When it comes to your organization, what is the first thing you think of? It could be something straightforward — like your product or logo, but it’s probably more abstract than that. It’s likely tied to your culture, aesthetic, and mission as much as it is to any individual product or service. And those elements aren’t arbitrary identifiers — they’re part of how your brand is experienced and perceived.
Building a brand is a lot like building a reputation — it’s important to lay a strong foundation, but ultimately, you build it one interaction at a time. One thing that connects all these components is language.
When I say language, I’m not referring to a native tongue or offering multiple translations (although this can be a crucial part of your practice). I’m talking about your choice of words. What you say, how you say it, and who you say it to. In the race to create content and increase engagement, we often forget to assess (and reassess) the language across our messaging to ensure it aligns with our brand and editorial strategy.
Defining your messaging: Create a source of truth
No matter the size of your organization, maintaining cohesive language is full of hurdles: shifting priorities, multiple contributors, and topic overload, to name a few. Developing a style guide can go a long way in fostering consistency.
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a source of truth for brand elements and content across your organization. From how and where your logo should be used to how you cover particular topics, a style guide empowers your team to represent your brand confidently and accurately. You can even outline your approach to various audiences, specific products, or channel-specific messaging (such as email versus social media).
How do you make a style guide?
There are many ways to create a style guide. You can opt for a simple Word document with general guidance or a robust manual with lots of detail. Depending on the amount of content you produce, how widely your logo is used, or how often you participate in public speaking engagements, your guidelines should address those needs accordingly.
A style guide should evolve over time (just like your company does), so make sure the format you choose supports ongoing updates. For example, a PDF or a hard-coded landing page might dissuade edits, which will keep your document frozen in time.
Why should you have one?
Aside from defining and unifying your message, establishing a source of truth allows you to set the tone for nuanced subjects. Engaging your leadership team proactively helps protect your brand from inaccurate interpretations across teams that might be dealing with competing priorities or varying degrees of expertise.
We all know that language is a powerful tool. Our Director of Agile, John Ragozzine, elaborates on some of the ways outdated and problematic language pervade our industry and how simple changes in our word choices (such as swapping the term “master” for “main” in GitHub’s platform) communicate progress in how we regard marginalized communities. A style guide can capture these shifts and help forge new habits at a company-wide level.
Communication is key
Once your guidelines are set, you’ll need to roll it out to your team. Don’t be afraid to overcommunicate! Make sure your style guide is easily accessible — preferably in a live format where updates will be reflected in real time. Don’t forget to incorporate your style guide into onboarding and training materials for new team members.
Conducting a content audit
With your style guide in place, it’s time to cull your existing public-facing materials for out-of-date messaging. Auditing your organization’s content might sound like a daunting task — and it can be — but prioritization is key. You probably don’t need to revise every single piece your team has ever produced, but your audit should cover all the various groupings and categories your content encompasses. Approaching the content by group will allow you to assess the messaging at a macro level and the content architecture itself.
Pick out your content essentials
Foundational content (such as your website’s main navigation pages: home, about, team, etc.) and other high-traffic materials (such as product content or any pieces you promote regularly) should be revised to meet your brand guidelines and reviewed periodically to ensure they’re always relevant and accurate. Meanwhile, you can update regular blog content over time or as needed (for example, when you decide to recirculate or promote it).
Have a tracking system in place. You can use a specialized tool, like a project management system, but personally, I love a good old-fashioned spreadsheet. Start by organizing your content according to its current architecture to determine if it supports an intuitive user experience. Your tracking system should account for where the content currently lives, where it needs to move, and any page-specific updates, such as revised calls to action (CTAs), messaging, or imagery.
Delete or revise any content that no longer serves your strategy. This doesn’t mean that anything slightly out of date needs an overhaul, but aimless content without a clear purpose only serves to distract your audience from quality content.
Keeping your strategy in place
When initiatives are new and shiny, we often nurture them into existence only to see them fall apart after a few months. A robust content governance process will insulate your program from deterioration as new priorities arise, team composition changes, and focus shifts.
Consider how often different materials will need to be reviewed and set recurring reminders for periodic audits. You’ll also want to define a process by which your internal documentation (like your style guide) gets updated in accordance with company-wide changes. Don’t forget to account for how these changes should trigger updates on your content essentials.
The big picture
Organizations are so much more than the sum of their parts — and language is a critical component in shaping your brand. Taking the time and energy to refine the details and build them into a sustainable editorial strategy puts the power of language on your side to ensure you’re representing your brand thoughtfully and intentionally.
Does your content management system (CMS) support your editorial strategy? Learn how Alley helps clients evaluate and improve their editorial workflow.