Finally, at a high-level, your content will be better across the board and more effective at attracting the right people. That’s what it’s all about, right?
(Psst! We’re going to spill the beans on exactly how you run a content style guide workshop in the next chapter, so you can make sure your content style guide will do all of these things.)
What Doesn't Go into a Content Style Guide?
Given that a content style guide is essentially a tactical, instructive manual of how to write like a particular brand, it can be tempting to put everything in there.
Of course, you shouldn’t do that. That’s a bad thing.
Brand Messaging Is Not the Same as Content Style
For example, at IMPACT, we do include a slide with a brand messaging strategy primer within the content style guides we create for clients:
An adapted example of a brand messaging slide from an IMPACT content style guide.
However, your content style guide should not be where your full brand messaging strategy lives.
As you can see in the image above, this is merely an excerpt that links out to a full brand messaging strategy, which is a massive document all by itself.
If a client doesn’t have one, we may put a few notes here but, more than likely, we won’t include it at all.
While messaging notes or a link to a full messaging strategy should absolutely be included as a reference in your style guide, you need to remember one thing:
Your brand's messaging strategy and your brand's content style are not the same thing.
That said, you really can’t have one without the other. Brand messaging and content style go together like peas and carrots. Or Han Solo and Chewbacca.
Going back again to that old adage of, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” your messaging strategy is the WHAT and your content style is the HOW.
Put another way, your style is the packaging and polish you put on your strategic messages, not the strategic messages themselves.
(That’s why we typically have our clients go through a messaging strategy workshop first. Then they go through a content style guide workshop.)
It’s kind of like when people look at the HubSpot marketing automation platform and expect it to be their inbound strategy, in addition to being the mechanism by which their strategy is executed. In reality, HubSpot is only the latter.
You still need to research and document your own buyer personas, develop a messaging strategy for each of those personas, create your own strategy for content, email, conversion offers, etc.
The same holds true for your content’s style.
Your content’s style isn’t your blogging strategy. It won’t tell you what your messaging should be -- again, that’s an entirely separate process. It also won’t tell you how to win the internet.
But having style is essential to executing an effective blogging strategy, guaranteeing your messaging is packaged for maximum impact, thus empowering you to win the internet.
What Else Shouldn't Go in Your Style Guide?
There are three other areas you may feel tempted to address in a style guide, but you shouldn't...
While your contributors may often be responsible for choosing images for their own work -- we do that at IMPACT for our blog -- notes about visual preferences (like natural photography with bright colors or no text on featured images for blogs) should live in a visual style guide.
Fonts, colors, and branding rules are, again, visual, so they should have their own home. Sometimes brands bundle this kind of information together along with visual notes like the ones mentioned above, but sometimes they’re separate.
Content Layout Best Practices
Some of you might disagree with us on this, and that’s okay. But obvious best practices like, “Don’t make your content look like a massive word wall; break up your text with headings, lists, etc.,” don’t really belong in a style guide.
However, if you have rigorous rules like, “paragraphs should never exceed X sentences,” or “We only use bullets for lists, never numbers,” you would put them into a content style guide.
Where the first example is something your writers should already know -- or, if they don’t, should be addressed through education at an editor-to-writer level -- the second two examples are hyper-specific brand preferences that no one would know intuitively.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Gets It
As we’ve talked about already, your content’s style is only one piece of the brand storytelling puzzle.
So, how do you organize all of it, if you shouldn’t put it in a single document?
The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill’s brand identity presentation is a great example of what you should do.
UNC-Chapel Hill Identity by UNC Creative
We love their approach.
Yes, the UNC Creative team developed exhaustive brand guidelines about everything -- logo, visuals, typography, stationary, color guidelines, content, etc. Given the complexity of their organization and its size, history, and tradition, however, that shouldn’t be a surprise.
You may not go into this level of detail, but what you should take note of is how they built a centralized home for all of those style rules that’s not only organized, it’s also compartmentalized.
So, while you may choose to keep your style confidential -- for example, stored on a company intranet or in an invitation-only Google Drive account shared by your team -- take note of how everything is segmented.
You could probably put all of these items into a single document, but no one will want to use it. Ever.
What Does a Content Style Guide Look Like?
Again, it’s going to depend on who you ask.
(I know, that's an annoying answer. I'm sorry.)
If you’re just starting out and not ready to take on something super complex, a one-page document with some basics might be the best approach until you get more comfortable.
In fact, going back the example from our friends in North Carolina, their voice and writing guide is really short:
Their messaging strategy is simple, so it makes sense to have it featured here.
We also love how they reference their core values.