it’ll be your content I’m seeing on page 1.
Questions? Clarifications? Feel free to drop me a line. Check out our blog page for examples to model your own work on. You can shoot over to our portfolio page for inspiration too. And if you prefer to have an agency do it for you, read about our content writing and SEO services here.
In the meantime, Best of Luck. And Be Well.