Most of us have had this experience. You’re reading a company’s site, perhaps even diving into a product page for deeper information. You’re beginning to consider giving the company your hard-earned nickels for their product or service, when –
The worst typo. At the worst place. High-speed internment instead of high-speed internet, perhaps. Or a mislaid L in what should have been clock radio.
Though really, even a less memorable typo, or just an inconsistent spelling of the word gray, can be enough to erode a meticulous customer’s confidence and undermine your company’s credibility (and Google rankings). After all, if you can’t manage to clearly describe your products, why should the customer think the product itself will be worth a damn? Or that you’ll be able to get the product to them at all?
Good news: there’s one crucial document that can protect your company from these avoidable mistakes. How can you develop and execute a consistent, compelling message without driving your editors to decide to join the merchant marines?
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Yes, friends: it’s the STYLE GUIDE. One simple document that can unite all content creators within companies large and small, helping you to create the best user experience possible.
Say your company has multiple product lines. Multiple writers. Multiple departments. Multiple publication channels. (Perhaps not all of these, but you get my point.) You might want to add products to a product line started six years ago. You might want to bring in new writers to work on an ongoing project. And if you haven’t already, it’s time to start expanding into social media, a notoriously difficult and fast-paced area of content creation.
An effective style guide will keep everyone on track, whether you’re able to carefully oversee every word your team creates or not.
Who Are You? Make Sure Consumers Know
Your company’s brand identity needs to permeate every aspect of a style guide. As Copyediting says:
A brand might need to sound informal to strike a chord with its audience. Such text should read the way we talk–or the way we expect it to read. For example, pizza is comfort food. How Pizza Hut talks to its audience reinforces that idea.
What follows is a sentence about multi-meat mayhem that need not be repeated here. But, I will say that the gourmet, brick-oven, continental-style pizzeria down the street should use different language than Pizza Hut to describe their food. Ensuring that something as potentially nebulous as voice and tone is consistent and says what you want it to say is difficult, yes. But, as the famous MailChimp style guide shows, it’s not impossible.
And remember, you do not control where your content goes. Third-party sites will steal your product descriptions and anything else they deem useful for driving traffic to their own sites. If that content is formulated with clear, specific style and personality, you can simply thank all those lazy retailers for helping to promote your business.
Keep It Consistent: Multichannel Publishing
Multichannel publishing makes the need for consistency exponentially more important. A few years ago, content26 worked with Westinghouse Lighting to develop multichannel content for some of their product lines. A vital piece of that project was ensuring consistency of descriptions, names, measurements, and other information on all platforms, while also working within the constraints of the company’s style. Was this tactic successful? Absolutely. Read the case study for more about that.
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The way Westinghouse Lighting describes a bubble glass lantern has to be the same across channels, and the way it describes all the other lanterns and glass items it sells has to be consistent with that one bubble glass lantern.
When shopping for the bubble glass lantern, consumers rely on words and pictures. When those elements are the same on every page and every website, you have a recognizable brand. When you have a recognizable brand, you build consumer trust.
Find Your Style
So, style guides: pretty much invaluable and certainly not optional. Don’t have one yet? Then it’s time to put one together for your company. Don’t panic; comprehensive style guides already exist, and many industries have developed their own to address specific needs a more general style guide wouldn’t address. Choose one of those as your go-to, and explain choices specific to your company and industry in your internal guide. The Yahoo! style guide is still lionized, and rightfully so. It’s a good base for any company looking to put content online.
Think about your voice and the feeling you want to give would-be customers. Are you irreverent? Serious? Traditional? Lighthearted? Chances are, you’ll want to adjust the tone for different channels, but, as the first-date cliché goes, be yourself.
What format do you want your content to take? There are more choices to make than you might think: headers or a lack thereof, bulleted highlights or not, keeping it simple or bringing design into it by mixing up your colors and fonts. How do you want to handle numbers? Abbreviations? What about international content? A glance at any style guide will demonstrate the surprising complexity of seemingly simple issues, so this needs consideration.
Decide what kind of spin you want to put on your products. If your newest armoire is “space-saving and minimalist” in one place and “shabby chic” in another, you need to pay more attention to how you frame your wares and include that in your style guide. While you’re at it, make a list of words and phrases to avoid, and add “shabby chic” to that list.
And, I implore you, do not ever rely on, or let anyone else writing your content rely on, software or in-browser spelling and grammar checks. Here’s why.
Some reading to get you started:
- AP Stylebook: An excellent go-to for writing headers and subheaders. Good headers are invaluable. No one knows this better than the news industry.
- Chicago Manual of Style: Good for grammar and recommendations about formatting and explanations of consistency and punctuation use and–let’s just say Chicago is a good tool.
- Yahoo! Style Guide: Addresses writing for a global audience, Internet words, and general web writing guidelines.
- Letting Go of the Words: While not a style guide, this book is an excellent reference for web writers and content developers.
- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary: Make a long-term commitment to this spelling resource. Exceptions to what Webster’s will tell you need to be in your style guide.
Be consistent. Be specific. Make your content creation process easier with a well-developed company style guide. You just may save an editor’s life.