What is a Style Guide in Content Marketing?

A style guide is what you need to create a consistent experience for your readers. The biggest brands like Salesforce, Mailchimp, Shopify, Microsoft use style guides to define rules for their marketing communications. Learn what a style guide includes and why you need it.

Imagine you wanted to bake a pie that you’ve never baked before. Will you use a cookbook? I bet you will! Otherwise, how can you be sure what ingredients you need and in what proportions?

Creating content without a style guide is like baking a pie without a recipe. In this blog post, we'll talk about a style guide – the bedrock of marketing communications.

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What is a style guide?

A style guide lays out a set of rules and writing standards that ensure your audience recognizes your brand in various formats across all channels. What’s your brand voice? Should you sound conversational or business-like? How do you deal with numbers? Should you use bullet points or dashes? Do you use British or American English? A style guide answers all these questions. It’s a one-stop resource for all your writing queries.

Having a style guide is especially important for companies that work with different writers because no matter who writes your content, you want it to look and sound like it comes from the same company.

A style guide helps create a consistent experience for your readers. Consistency makes readers trust you because you feel familiar and they know what to expect from you. In a consistent piece, there are no deviations in spelling, punctuation, and formatting throughout the text. It sticks to one style.


How to get started

Putting together a style guide from zero is a lot of work. I recommend starting with a style manual—a reference book that tells you how to handle grammar, punctuation, and many special cases—such as whether you need to use only an apostrophe or an apostrophe plus “s” for the possessive plural and when you should use figures or words to indicate numbers.

There are a few style manuals to choose from, but I recommend the AP Stylebook, which is developed by journalists. You can either get a paper copy of the AP Stylebook or purchase an online subscription. All in-house writers, freelance writers, guest bloggers, content contributors, and interns should refer to the style manual you follow for most questions. But for a few specific items—including how to achieve your brand voice—they should refer to your in-house style guide. 


4 things to include in a style guide

Here are four things to address in your in-house style guide:

1. Your brand voice and how to express it 

For example, you probably want your brand to be perceived as an expert authority by your audience. Your style guide needs to describe what expert means and what it doesn’t mean. And it must give some recommendations on how to convey an expert opinion. For example:

Expert

  • What it means: Knowledgeable, respectful, informative, and trustworthy
  • What it doesn’t mean: Overly scientific, pretentious, superfluous, obvious, robotic

How should I convey an expert opinion?

  • Explain. Don’t just state the facts. Put expert knowledge and research in human terms and explain it using words and real-world examples that your readers will understand.
  • Keep sentences short and concise, and avoid lengthy digressions.
  • Limit jargon. If you have to explain complex technical terms, do it visually.

How should I not convey an expert opinion?

  • Using passive voice. Stay active and use the first person.
  • By referring to questionable sources. Cite only respected and recognized sources. This confirms your status as an expert.

2. Problematic words

Problematic words don’t have universally agreed on spellings. Not mentioning them in your style guide will lead to inconsistent spelling across the content your marketing team produces. Examples:

  • ebook or e-book
  • end user or end-user
  • US or U.S.

Make sure you also choose one dictionary (Macmillan, for example) that will be the primary reference for spelling words you don’t include in your style guide.

3. Common grammar and punctuation questions

Should you use the serial/Oxford comma when you list three items? What should you capitalize? How should you handle abbreviations? Should you spell out numbers or write them as numerals? How should you use symbols such as “%,” and “&”? Address these issues in your style guide and you’ll avoid a lot of basic inconsistencies.

4. Formatting dos and don’ts

Formatting refers to the general look of your content. How should you use headings? How long should your paragraphs be? When can you use bold? How should you cite research and link to external sites? Make sure to list the don’ts next to the dos. It would also be worthwhile to include an example of a well-formatted blog post.


What's next?

You can include many more sections in your style guide—whatever you think will make your writing more consistent. Putting it together can be a lot of fun. Once you’ve finished, make sure everybody on the team knows your style guide exists and can easily access it.

Your style guide should evolve over time as your business matures and grows. I recommend revising your style guide at least once a year to keep it a living resource and update it to reflect your current marketing objectives.

Some of the biggest companies like Salesforce, Microsoft, MailChimp, Shopify have their style guides available on the internet. Check out the links below so you could draw some inspiration from them when creating your own style guide:

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