Why You Need a Style Guide and How to Make One

Marketing is about clear communication and consequent engagement. Bad grammar, embarrassing misspellings and careless typos all erode credibility and even damage brand reputation.

Unfortunately, another enemy of effective communication often goes overlooked: inconsistency. Just as a brand needs consistency in terms of messaging, look and feel, written words – the “voice” of an organization – need to be presented in a uniform manner.

In many cases, the organization may have certain ways web and published copy is written. And a lot of the time, only the primary communicators know those styles. It’s something they keep in their heads.

Just like the copy itself, these style guidelines need to be written down.

Not only does it keep the entire staff in the know, it also helps to have a reference readily available to the main authors within the organization.

There’s no need for anything fancy: A simple Word doc should do. But, it does need to be carefully followed to ensure your voice consistently comes through no matter who has the proverbial microphone.

So, where to start?

First, familiarize yourself with the AP Stylebook, which is essentially the media industry’s bible. Organized by words and topics A-Z, it’s the spiral-bound standby for a surprisingly wide number of inquiries.

Because it is so widely accepted – most prominently by newspapers and sites – it’s a good foundation for consistency.

From there, you can dig into those quirks and preferences for your organization.

Start with Your Own Name

When crafting style guides for clients, we often start here. How will you refer to yourself on first reference? Is it a Co., Inc., or LLC? Do you tend to keep that off? And what about subsequent references? Will you always spell it out or just use the one word after the first reference? Any kind of inconsistency will disrupt your reader, so decide how you want to do it and get it on paper.

Trademarks

If your products or services are trademarked, create a rule for when those little ™s and ®s will be used. Will you use it in every reference? Only the first? What about headlines? As with all these self-determined rules, there’s no right or wrong way. It’s just important to pick a direction and stick with it.

Industry Terms

Do you spell out acronyms on first reference or are they widely known by your audience? Are there certain terms that are universally or nearly always capped? Identify what those words are and get them down.

Commas

Yes, commas. There’s the Oxford camp and everyone else. Choose a side.

Format

The most common is time/date/place. Or is it place/date/time? This is one of those style gray areas where there is no established format, but you should have one. Same goes for headlines or titles: some capitalize every word, some ignore articles and/or prepositions, some lowercase two-letter words. There’s no official rule, so go with what you’re comfortable with.

Caps

Often times this will relate to job titles. Is Chief Officer always capitalized, or only before a name? If there’s no name at all, is it still capped? Do you always capitalize a certain service or department from within your organization?

Tags

This is an important place to be consistent in terms of SEO and the style guide is a great place to put them so they are always at the ready for blogs and YouTube videos. Get together a list of the keywords relevant to your business or product and create an entry in the guide. Tip: If you put these in sentence form using one long list with commas, you can cut and paste right into the post or video description!

These are just a few of many considerations to get the consistency wheels turning. Style guides are living documents that can be added to as issues arise (or before they do). Does your organization have a style guide? Any basic entries I missed? Oxford comma or no? Weigh in with a comment below!


Journalism Forms the Core of Content Marketing

journalDo good research, find solid sources and tell great stories. It’s the formula for engagement that both journalists and content developers follow.

As content marketing inches closer to eclipsing traditional ad spends like television, a new profession has emerged: brand journalism. At first glance, it seems those two words shouldn’t fit together as news outlets have long strived to at least give the impression that advertising and newsrooms are independent of each other.

Newsrooms made a historic adjustment when outlets like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal began publishing native ads on their digital platforms. The move created a lot of pushback from journalists and editors who felt paid content compromised the content they are paid to produce … without plugs or bias.

Things have progressed considerably, particularly in recent years, as the brand journalism phenomenon continues to evolve into a legit source of information.

Turns out traditional and brand journalism share a lot of commonalities, both in practice and, increasingly, in personnel. Journalists are broke and big-time publishers just keep the layoffs coming. Meanwhile, marketers are hiring content developers like crazy.

These trends mean that brand journalism will only get better.

Why? Because these are the people with the training and talent to create engaging content. How? The same way they’ve always done it.

Storytelling

It’s what we do, regardless of employer. The best journalists can even craft cold, hard data and facts into something that actually speaks to the human condition. Everyone loves a good story, especially one that informs, entertains or inspires. Journalists love to tell them.

Idea Generation

Journalists are trained to be prolific pitchers, constantly generating angles that are timely and relevant to the audience. It’s a skill that comes with experience that includes the ability to appeal to the reader in a very direct way. Content marketers actually have the extra technical advantage of demographic data that helps focus topics even more.

Research

Journalists must become “instant experts” to do the job. This comes with a lot of digging to come up with accurate information and reliable sources. Quality content developers need to take this duty just as seriously as traditional journalists do.

The Art of the Interview

Good stories need sources and brand journalists need to ask the right questions. It’s a skill developed over many years in the business. I always go for the most candid answers possible, preferring phone or face-to-face as opposed to email. Authenticity thrives in live dialogue, not passive, carefully prepared and often sterile answers that e-communication tends to produce.

Good Writing

Print may be dead, but the digital world offers endless space for editorial content. Even as online video grows its audience, readers still crave well-written posts and articles. Good writing fuels every form of journalism. Successful journalists know how to write the material that gets read, viewed or heard.

Trust

Content developers must build trust with their audiences. Establishing the client or organization as an expert source on the subject matter is essential to successful content marketing campaigns. Just as media outlets must develop a rapport with readers, viewers and listeners, so too must content creators build a relationship with what they produce.

The same standards that produce great journalism also apply to excellent content, the kind that gets brands noticed and provides all of us as content consumers useful information.

We’re already seeing some really good stuff and we can expect things to continue improving as the concept – the profession – of brand journalism grows.