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Content essentials: How to create a content style guide for your startup in 5 steps

Updated: Feb 15


Hand holding out a lightbulb in front of a sunset to represent how a content style guide is the light that guides all your content

“We don’t need that” - the response we hear from startups when we recommend developing a content style guide as part of their strategy. 


Many startups see content style guides as an unnecessary expense, and they’re much more keen on spending this time and money on getting as much content out there as physically possible.


But what happens when you opt to leave out a content strategy? 


For a writer, it feels like we're on a wild goose chase wearing a blindfold, and for the readers, it feels disconnected and forced. Time and time again, we’ve seen a startup’s digital presence become a total mess, with numerous inconsistencies that have a negative impact on their user experience.


Yep, those initial resources “saved” from not opting for a style guide end up getting outweighed hugely by the resources needed to fix the mess.


That’s why a content style guide is actually one of the best investments you can make at the very start of your business. Not only will it serve as your holy grail for all your content, but it will also help to cement your brand identity and clarify any doubts you may have about your digital strategy and overall approach. So, without further ado, this is your startup-friendly introduction to content style guides, their features, benefits, and uses, and how you can create your own in just 5 steps!



 

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Let's start with the basics: What is a content style guide?


A content style guide, also known as writing guidelines, editorial style guide, or brand voice, is a set of comprehensive guidelines and standards that are used as the foundations for all the content you create to ensure consistency, coherence, and overall quality.


A content style guide should be referred to when any individual writes any content across any platform - it’s one of the important components for maintaining your brand identity, speaking your reader's language, and keeping all content cohesive.


Not only will it keep all your communications across all channels clear and consistent from the get-go, but it will save you so much time and resources in the long run if you have the foundation of all your future content. So if you don't have a content style guide yet, turn this into a priority - you'll be thankful in the near future!


What does a content style guide include?


Your style guide can look different depending on your type of business, your target audience, what you offer, and where you offer it. However, here are the elements we always include when we build one: 


  • Your vision, mission, and values

  • Unique value proposition

  • Your target audience and their language

  • Key brand messages

  • Voice, style, and tone 

  • General writing guidelines

  • Writing guidelines per channel 

  • UX-specific guidelines

  • Formatting guidelines

  • Accessibility and inclusivity guidelines

  • Grammar and punctuation rules


This may seem like a lot of areas to cover, but you can actually group this into distinctive sections in your style guide to make it a lot more digestible. We’ll show you these areas in the step-by-step guide below!


Who uses a content style guide?


It’s super important to remember that it’s not just content writers who will be using this style guide - it’s anyone inside or outside your organisation who is communicating to your audience in any way. That may include:


  • Product designers

  • Content designers

  • Content writers

  • Copywriters

  • Marketers

  • Customer support teams 

  • Freelancers 

  • Management


Once your content style guide is ready, we recommend sharing it with your entire team, so everyone is aligned with your brand identity and will always have it on hand if and when they need it. 


Examples of great content style guides


As a small business or startup, knowing the standard your content style guide should be at can be difficult. Luckily, more and more companies are making their content style guides public. 


There are some gold-standard guides out there that you can use as a reference to build your own, pulling key elements that relate to your business. Sometimes, you may even be able to download them and use them as a content style guide template


Here are some of the most popular style guides we recommend looking at:


  • Mailchimp: The OG, the gold standard…there’s nothing left to say

  • Monzo: Nailed the tone and voice guidelines from day one

  • Intuit: A super interactive online guide (and great for UX-focused guidelines!)


Remember that some elements of these style guides may not be relevant to your own business. For example, Monzo’s use of language as a neo-bank isn’t going to be the best bet for an e-commerce selling fashion. So, keep in mind what your brand and users specifically need when using other guides as a reference. 


What are the benefits of having a content style guide?


  • It’s the bridge between you and your audience: All content is communication, so having a consistent style that speaks to your audience will strengthen your relationship with them, thus increasing engagement. 

  • It’s the one thing that covers everything: From website content to email communication, your content style guide will be referenced by everyone.

  • It allows for sustainable brand consistency from the very beginning: The content style guide plays a huge part in your overall branding. Your audience will be able to easily identify your brand if it shows consistency from the start.

  • It creates better content: A content style guide will refine your writing style and make reading it that much more enjoyable.

  • It helps to form a clear brand journey: Your brand, as well as your style guide, will evolve over time. If your style guide is updated, your brand journey will be seamless. 


IMPORTANT: Before you start building your guide


Before you can start your content style guide, you need to make sure you fully revisit your initial brand identity and that it is 100% aligned with your vision. This includes establishing the following: 


  • Description of the company and what you do

  • Your mission, vision, and values

  • What you offer

  • Your competitive advantage and unique selling proposition

  • Identifying and analysing your competitors

  • What are your short-term and long-term goals


If you haven’t established these yet, or you’re struggling to define any of the above, we recommend setting up a workshop with a branding expert to provide you with the necessary tools and techniques to refine your brand. 


It’s important to have these basic aspects of your business in place, as they will provide some of the key elements of your content style guide. 


How to create a content style guide for your startup in 5 steps


🪧 ESTABLISH: Provide an overview of your brand



By providing the foundation of your brand identity, you can directly identify your editorial content style and turn it into a set of clear guidelines.


