No matter what your business is, you will likely be communicating with the public in some form, whether that’s through your website content, product flows, press releases, social media posts, or when doing sales.
In one of my previous posts, I discussed how to “Be Your Own Designer” and build a style guide for your company’s brand identity on the design side. While having strong, consistent design is important, your company’s messaging is just as much so.
Understanding who you are as a business, what values you stand for, and setting internal standards for communication is an essential part of running your business, especially when you are part of a remote, distributed team. For a new business, creating a content style guide early on can save a lot of time and headaches, especially as you scale your team and have more people representing the company. And for more mature businesses, if you don’t have one already, now is the time to focus on further developing your brand strategy and processes with your content style guide.
What is a Content Style Guide?
A content style guide is a document that outlines a company’s brand voice and persona, tone, audience, formatting guidelines, and overall editorial standards. It is the go-to resource for anyone who needs to create content for the business, from social posts to sales emails, and is the single point of truth for company communications, connecting the dots across all team members and departments.
Why it’s Important
- Consistency. All company content should be created with a unified voice and with the same goals in mind. Even if you are just one person representing your business, consistency in communication across all customer touchpoints is crucial. A simple, well-articulated, consistent message is the easiest way for even the smallest startups to build a brand that feels like a billion bucks. Having a cohesive content experience also helps build consumer trust.
- Time. Creating content can be time-consuming, especially for team members who aren’t confident writers. With a content style guide, you and your team can pull from pre-generated blurbs that describe your business, find content that fills in the gaps for repetitive work related to things like the sales workflow or UI, or find inspiration for more original content related to the company mission. Having documentation like this on hand also makes it easier to bring on new hires and contractors and familiarize them with the company fast.
- Brand Vision. As you go through the exercise of creating your content style guide, you should learn more about your business through the process. There are a lot of things most people don’t think about when starting a company, like who is your audience, really? Is your brand more fun, or serious? Are you more personable, or corporate? What values define your reasons for doing what you do? Consciously thinking about these questions will force you to better define your brand and will change the way you see and act on behalf of the business moving forward, while also helping you better position yourself in your market.
So let’s get started!
Creating Your Content Style Guide
While a content style guide can mean different things to different companies and can include a variety of different elements, I will be covering what I believe are the core must-haves, particularly for tech startups like the ones I work for through my agency Sea Foam Media.
The template I start off with for my clients typically includes:
- What We Do
- Boilerplate Message
- Market Differentiators
- Audience & Personas
- Brand Voice & Persona
- Content Principles
- Calls to Action
- Terms (Defined)
- Word Choice
- Elevator Pitch (important for companies raising money)
- UI Copy Guidelines (important for products)
To get started, you can use this list as headers and add in sections that are specifically important to your business. I will go into each in more detail:
What We Do
Fairly straightforward — in practical terms, what does the company do? What is the key value prop? You should be able to keep this to a paragraph in length. This is content that can be reused repeatedly, such as by people on the sales team. It also preps the reader for the rest of the document, which is important if they are new to the team.
From a high level, what is the company’s mission? What problem are you solving? This goes beyond “what” you do and enters the realm of “why” you do it. Understanding the company mission is, perhaps, the single most important part of any overall brand strategy.
What separates the company from competitors in the market? I like to create a short bullet point list here with the things that make the company unique and important.
These first three sections all go into clarifying your brand on a high level.
This is a paragraph that can be reused over and over again, typically for things like the blurb underneath company press releases. It should combine the “what” with the “why” and let people know where the business is at, what the goals are, and how they can find out more or get involved. For tips on how to write a killer boilerplate message, check out this guide from Cision. You can also create multiple boilerplate messages for different purposes, i.e. fundraising versus user acquisition.
Audience (Can Include Personas)
When creating content for the company, it is vital to understand who are you speaking to. Who is your target audience? The answer to this question should be driven by both demographic (A/S/L) and psychographic (hopes and dreams, pain points) data based on the people you are currently engaging and those you hope to engage in relation to the business. This should also play into a larger market research campaign for the business.
It is possible you may need to speak to different audiences. For example, you may have different tiers of users. B2B SaaS products often categorize users into groups that will use different versions of the product, like “Individual,” “Business,” and “Enterprise.” Your users also may not be the same audience as the people you are soliciting investment from. However, across all audiences and touchpoints, the company mission must ring true and the brand voice must remain consistent.
I highly recommend building out distinct audience personas. According to Carly at Keystone Virtual:
“An audience persona is a fictional character (based on real data and market research) who represents a segment of a target audience. Developing an audience persona is a method marketers and content creators use to help them implement solid marketing strategies and create better content. By presenting the research they’ve conducted on their audience in a way that brings that audience to life, creators and marketers are better able to understand who they’re targeting. The idea is that when you can identify a real person to create content (or services and products) for, you’ll do a much better job of meeting their needs. Most businesses develop several audience personas to represent the different types of customers that fall within their target audience.”
This exercise is key when developing a product, but also important when considering how you are speaking to your target audience(s).
Brand Voice & Persona
When developing a brand voice and persona, the goal is to humanize the company.
I love things that are visual, and this Brand Personality Spectrum exercise is a great place to start when considering what personality traits the brand should embody:
Here, I filled it out for one of my previous clients, a FinTech company focused on tokenized securities, which straddles the line a bit in being a high-tech product yet having more of an established “Wall Street” feel:
According to the gurus at Straight Marketing:
“Mainly towards the left?
