Brands with strong content marketing have a consistent voice, tone, and personality. The quality and style of your brand’s content can become as strong of a marker of your brand as your logo for dedicated readers. However, it can be difficult to preserve these qualities if you have a growing business with many writers who don’t have a full picture of your business and its culture, or if you use freelancers to write who don’t have enough guidance.
The way to get around this is to create a set of brand content marketing guidelines. These may also be called writer’s guidelines or style guidelines. It’s a set of instructions for your writers on how your brand wants to communicate. Let’s go into why you need to make this document, even if you’re a smaller business, and how to go about doing it.
Why Create Content Marketing Guidelines?
Every writer that you hire to make content for your company is an extension of your company’s voice. In a small business, one or two writers may be able to churn out enough content with a unified tone to make a reader feel like it all came from the same source. But this breaks down if you increase the number of channels or the amount of content production than your internal writing team can handle.
The more writers or channels that you add to your content marketing, the more diluted or confused your voice will be to your readers. This will weaken your content marketing and could even damage your brand. Content marketing guidelines give your writers a set of expectations of how the company wants to present itself on every channel. You can think of them almost like metrics for each piece. If a piece doesn’t conform to the guidelines, you can throw it back to the writer for edits or get a different writer if they can’t conform.
A set of guidelines also makes it easy to communicate changes in strategy to your writers. If new research shows that you need to change your marketing personas or you want to reach your audience through a different channel, a simple update of the guidelines will give writers what they need.
Also, should a writer have questions or suggestions to make your content stronger, they can use the guidelines as a reference point for talking with their superiors in the company. Not every marketer is a strong writer, so there may be something that’s been missed!
What to include in your Content Marketing guidelines
You should imagine that the reader of your content marketing guidelines is a fresh face who doesn’t know much about your company. The goal of your guidelines is to get them up to speed so they can start making content. So, what do they need?
First, they need to know about your brand’s USP and unique attributes, the purpose of your content marketing in particular channels, and the audience personas that your content is targeting. This is the bare minimum that a writer will need to start nailing your voice. You probably have this in your content strategy documentation. It tells the writer who they are writing toward and why.
However, if you can flesh it out more then your writers will make far more consistent content. Here are some things to consider:
Formal Style Guides
Do you have a particular well-known style guide that you want your writers to follow? If you’re a news organization, for instance, you may be required to use AP style so that your writing feels like a news article. Most companies don’t need to be this strict, but reading through an official style guide can give you some pointers on things to look for.
Even if you don’t use a formal guide, you might have specific styling, spelling, usage, or grammar requirements that are part of your voice. For instance, you may require the use of American English over British English. You might want to use simpler words (use vs. utilize) or certain kinds of jargon (business terminology) depending on your audience. If you really love or hate the Oxford comma, let your writers know!
Length minimums and maximums for each type of content are helpful for more than just pricing. It keeps writers from making pieces that are too skimpy or too wordy for your audience. Figure out what content lengths your audience prefer for each of your content types.
Tone and Voice Examples
If there is a piece of writing that nails how you want to sound, put an example of it into your guidelines. A good example speaks volumes more than vague guidelines about sounding “professional”. You might even want to put in examples of what not to sound like, especially if your content is aimed at a traditional niche.
Preferred and Prohibited Topics
If you give your writers the freedom to pitch topics, it’s good to have a list of the sorts of things you want and don’t want. This can be as simple as a list of competitors you never want to mention in your writing and the general themes of your content channels. This can also extend to research sources. If there’s a source you don’t want to quote or link back to in your work, let the writer know here to avoid an awkward conversation later.
It’s also likely that your writers may learn about trade secrets or other confidential pieces of information. Freelance contracts often have a section about protecting confidential information. But if there is something you definitely don’t want slipping out as part of your content that could come up, such as a new product you’re about to launch, let your writers know!
Finally, controversial topics may arise in your industry or there may be some topics you want to shy away from. These may need to be handled on a case-by-case basis. That political zinger might be on point, but it could make the company look bad. If you use social media, providing a list of topics never to discuss can keep a writer from saying something you’ll regret later.
Every business has ways they want their products, services, and business-specific jargon to be used in pieces.
If you’re writing for SEO, your writers will need keywords and keyword placement guidelines. Thankfully we’re way beyond the times of keyword stuffing, but if your SEO team needs your writers to focus on a strategy then they need to know what to do.
Social media writers often need to curate content to create enough regular posts to hold attention. To conserve your brand’s voice, you’ll need to put down some rules on how writers should act on social media and what forms of content are good to like or share.
If your writers are also responsible for responding to blog comments or social media comments, you’ll want guidelines on these. How should they handle trolls and negative comments, or glowing commentary that deserves recognition and thanks?
Finally, your writers need to know if you require specific tools for checking their work, submitting and tracking, if they need to use a specific file format, and similar topics. If you’re working with freelancers, this is critical. The first time your Windows-only editors receives a Pages file, you’ll know why this is important.
There may be times when editors and management need to break the rules in response to a changing situation or content strategy. If a writer receives instruction to make something that breaks the rules, they need to know who is authorized to make those requests so they can write with confidence or ask questions about the change.
Including all this information may make you feel like you’re spelling out how the writer should do their job in too much detail. Nothing could be further from the truth. Writing is a subjective art and writers are not mind readers. The more information you can give them about how you want the final product, the easier it becomes for the writer to create the kind of content you want.
However, it’s also good not to burden them with too many tiny rules. This will slow down content production and make it more difficult for new writers to get up to speed. It will also give your editors more work. If you already have an editing team and don’t have these guidelines written out, it would be a good thing to include them in the discussion. Your editors are on the front lines of inspecting raw content from your writers, so they’ll have insights.
Good content marketing guidelines won’t assure great pieces every time, of course, but they’ll help you catch a lot of problems before the piece is released into the wild.