Using the bullet points above as a reference, give an overview of what your brand is about. Really investigate what this section says and how it says it, as already this will provide you with some stylistic nuances that can help you create your unique content style. This is the context for your style guide, so it’s important that you get this overview right. 


🎯 TARGET: Identify your audience



Your content style guide will not be successful unless you implement guidelines that reflect your audience and what they are looking for. Ask yourself the following questions: 


  • How does my audience speak?

  • What do they want to see?

  • How do they want to feel?

  • What do they want me to solve?


Mould your content style perfectly to that. Include the following in your audience section of the content style guide to help you answer these questions:


  • Audience demographics: 

    • Location: Which markets are your audiences based? Do you need to localise your content? Which languages do you need to use? What dialects should you opt for? 

    • Age: How will your content writing style reflect the ages of your target audience? Will you use more traditional vocabulary, be informal, or include trendy language?

  • Personas: 

    • Create 3-5 personas to really understand your audience and identify their needs. 

    • Put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself, ' What is this brand's intention based on its written content?’


🇩DEFINE: Define your brand 



This is where you breathe life into your brand, turning it from a concept into something your audience can identify and interact with.


In this section, we’re creating the stylistic identity - this will be what makes an impression on your audience. Here are the following aspects of your brand that you must define in this content style guide section.


  • Tone and voice: These are the stylistic choices you will consciously use when writing your content and communicating with your audience. This includes elements such as formality, sentence complexity, pace and rhythm, level of information, etc. 

  • Personality: This section includes the traits that you believe to embody the brand. Are you emotional rather than practical? Are you cheeky or sincere? Are you more progressive or traditional?

  • Brand messages: Although similar to brand personality, brand messages are the things you really want to get across to your audience. This may be defining exactly what, how, and why you’re doing what you’re doing for them, how much you understand their needs and struggles, or the things that you pride yourselves on. 

  • Language: This is all about the language you will use when writing content and interacting with your audience. Do you use contractions of words to be less informal? Will you use slang words? Will you use more academic language?


Use as many examples as possible to show what these elements look like in writing. This will help anyone using this guide really understand and visualise the overall writing style they need to employ.


🔎 SPECIFY: Identifying where you will write your content



You can’t build your style guide further without knowing what content forms your business needs to use. These different content forms will also require some variations of content style rules. 


First, specify the content types and channels that are important for your brand to use. Some elements of the content style guide will be essential depending on your industry, product/service, and goals. 


Types of content and channels may include:


  • Your website

  • Your app or online platform

  • Social media channels

  • Newsletters 

  • Ebooks and whitepapers


Now that you’ve identified your content types and channels, it’s time to create their specific guidelines. Under the title of each content type, list the rules that apply to them. For example, your social media content may be more informal and friendly compared to your website or whitepapers, so establish this specific style and voice under the social media section. Or, if you have an app or online platform, you’ll need to add UX-focused content guidelines. 


Remember, the more examples, the better!


✨ REFINE: Additional guidelines



Having a style and personality isn’t enough; you need to delve deeper into actual rules that you can apply to your content. Here are the three main elements we consider the most important to add to your style guide:


Accessibility and inclusivity guidelines

This is all about making sure your content is accessible to diverse audiences, addressing issues like readability, language inclusivity (race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc.), and web accessibility standards


Jargon and technical terms

This is especially important if your business is part of more technical industries like tech or finance. Outline how you will refer to and define jargon in your content. Adding a glossary of terms that lists and defines all of your jargon is also a great idea to maintain consistency.


Grammar, punctuation, and formatting

No matter your unique brand identity, it won’t be successful if you do not use language correctly.


In most cases, grammar, punctuation, and formatting are universal. We recommend directly adopting one of the various language style guides available - like APA - to give you an overview of various grammatical rules to follow and then adapting aspects within these to your brand’s liking. This section will include many best practices, including:


  • Abbreviations and acronyms 

  • Active and passive voice

  • Bullet points and lists 

  • Capitalisation

  • Dates and times

  • Headings and titles

  • Italics and bold

  • Numbers

  • Punctuation

  • Spelling



So, you’ve completed your content style guide. What's next?


Crafting a content style guide isn't just about following rules; it's about building a cohesive brand identity. It serves as the cornerstone for consistent messaging, resonating with your audience, and ultimately driving success. Much like your brand’s identity, the journey of the content style guide is ongoing. Just as your brand evolves, so should your guide. Keep it alive, easily accessible to your team, and regularly updated.


We also recommend drawing inspiration from other style guides to keep your brand fresh and relevant. For example, Mailchimp's style guide is constantly updated based on the latest trends.


Creating a content style guide from scratch can be a long process, but one that promises numerous benefits and rewards! 


Do you prefer hiring an expert?


If you prefer to get the expertise of a professional to craft your style guide, it can be a wise investment in ensuring a comprehensive and tailored approach. Experienced professionals can offer valuable insights, guide you through the process efficiently, and help translate your brand vision into a cohesive content strategy. While the decision ultimately depends on your resources, priorities, and level of expertise, partnering with an expert can streamline the process and yield impactful results.


You also may need help to untangle your ideas and refine your vision. We hold customised workshops and discovery sessions that are practical and useful to pour life into dreams and kick off your digital strategy. And remember, whether you choose to embark on this journey independently or seek professional assistance, the key is to prioritize clarity, consistency, and alignment with your brand objectives. Any questions? Leave a comment below!👇


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