Brand Guidelines: How to Document Your Style
So you’ve got some fabulous writers, both on staff and as freelancers. Their writing skills are superb, and they’ve demonstrated that they know their stuff when it comes to your product or service. Why create a style guide at all? If your writers are knowledgeable on the subject matter, why should you regulate their voices?
The simple answer: because your content isn’t about your writers, it’s about your customers.
A style guide is a reference your writers use to ensure your content sounds like it came from the same source. When writing a personal blog, it’s easy to stay consistent because the content has a single source—you. But when you have contributions from sales, support, and freelancers, as well as from your marketing team, you need some way to keep your content consistent across all avenues to come across as one brand. Moreover, you want to ensure this brand voice speaks to your customers.
A style guide does this for you.
So, we know content is everywhere; it bombards us whenever we open a browser, whether we’re looking for it or not. The way to stand out in this chaos of content is not to shout louder, but to have something valuable to say. But how do you know what’s valuable?
Who’s Your Audience?
When deciding what should feed your various marketing channels (blog, emails, eBooks, etc.), focus on your target audience. What are their pain points? What questions are they asking? How do they like to communicate and where? Thus, identifying your buying personas and their concerns is the first step to creating a style guide.
In Three Words…
Next, look at your competitors to see what voices are already loud and clear and how you can fill a niche that’s not yet filled.
Now, do some research into who you are as a brand. What part of the market are you targeting? Look to some metrics about your brand to determine what’s different about you. This article offers a quick step by step how-to for determining your brand personality, and Kapost’s The Blueprint of B2B Content Metrics eBook will help make sense of the data you’re collecting.
All this research will help you to generate three to four words that effectively and efficiently identify what your brand is. You might choose the words “knowledgeable, playful, and approachable,” or you might choose, “innovative, sophisticated, and diligent.” Such broad terms are taken directly from your brand personality. The words should be informed not just from what you offer, but also the buyer personas.
To make these general words more valuable to the process, translate what they mean specifically for your brand. What does modern signify in the context of your content? Does it mean edgy or clean? How can you use grammar choices to convey the personality of your brand? Create a table that explicitly articulates how each word will translate to content.
Getting it Done
Start with the Classics
Now to actually writing the style guide. First, stay organized from the get-go. Start with an outline and make it your table of contents.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel: use an established guide like the AP Guide Book or the Chicago Manual of Style as a basis for grammar and punctuation upon which you build your unique style.
For this next bit—voice and tone—bring your previous research in play. There’s a difference between voice and tone that isn’t immediately apparent: voice is consistent—your brand personality; tone is unique to the venue of content—your channels. Voice is your point of view regarding the information you’re providing, who you’re talking to, and the problems your audience faces. Tone can be more varied depending on the message and type of content you’re producing.
For example, you want your content to demonstrate knowledge of a particular subject matter. The voice will reflect such savviness. But you can express your understanding of the material differently: you might give in-depth, insider tips your audience can implement in a highly structured blog post, or you may post an amusing gif that highlights a trend in your market. Both of these examples express the concept of being knowledgeable but with varied tones.
Tone is the mood lighting in a room that’s furnished by your voice.
Examples, Examples, Examples
Including examples of tone and voice right in your style guide is a valuable addition. These should be quick references that exemplify each of the words of your brand personality so that writers can immediately understand what to write and how to write it.
Not only should you include examples of what you want your voice and tone to sound like, but you should also have examples of how it shouldn’t sound. For instance, being modern and edgy includes fun quips and some snark but not swear words.
In a similar vein, give explicit descriptions of your targeted buyer personas, so your writers know the intended audience.
Provide descriptions of all the content types that your brand will use and how content might vary (word count, tone, use of pictures/graphics).
Present guidelines for links (inbound and outbound) and what types of sites you want to link to.
Format for the Win
Finally, decide on formatting. Especially with a blog, you want your formatting to be consistent throughout all your posts. What does an H1 header indicate to the reader? When should you use bullet points? How long should your sentences be?
Standards in appearance may seem more useful for publishers than writers, but it’s no less important to include in your guide. Inconsistent formatting across your channels exhibits a poor representation of your brand. Your readers may not consciously realize it, but they will see a disorganized company when they see erratic formatting.
Practice What You Preach
The style guide should be a shining example of your ideal piece of content. Infuse the text with your brand personality. Give it your voice and tone. If one of your brand words was playful, add some funny tidbits to the content of the guide.
Keep Your Guide Updated
The style guide is a living document. As your brand evolves so should your style guide. Maybe you started out with a snarky voice, but now that you’ve expanded your market (with new types of personas) you find that you need to be more refined. Your style guide should reflect this evolution. Maybe words change in your field (whitepaper is white paper!). Your style guide should take such a revision into account.
Allow the guide to grow and change with your company and with the market. Just always keep the audience and your brand personality in mind.
Navigate by the North Star
Consider including a glossary for jargon used in your field and directions to more extensive resources (Mirriam-Webster, Chicago Style Guide, etc.). Let these established guides work to your benefit.
And, most importantly, make your guide easy to navigate. The guide is of no use if people don’t know how to use it, intuitively. If you have an online version, make the table of contents linkable to the different sections so that someone looking for a specific guideline can reach it quickly without scrolling through the entire book.
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