How To Create Self-Service Content Style Guide

5 min read

One of the most challenging things for content authors who are tasked with creating engaging content for their product users is keeping the content consistent while enforcing brand standards. This is especially true for service team members who have to write content but aren’t professional writers.

This is where having a solid content style guide may come in handy.  Style guides document rules of writing such as voice, tone, and word choice. It improves communication consistency and can aid in creating and publishing content quickly and effectively.

A style guide may not be the most riveting piece of content you create, but it just might be the most important. It is not something your fellow coworkers, or audience, will sit down on Sunday morning with a cup of tea to enjoy reading, but something that everyone in the future of your company will use as a fundamental frame of reference. In this article we will walk you through a few essential steps you can take to get started.

So, What Exactly Is a Style Guide?

A style guide is a living document containing a manual of your company’s style—setting a writing, formatting, and design standard for all future content that is created. It is a place for all of your company’s current or future creators to congregate in—resolving any possible questions and ensuring consistency.

Style Guide Equation knowledge base self-service

Your technical and visual guidelines are the tangible ways you can deliver on your company’s foundations. Your company’s foundational outline provides a layout of voice, tone, audience, and core values, to present the style of content you represent. And finally, the content style guide, as a whole, is the realistic deployment of your brand.

Style Guide circle chart knowledge base self-service

Why Do You Need a Writing Style Guide For Your Self-Help Content?

A style guide helps bring consistency to your writing across all types of content. It is especially crucial when writing content for your self-service knowledge base. This is a place that may not seem as brand-conscious, but in fact, should still carry that cohesive voice as the rest of the website. This is where customers turn when they need help, are looking for answers or resources, or are just trying to be successful with the product and services. So in order to provide that success, content should speak to your brand that was initially promised to the customer when they chose you.

Carrying this strong voice will allow your company to expand brand awareness, which coupled with consistency, will build customer trust. Once you can achieve substantial customer trust, you will see improvements in a multitude of areas including customer adoption, retention, and expansion, ROI, CSAT, engagement, loyalty, conversion rates, and more. Overall, when your customer has a successful experience in trusting your company, then your company succeeds as well.

Style guide benefits flow chart knowledge base self-service

Some Examples of Companies Nailing Their Content Style Guide

Possibly one of the strongest style guides you can find is MailChimp’s. While many sites do a great job outlining their visual guidelines, they tend to leave out a crucial portion of what makes up the guide—the technical content guidelines, and the overall backbone of company foundations. MailChimp does an excellent job going above and beyond describing their regulations and values in all of these sections.

MailChimp style guide knowledge base self-service
MailChimp knowledge base self-service
Source:  MailChimp

Another writing style guide we really love is Microsoft Style Guide. This guide is one of the main resources of style guidelines for technical writers but is useful for content developers, marketers,  journalists, communicators, and editors beyond the software industry. It addresses topics such as content planning, design, publishing process, product documentation, developer content UI elements, accessibility, and global content best practices.

Microsoft voice knowledge base self-service

As you can see from the table of contents on the left of their style guide, it encompasses a lot of important subjects and goes into depth in each one. This may seem a bit overwhelming, but remember that starting somewhere with a style guide is better than starting nowhere. It is a living document, which means you will always be able to go back, update, and add more. The best thing to do is to choose some key topics and get started.

Key Things To Cover In Your Style Guide

1. An Existing Style Guide

The first thing you should do when creating a style guide is to choose an existing one as a basis. For example, at ServiceTarget, we used AP Style as our most basic rule of thumb, then built our style guide up from that, with our own personal specifications. AP is great for easy-to-read and consistent writing, created for journalism. It is widely used by many organizations. But if AP isn’t your thing, there are tons of options. When choosing, just remember what your main goal is in your content, and that whatever you choose can be personalized to your unique company.

2. Your Company Foundations

This portion of your style guide is super important to nail down, as it should portray your brand accurately to anyone who will be creating content in the future of your company. To succeed in doing this, you should make sure to include all of these components:

  • Core Values: These are the basic principles that your company was founded on. What does your company believe in most? If you boil down your company to its core, and strip everything away, what are you left with? Why did the founder start this company?
  • Voice: How your company expresses itself to the public. Imagine your company is a young adult—they must figure out who they are, what they want in life, how they want to be seen by others, and what they want other people to think of them. Try thinking about the adjectives that do and do not describe your company.
  • Tone: Tone is a bit different—it changes. It generates a uniquely catered zest to your brand voice for your specific audience or situation. Your brand should have one defined voice but can have many tones depending on what situation you are in, what platform you are using, and who you are communicating with. Your voice makes a promise of who your brand is, while your tone delivers on that promise through the choice of language.
  • Learn more about why tone and voice are important, and how to develop your own unique tone of voice.

3. Your Target Audience

Creating relevant, accessible, and effective content that answers your customer questions and helps them be more successful with your products and services starts with empathy. So it is important to briefly describe who your target audience is in your style guide in order to evoke the right tone in your future content creators. It is recommended to develop in-depth buyer personas at some point to fully understand your audience, but in your style-guide, just briefly cover who your main audience groups are, what they want from your company, and how you provide that.

4. Technical Content Components

This might be the more boring aspect of your style guide, but it is a very important one. This is where you outline all of the nitty-gritty grammatical, language, capitalization, spelling, and structural rules. You don’t need to cover everything here, because the style guide you are choosing to follow already does. But, if your company is particular about following the Oxford comma, or spelling color with the U, then this is where you should mention that. This is crucial to maintaining consistency in your content across all platforms. Checkout ServiceTarget’s technical content guide for ideas of what to include.

5. Technical Visual Components

Finally, the fun stuff! This is where you get to outline all things visual, including:

  • Your logo variations: what size, color, shape, and formatting it should follow. Where and when it should appear.
  • Your typefaces: What font, color, and sizing you use in the body and heading texts.
  • Your color palette: What exact colors you use and when. Feel free to get fun with this one, and tie back to your core values, explaining why you chose the colors you did.
  • Your iconography, images, and photography: What type of photography and images are acceptable and what are not, what sources of images are available and the best way to attribute them.
  • Your video: How long should instructional videos be? Is there a specific voice, light, music and recording quality that should be used?

Visual elements are essential to bringing self-service content to life and helping users follow it with ease. Outlining basic rules around the creation and use of visual elements will help your teams save time while creating beautiful, on-brand media and other visual elements.

6. Social Media & Communication Guidelines

This is where you can outline all things social media. You can include anything from acceptable profile pictures and handles, to proper comment response etiquette, to formatting posts. You should also include basic guidelines for other communication platforms, such as email.

7. Table Of Contents

Once you’ve finally completed your wonderfully in-depth style guide, don’t forget your table of contents! You will probably have a ton of important sections, so remember to add this table of contents in the beginning to help guide anyone who uses it.

What’s Next?

Now that you’ve completed your style guide, you can start creating some great effective content that will hold true to the consistent guidelines you have set for your company. Remember that even though your style guide is complete, it is a living document, which means you can always go back, update, and add more to it. Your company is continuously renovating, upgrading, and evolving, so your style guide should too!

Once your style guide is together, it's time to learn about the key elements of a great kb article and how to write one.

Gianna Spitaliere
I love exploring, writing about, and building knowledge on different ways to make businesses and customers more successful all around. I have been with ServiceTarget for less than a year, but have been thrilled to expand my writing into customer self-service.

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