Content is more than simply a video, tweet, or blog post — it’s a multimedia experience that lives in the minds of your users, visitors, and readers.
And there’s never just one piece of content that’s expressing who you are and what you offer. Inevitably, there are tons of emails, infographics, articles on your website, business cards, print brochures, etc. Every time you generate a piece of content, you should be making sure it is consistently and unmistakably yours. The best way to do this is to make sure it is represented in the exact same way across every single little thing you produce.
Creating and enforcing editorial guidelines is a crucial element to making this happen. It is the key that allows your brand ambassadors to carry out your message properly and results in establishing a consistent experience for your audience.
Large brands establish editorial guidelines and style sheets for their company, partners, and outside agencies to refer to when working on content. This guide ensures the many people who have to carry out the corporation’s message do so in the way the creators and company intend it to be done — even if the agency is halfway around the globe from the company’s headquarters.
These manuals can run for dozens and dozens of pages and thousands of words. Now, you probably don’t need to get into that much detail. However, you should cover the basics.
Quick tips for getting started
Your editorial guidelines should explain the goals of your content and identify your target audience. If emails and tweets have different objectives, explain why so everybody on your content team is on board. Describe the voice and the tone you’re hoping to convey — a B2C electronics blog shouldn’t sound like a B2B blog for accountants.
Start with making sure everyone is clear on the company’s core message.
- Your brand position or promise
Highlight what you offer and the results.
- Your brand story
In other words, why do you believe in your products or services? Describe the challenge, solution, and result for your consumer base in a compelling way.
- Your core message
Describe the positive results of your product or solution.
- Your voice
Choose 4-5 adjectives that uniquely describe your approach. Examples: Young, Positive, Mindful, Expert. Describe how to implement those adjectives into your work. For example: Young — maybe you are a little sassy and silly in tone. Encourage your writers to include emojis within social posts.
Supply professional references
A guide should be a quick reference tool to help your employees and communicators follow a style that is the same across all platforms. The guiding principle here is to maintain a consistent editorial approach.
It’s hard to cover everything, so provide your employees with links to appropriate resources such as the AP Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. You’re best off picking one of these and sticking to it. Supply a link to the Webster's New World College Dictionary. The resources will answer most questions in regards to punctuation, street names, movie titles, brand names, and many more issues.
In your editorial guide, you should concentrate on items that are the most important to your company and those that will be used often.
Include key components
- How you write your company name
When shorter forms must be used, it is appropriate to refer to Princeton University as:
- the University
Do you use Oxford commas? How do you prefer your organization use them with numbers or dates?
Capitalize the formal names of departments and offices, as well as the Board of Trustees; do not capitalize informal names and incomplete designations:
- Department of Chemistry
- the chemistry department
- the department
- Phone numbers
Do you prefer dashes, dots, slashes, or brackets?
Do you use sentence case or title case for headlines?
- Word usage
Do you prefer e-mail or email, Internet or internet, online or on-line, healthcare or health care?
- Inclusive language
It may be important to your human resources team to ensure your communications avoid gender-specific titles or terms, such as businessman or chairwoman.
- Terminology guides
Does your company prefer certain phrases when discussing business? Do you refer to your customers as “customers” or “clients”? Do you say creative or graphic?
- The basics
Make it easy for your team and give them a quick review of basic punctuation items:
- Dashes, hyphens, and ellipses
- Quotation marks and apostrophes
- Colons and semi-colons
Your graphics team will have an additional guide — a style guide — that will discuss colors, fonts, and logo use. But it is wise to replicate some of that information in your editorial guide as well, so that documents — even for proofing purposes — remain consistent.
Create simple Word templates or Google Docs with your logo and a style sheet. Use no more than two approved brand fonts and no more than two colors. (It’s true what they say — less is more.) Decide the font, size, and color for headlines, subheads, and body copy. Share these templates with your team.
Enforcing your editorial guidelines
Editorial guidelines aren’t much good if they aren’t enforced. Here’s how to do that:
Make somebody accountable. Put somebody in charge of your guidelines. Give them firm instructions on what they are to achieve and what success will look like. Make the guidelines part of their professional goals and enforce them in annual reviews.
Post guidelines where everybody can find them. Use your company intranet or a file-sharing service to place the guidelines in a central location where everybody can access them on any device. The easier it is to answer editorial questions, the more likely people are to use them. Also, a central editorial guideline location has the same appeal as cloud-based software: You update one document instead of dozens or hundreds.
Train everybody. Carve out some time for training new people on the guidelines. Use feedback on content edits to remind people of content guidelines they violate.
Bringing home the value of consistency
Remember the brand promise we started with at the beginning of this article? Well, brands become distinctive by consistently delivering their brand promise in every single piece of content they produce. It creates a consistent, desired experience for the consumer that helps build trust. And trust is the foundation of loyalty.
You know you are doing it right when you are nearly sick of seeing your own brand. You may get so bored with the constant repetition of your own message that your first instinct is to change it up, but hold on for a bit longer and let that brand sink in for your consumer base who might not see it as often as you.
Once you have built a reputation through the consistent delivery of your brand promise, you can give yourself permission to evolve and expand.
Next time you are out and about, take a moment to absorb the simplicity that makes you “think different” when you are geeking out at the Apple store. Or, admire how much that Starbucks drink “nurtured your human spirit — with one cup.” What you are getting is a distinctive experience that is consistent. These brands have taken the time to carefully craft their message to the same degree as their products and services. And, you know you can count on them to deliver the exact same experience whether you are in Cleveland or Boise, Idaho.
That’s the whole point of creating — and enforcing — content guidelines. Every piece of content across all platforms should be integrated to create a unique, lived experience for your audience.