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Styling it out: How to create a great style guide

July 1, 2019  |  Joanne Lewsley

A style guide ensures that your content is presented clearly, accurately and consistently. It lets you communicate more effectively with your audience and helps to make your brand identity and messaging consistent across all your platforms.

Good grammar, spelling and punctuation may seem old-fashioned in a world of acronyms and emojis, but you’ll find that it helps to build trust with your users.

A style guide can also help you flush out inconsistencies and encourage company-wide best practice when it comes to crafting content and messaging for your brand.

Having a style guide that’s accessible to all your teams, whether that’s content, design, sales, marketing or customer services, is vital to creating your brand’s voice.

Here are 6 simple ways to set up a style guide, and keep it fresh and relevant to your audience.

1. Put your brand’s voice front and centre

Whatever story you’re telling, on whichever platform, you need to communicate clearly and powerfully.

Ensuring your content has a distinct and consistent voice is key, so make sure it’s at the very top of your style guide.

If you have a brand persona, lay this out to introduce your brand’s voice. Tell your style guide users what qualities and traits your persona has. Talk about how your brand persona engages with your audience and provide a couple of examples of copy that speak to this.

Use images to flesh out your brand’s ‘personality’. This will help your content creators make mental shortcuts to the most important points.

2. Identify your target audience

Just like your brand persona, this information needs to be at the top of your style guide. Who are your users? What are their interests, age range, socio-economic status? How do they access your content and what else are they looking at online?

Keeping your brand’s persona and your target audience front of mind when creating content, helps you to start those first conversations, build relationships and grow trust.

3. Lay out your content types

As sites become bigger and your company’s needs change, it’s all too easy to fall into bad habits. Creating content for the sake of it, without considering how it falls with your user, is a common pitfall. Before you know it, your site is experiencing some serious content bloating, with multiple articles, videos, blogs and podcasts all pitching the same messages.

A style guide can help you sift through different content experiences and choose the most relevant style for the message you want to get across. Want to get in depth on a particular subject? Choose an article or a podcast. Want your content to be shared? Think about an infographic, short video or a social media campaign.

Use your style guide to keep an index of content types available and what they’re best used for, so that all your teams are using the same blueprint to create powerful content.

selective focus of the stacking magazine place on table in living room

4. Make it collaborative

For your style guide to be adhered to enthusiastically, it helps for everyone to have some say in its creation. So, ask around, have a brainstorming session, invite ideas and suggestions.

It doesn’t need to be driven by editorial either. Your social media or customer services team will have unique user insight that you can build in to the core of your style guide, alongside expertise in crafting content from your writers and editors.

5. Set out your ground rules

If you have specific ways of phrasing key messages, locked-down formulas for promoting products or golden rules for how you structure your articles, get it into the style guide. But keep it simple and short. Over-explaining the thought processes behind these ground rules tends to make them less memorable… and more open to interpretation!

Once you’ve addressed corporate style, you can move onto editorial style matters. This can be as long or as short as you wish, and very much depends on your company’s needs.

Large news and media organisations tend to have A-Z lists addressing everything from abbreviations and apostrophes to how to pluralise zero (see the Guardian’s behemoth here). But there’s no need to include this level of granularity if it’s not necessary for your brand. Style guides like this take years to develop, so don’t beat yourself up if yours is only a few pages long. If your style guide is going to be used by more than just your edit team, the shorter the better.

Focus on the most common mistakes, issues and confusions that you experience on a day-to-day basis. You can add to this each time you come to update your style guide, which brings me neatly to my last tip…

6. Keep it updated

Last, but not least, review your style guide. How often you do this is dependent on your brand and company ethos.

A dynamic brand may need a flexible style guide that can be adapted to suit new innovations. A trusted, expert company with a loyal user base may only need to review every year. If you ensure your style guide is current, reflects the language of your audience and addresses the most important goals of your brand, you’re taking the right approach.

Our editorial experts at Thrive have created and maintained style guides for some of the world’s biggest brands. Want to know how we can help you? Get in touch.