When you interact with popular brands such as Microsoft and Coca-Cola, you already know what to expect — and that they always deliver. Their reputation precedes them.
These big companies use detailed brand books to guide their marketing strategy and provide a consistent customer experience even after decades in business. The people on their teams may change, but the brand guidelines live on.
The same holds true for content marketing — if you want to create content that stays top of mind with customers, you must have a style guide.
Keep reading to learn what could go wrong if you don’t use a style guide and how a style guide can set your brand up for success.
What Is a Style Guide and Why Is It Important?
A brand style guide is a set of standards that establishes a company’s brand identity and personality and gives customers a consistent brand experience. In other words, a style guide acts as a reference point for all your company communications.
Here are a few benefits you may get by opting for a style guide:
- Uniform content: A style guide helps in-house and external writers create content with a similar tone and voice.
- Easy collaboration: With a style guide, your brand can communicate a consistent message to your target audience despite having numerous people on the team, as they all follow the same guidelines.
- Improved processes: A style guide answers the common what, why, and how questions surrounding your content creation. As a result, the writers and editors don’t have to deal with constant back-and-forth clarifying messages.
Do You Need a Style Guide for Content Creation?
Freelance writer Kaleigh Moore asked her Twitter followers whether they could put out quality content without a style guide, and a surprising majority of her followers said yes.
And that’s correct. You certainly can create quality content without a documented style guide. So then, why do you need a style guide?
To keep creating quality content.
But what’s the difference between using or eschewing a style guide?
The difference is in consistency. While you may create quality content for your brand without a style guide, you need a style guide to ensure that other team members can replicate your efforts.
But that’s not the only problem:
Not using a writing style guide leads to tons of content quality issues over time.
Consequences of Not Using a Style Guide
Here are a few reasons why not having a style guide hurts your brand:
You’ll Give Customers an Inconsistent Brand Experience
Without a style guide, your brand becomes difficult for customers to recognize.
A style guide ensures customers have a continuous and distinct brand experience no matter where, when, or how they encounter the brand.
Take Starbucks for example.
No matter what Starbucks store you step into worldwide, you’ll know you’re at a Starbucks. The store layout may differ, but because Starbucks stores offer the same ambiance and experience, you always know what to expect.
For example, look at the photo below. You can immediately tell it’s a Starbucks branch. You can probably even imagine the smell of coffee and hear their playlist in your head.
It’s this consistency that builds a strong brand identity. When customers know who you are and what you believe in, it’s much easier to stand out from the competition — especially in this attention economy with multiple businesses vying for customers’ attention.
Your Content Will Sound Unprofessional and Unpolished
Without a comprehensive style guide, your writers and editors lack the tools to produce polished content. In other words, they don’t know the formatting rules they need to follow and stylistic preferences they need to adhere to.
In contrast, a brand style guide helps capture formatting errors and mistakes before publishing the content. It helps cut out fluff, grammatical errors, poor punctuation, and other common mistakes that make the content look and sound unprofessional.
For example, poor research is of little use to your readers. But what exactly counts as “poor research”? The writers and editors need to be clear on this. They should know what’s considered reputable in your field — and what isn’t.
For instance, quoting Wikipedia is rarely acceptable, since users can edit information and it’s not an original source. Instead, consider getting information from Portent (for SEO), Insider Intelligence (for marketing), and McKinsey & Company (for business insights) — or similar sources depending on your niche.
You’ll Waste Resources on Multiple Revisions
Writers can’t read your mind. If you don’t provide them with adequate direction and information upfront, they have little way to ensure their content meets your expectations. Instead, you’ll have to send each content piece back to them for revisions — which wastes time and resources you could spend elsewhere.
Alternatively, you can rely on a detailed content brief backed by a brand style guide to ensure the writer can easily find relevant directions and answers to common questions. The Blogsmith’s content brief sets writers up for success by addressing every last detail about the client, their audience, and their goals for each piece of writing.
You’ll Have Difficulty Onboarding Writers and Editors
A style guide is like a constitution for writers and editors in content creation. It decides which laws both parties need to follow.