Your business is modern/contemporary, fast-moving and innovative. You are always adapting, in touch with what your customers want from you and more risk taking. Your brand is accessible to a wide audience.
Warm and vibrant colours are more akin to your brand’s personality. Your communication style should be friendly and approachable.
Mainly towards the right?
Your company is traditional, slow-moving and more corporate. Your product/service is more exclusive and your target market might be more high-end.
Traditional, safer colours such as blue and green are most appropriate for more traditional brands, Your communication style should be professional and authoritative.”
Again, this is just a simple place to start that you can build off of for your brand persona.
(This Brand Personality Spectrum graphic is used across many different channels discussing content marketing and branding, and I’m not sure where it originated. If you know, feel free to leave a comment so I can provide better credit!)
When you have completed this, you should list around five specific personality characteristics of the brand voice, i.e. expert, sincere, empathetic, and can also include characteristics that the brand is NOT, i.e. exclusive, aggressive.
To go further, you can create a fictional character for the brand, similar to the audience persona exercise, where you create a clearly defined identity including characteristics like age, location, hopes, dreams, etc. You can give the brand character a name and even create a cartoon or find a photo that further illustrates the person speaking behind the brand. No matter who is creating content for the company, that content must be in line with the voice of the brand character. If you have a team, it would be good to get stakeholders engaged in this exercise over a whiteboarding session.
Once you have established the company brand voice, you will need to consider tone, which is more dynamic depending on the kind of content you are creating and who you are speaking to and adds depth and range to the brand voice.
MailChimp’s content style guide has a great example of how to define a brand tone for a variety of situations:
“Mailchimp’s tone is usually informal, but it’s always more important to be clear than entertaining. When you’re writing, consider the reader’s state of mind. Are they relieved to be finished with a campaign? Are they confused and seeking our help on Twitter? Once you have an idea of their emotional state, you can adjust your tone accordingly.
Mailchimp has a sense of humor, so feel free to be funny when it’s appropriate and when it comes naturally to you. But don’t go out of your way to make a joke — forced humor can be worse than none at all. If you’re unsure, keep a straight face.”
What are the guiding principles, or goals, of the content the company will be creating? Having a set of clearly defined principles will ensure that all content works toward the same core objectives.
I really like these examples of content principles used by Morgan Marie Quinn from ServiceNow:
1. Empower customers to make good decisions by giving them the right information, in the right format, and at the right time.
2. Simplify the product experience by speaking in a straightforward and human way.
3. Show respect for everyone by relating to them and honoring their whole selves.
Calls to Action
This is a list of approved calls to action to use for things like social posts, email copy, and landing page copy. These should create a sense of urgency while conveying the benefits of what the company offers. You can list different calls to action for different channels or audiences based on what you have seen convert best.
This section should include a list of industry-specific terms that will be used throughout your content. For example, I have worked with lots of clients in the blockchain industry and might list terms like “blockchain,” “security token,” “utility token,” etc., along with the working definitions that the company agrees with.
Having a section on word choice can be powerful for high-tech companies that use a lot of language and buzzwords that might be confusing or alienating to a general audience. For example, instead of “blockchain,” you could say “distributed system” to more clearly convey what your company offers.
This section can contain rules for formatting (such as spacing and use of headers), capitalization (like whether or not to capitalize all words in a blog headline or email subject line), or what external style guidelines to follow, like the AP Stylebook.
If the company plans on raising money, I like to include a written elevator pitch in the content style guide. This is content that can be spoken in under 30 seconds when introducing the company to someone. Having your elevator pitch down is crucial for any startup, and your team should all be on the same page since they will be representing the company in their day-to-day lives and across their networks as well. This content can also be synthesized for things like pitch decks and videos. For help with your elevator pitch, check out this blog and video from Matt Ward at ThinkGrowth.org.
UI Copy Guidelines*
If you are building a product, creating guidelines for UI copy and UX content is critical. This content will help guide users within the product to help them achieve their goals in a streamlined manner. Depending on the company, these guidelines may require their own distinct document, and to really go into this would be a blog post in and of itself. Should I cover this in a subsequent post?
Evangelizing Your Content Style Guide
Once you have created your content style guide and gotten feedback from all necessary stakeholders within the company, you will need to evangelize it throughout the organization, across all teams and contractors who work on behalf of the company. This goes beyond just distributing it in a shared doc or CCing all. Plan an organization-wide meeting to go over the materials and give room for suggestions and questions. If you are part of a larger organization, plan a meeting to educate department leads on the content style guide, and give them guidance on how to train their teams.
Also remember that your content style guide is a living, breathing document, and as the company and brand evolves, your style guide should too! Alert teams to important changes as they happen.
Evangelizing your content style guide is something I will cover in more detail in a subsequent blog post (will update here when published) and in my book, “The New Distributed Workforce,” which will be published Q1 2020.
What is most important to you when creating a content style guide? Do you find having this documentation to be critical when leading a distributed team? Share with me and let’s chat!
If you need help transforming your brand or content marketing strategy, I am happy to help! Feel free to connect with me using the information below to schedule a meeting.
Rhiannon Payne, based in San Francisco, is the founder of Sea Foam Media & Tech, an agency working with tech startups to help them tell their stories, build their products, gain investment, and scale.
She is specifically interested in distributed team building and the changing workforce of the 2020s. Her book, The Remote Work Era, will explore these changes with a focus on new opportunities for women to go remote and start their own businesses online.