Checklist: How to Build Content Guidelines

Checklist: How to Build Content Guidelines

Content guidelines do much more than outline your company’s messaging, tone, and voice. These guidelines also provide a roadmap for content creators regarding general writing rules and company-specific instructions. Content guidelines also act as the backbone for your content strategy. This article outlines why your company needs content guidelines and provides a checklist showing you how to build them.

Why Your Company Needs Content Guidelines

Before we discuss why your company needs content guidelines, let’s talk about what they are. Content guidelines identify your company’s mission and goals, voice, tone, stylistic preferences, guidelines for graphics, best practices, and things content creators should avoid.

Building these guidelines ensures content remains consistent across every platform. Content creators need to know specific expectations, including word count, image requirements, linking requirements, keywords, and more. The goal is to maintain the company’s unified voice no matter how many content creators submit work.

Content guidelines also prevent content creators from asking the same questions over and over. For example, you may hear questions about grammar and style questions several times before a deadline. Putting answers to these questions (and others) in one go-to document streamlines workflow for writers, editors, and other content creators.

Content Guide Checklist

Consistency is a priority when creating content guidelines. If content guidelines aren’t in place, brand messaging and voice consistency suffers. The checklist below brings companies through the content guide creation process. That way, it’s possible to:

  • Maintain consistency among messaging, tone, and voice
  • Show writers how to write for the company or brand’s audiences
  • Ensure the content maintains the company’s identity
  • Create a streamlined workflow for writers and editors

Identify Your Content’s Mission & Goals

Do you know why your company creates its content? Can you identify your audience? What do you hope your content can do for your audience? Identify your content’s mission and goals (i.e., why you are creating content) to help you answer those questions and more.

Understanding a Content Mission Statement

When developing your company’s content strategy, creating its mission statement is one of the first things you’ll do. Content mission statements guide and govern your content team’s creative process. Your statement should reflect your company’s values while simultaneously distinguishing it from the competition. Your content mission can also help determine:

  • The topics content creators should focus on
  • The content formats they’ll create and the platforms they’re for
  • How this content creates the highest quality experiences for the brand’s audience

Elements of a Content Mission

  1. Target audience: Identify your brand’s personas
  2. Delivery: Identity the content types teams are creating (i.e., blogs, case studies, white papers, and more)
  3. Next steps: How you expect your audience to use, react to, or move through the funnel after engaging with the content

Define Your Brand’s Voice & Tone

The goal here is to create content that grabs your audience’s attention and use a distinctive voice to hold onto it. Up to 55% of users spend 15 seconds or less on websites. Developing voice and tone helps convey your brand’s personality and connects with your audience by showing them how you differ from the competition.

Your company’s voice and tone should remain consistent in every piece of content it delivers. Here are some steps:

  • Research your target audience, determine what they read, identify how they communicate with each other, and learn how they describe your brand
  • Define your company’s core values, mission statement, and messaging architecture
  • Identify how your company currently communicates with its audience using existing content pieces.
  • Combine all this research to define your brand’s voice and tone—is it casual, enthusiastic, or conversational?

Use this information to create content guidelines featuring your brand’s voice and tone. That way, writers have a consistent example of their expectations. Include several examples of voice and tone to give writers a clear picture of how you want them to create content.

Style Guidelines [Oxford comma? Write out numerals? AP style?]

After developing and outlining your brand’s voice and tone, it’s time to work on style guidelines. Here, you’re providing writers with specific guidelines regarding grammar and mechanics and if your content should include data, use numerals, citations in the text, and more. Here are some tips:

  • Choose a baseline style guide – like AP style, for example – and then detail how your brand differs using Oxford (serial) commas, writing numerals, and other grammar best practices.
  • Add a formatting section that includes information like bullets, em dashes, hyphens, lists, quotes, and more.
  • Explain which abbreviations writers should use and which to avoid
  • Include information about which words should have capitalization
  • If you have specific rules for punctuation, like not using exclamation points, include that here
  • Use this section to outline how writers should handle acronyms (i.e., spell the acronym out in the first instance and include its abbreviation in parentheses, and then abbreviate every instance following)

Outline Best Practices

You can use this section to outline tips for formatting, sourcing, linking, and more. For example, do you have specific guidelines you want writers to follow regarding formatting headings? If so, include that information. Here’s an example:

  • Heading one (H1): Use only for the titles and capitalize all primary words (avoid capitalizing the words a, the, to, and, or, and other connecting words unless they’re the first word of the title)
  • Heading two (H2): Use for sections within the content and capitalize on the first word.
  • Heading three (H3) and Heading four (H4): Only use when specified within the assignment or writer’s brief.

Other best practices you can include whether or not you want writers to use italics or bold type. You can also detail other specifics like:

  • Do you want writers to use short paragraphs and make sure there’s lots of white space?
  • Do you have specific external links (competitive or low-quality sites) you want writers to avoid?
  • Should writers work from a specific list of sources?
  • Do you want writers to include an internal link in the content’s call to action (CTA)?

Guidelines for Graphics

In this section, add a link to your company’s visual style guide if you have one. If you don’t have a separate visual style guide or a design team to handle graphics, it’s essential to include those requirements in a separate section in your content guidelines. That way, there’s no confusion regarding your company’s images, logos, fonts, color palettes, and more. Here are tips for what to include in this section:

  • Images or image styles content creators should avoid
  • If captions are optional or required
  • If the image should include “alt” text
  • How to format infographics

Words to Avoid

Here’s where you’ll include a list or a link to a list containing your company’s “words to avoid.” Some companies refer to this as their “banned words list.” Along with this list, include specific examples of sentences containing words writers should avoid and alternative suggestions. Here are some examples of what that list might look like:

  • Industry jargon: If it sounds too technical, avoid including it in the content
  • Overused words: Customer-centric, industry-leading, and state-of-the-art are a few examples
  • Adverb use: An example might be “very unique” or “really unique” – unique means “one-of-a-kind” and doesn’t need an adverb.
  • Other examples of words to avoid include content is king, new normal, leverage, engagement, and a 360-degree view.

Final Thoughts About Building Content Guidelines

While getting your content guidelines down is critical for ensuring your content creators remain consistent, keep in mind that this document is evolving. That means you’ll need to revisit it often to ensure it’s still meeting your company’s mission and goals while simultaneously representing its voice and tone.

Do you need help creating content guidelines? Turn to nDash’s pool of some of the world’s most elite writers to help you create this document.

Frequently Asked Questions About Building Content Guidelines

Are content guidelines important?

Content guidelines help you outline strategies and identify changes in them when communicating expectations to writers. Writers can use content guidelines to reference when they have questions about strengthening their work or ensuring they’re following the company or brand’s requirements.

When should writers receive content guidelines?

It isn’t always possible to post content guidelines or submission guidelines on websites. So, as soon as possible, after onboarding writers for a project or other editorial requirements, it’s a good idea to send them a copy of your content guidelines.

How often should brands update content guidelines?

As brands grow, it’s a good idea to revisit their content guidelines to ensure they still meet their overall mission and goals. Brands also need to update their guidelines when their content creation needs to change. For example, the original set of guidelines might only include instructions for blog posts and case studies. If the company decides to include infographics, case studies, and other content, its guidelines must reflect those changes.