But if you don’t have a content style guide, your content team becomes lawless. It’s all chaos. Your writers won’t know which rules to follow, and your editors will silo and publish inconsistent drafts.
Onboarding any new writer or editor into such a team can be a nightmare. The new hire won’t have a clue what’s going on, and you won’t know how to track their progress without a reference point.
Not to mention, editors might struggle to give feedback to the writers because their feedback will be subjective instead of objective. Without tone, voice, and nuance guidelines, they might resort to doing only surface-level edits. Or the edits might feel unnecessarily personal.
There Will Be No Improvements to Your Processes
Style guides such as the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook help with common grammatical errors. But they often won’t clear up industry-specific confusion. In other words, without a custom style guide, you limit your options for process improvements in content creation.
In particular, many industries have specific jargon that’s fair to use in writing since the audience knows what they mean. However, a writer will still need to use those jargon terms accurately. Otherwise, your brand will come across as untrustworthy.
Instead, you can add common industry jargon terms and their explanations to your style guide to ensure the writer has everything they need to write content for you.
What else do you need in your style guide? Let’s dig in.
Elements of a Style Guide: What To Include
To ensure you don’t suffer the consequences of not using a brand style guide, you need to establish both editorial and visual guidelines.
An editorial style guide contains guidelines to ensure brand consistency for all written content. It often includes rules for grammar, capitalization, punctuation, abbreviations, and citations.
However, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. You can rely on the AP Stylebook or follow The Chicago Manual of Style as your reference.
But you still need to build your custom style guide on top of them, where you deconstruct your brand’s voice, tone, and nuance.
Your brand voice refers to the way you present your company to the world. Without it, people won’t be able to differentiate your brand from another.
Your brand voice must be consistent throughout all communications (website, social media, newsletters, advertisements, and blog posts).
Besides consistency, you should also nail the type of brand voice — one that truly represents your brand’s essence and connects with the target audience.
An example of a brand with a distinct brand voice is the language learning app Duolingo. It has a wacky and playful brand voice that references pop culture and plays into the antics and dark humor of Duo, its green owl mascot.
To come up with a distinct brand voice, consider your brand’s mission statement and pick out a few adjectives that define it. That will help writers craft content that captures what your brand is all about.
Tone is the emotion your communication elicits from the customers. Without a style guide, your website content and blogs may sound tone-deaf, unprofessional, or completely random. Each piece of content might bring out different emotions and leave your audience with conflicting feelings.
Instead, you can define your brand tone. Nielsen Norman Group’s guide to the four dimensions of tone of voice might serve you well in that quest.
Nuance is the subtle differences in meaning and use of language. Although English is reasonably standard everywhere, it contains multiple nuances across different dialects that might appear inappropriate depending on the context.
For instance, consider the following variations:
- Good web hosting
- Nice web hosting
- Ideal web hosting
While all the adjectives — good, nice, and ideal — sound positive, they have subtle differences. If we look at the cultural context and implied meaning, “good” and “nice” don’t seem as enthusiastic as “ideal.” Instead, we often use “good” and “nice” sarcastically to describe things that barely make it.
These small yet significant differences can change the meaning of a sentence and may cause a call to action (CTA) to fall flat.
Instead, you may include relevant nuance-related issues in a style guide to ensure everyone writing for your brand is better equipped.
Should the writer include still images, or is your brand cool enough to include GIFs? To answer questions like this once and for all, you need visual guidelines that outline design standards, recommended media formats, and brand color palettes.
In fact, you should mention the recommended typography — what fonts you like, which typeface you prefer, and how you want to handle headings and body text.
Final Thoughts: Why Style Guides Are Important for Your Brand
A style guide is a living document that ensures your brand retains its standards even after individual team members leave.
Create your own by picking an established guide like the AP Stylebook as a reference. After that, you just need to customize it to your taste.
To learn how to create a reliable style guide for your brand, consider reading my book, Writing for Humans and Robots: The New Rules of Content Style.