If you’re investing heavily into content marketing, you’ll end up working with a team of writers. A single person can’t write everything and remain sane, let alone creative! To keep your content output consistent, you need a house style. But, what is house style on a website?
Every writer you’ll work with has different writing skills, personality traits, phrasing, and their own bag of tricks. Most of these idiosyncrasies are highly desirable as your readers might get bored reading a single author.
However, you want your ecommerce website’s blog to speak with a consistent tone that amplifies your brand and products, making an emotional connection with your prospects and clients.
Let’s explore: what is house style on a website and how you can develop one. After writing this post, I turned these ideas into a short course: Brand Style Guide Course that’s worth investing in.
What is house style on a website or for a publication?
When we talk about house writing styles, we have to look back to the golden age of newspapers. It’s was an editor’s job to decide who the paper spoke to and what kinds of phrases and words the target reader used.
We still see this today, and a house style is a way to quickly educate new writers on the particular stylistic elements of that paper. But, it’s more than that. Having a style guide, allows writers and sub-editors to check that they are writing within the guideline and being consistent.
The same story may appear in the Daily Mail, BBC News online, and The New York Post. However, each will use their unique style to communicate to the end reader in a way that aligns with them.
A good example of a current house style is The Guardian and Observer Style Guide, which sets the benchmark for other publications both big and small. Another great resource is Style Matters by Margaret Ashworth, an ex-Daily Mail sub-editor.
Within a few minutes of reading this style guide, you’ll realize it doesn’t dictate how someone should write but does establish the underlying tone of voice, useful slang, and how to present headings.
If you run a small ecommerce business with an equally sized website, you might wonder why do you need a house style. You might feel creating one is not worth the effort or won’t matter.
However, consistent growth comes from having processes in place that make it easy for another person to complete the task. Here are a few reasons why you should create a house style guide for your website.
What does a website’s house style guide cover?
There are a few elements that your house style guide should include:
- Your brand
- Your audience
- Consistent voice
- Basic formatting
Even if you’re a business of one, you must think about how potential clients and customers perceive you. Do you want people to think of your business as fun, smart, professional, informative, quirky, etc?
How your audience talks, should be the way you do too. Use the same slang and phrases as them. If you don’t, this mismatch will result in fewer sales and more friction in the sales process.
Consider the tone of voice you’ll use. Will it be formal, conversational, or technical?
I purposefully write this blog in a conversational way and imagine we’re having a chat over a drink. You’ll notice, I try to stay away from overly technical language or formality. Some of you might even appreciate my humor!
Again, think about how you want to be perceived and how you feel it’s best to connect with your target audience. But don’t forget to add in your personality. These three elements together will inform the underlying tone of voice you use.
You don’t want to replace your writers with robots that crank out uninspiring content. However, you need to present a united front to your customers. To grow your authority in a niche, you need a consistent tone.
One way to illustrate this is to think of McDonald’s. Each of their restaurants feels and looks the same. The service you receive from the staff might vary, but each location follows the same rules.
The little things matter. Basic formatting includes how you cite a source, what level of subheading you use, and how many spaces to leave after a section. As long as the underlying formatting is consistent, there is the freedom to write as you wish.
How to create a house style guide
Firstly, you don’t need to create a style guide as extensive as the Daily Mail or Guardian. If you’re the editor, you should achieve consistent results by having a short guide and being proactive.
For my largest affiliate website, I have a 6-page style guide that covers the basics. It starts with an introduction to the brand. Next, it covers writing style and what we expect from the writer, including how to format an article, and that they should write a meta description. Finally, is how to contact the editor and a plea to avoid poor communication.
As you can see, it’s not a long document, nor is it highly technical. It’s designed as a guide that’s easy to use straight away.
Here are some steps you can take to create your own house style guide that you can use with any freelance writers you hire.
Start with common problems
If you have to correct a problem more than once, it should be in your style guide. For example, if your writer always cites sources at the end and not as they occur, you could write in your guide that sources should appear after the sentence in brackets.
If you’re talking to an audience who use certain acronyms and so they don’t need defining. Next, add a list of them to your style guide. Your writer can then cross-reference them and only use the acronym.
Include formatting tips
Even if you, as the editor, upload and schedule every article, it’s worth getting your writers to think along the same lines.
If you only use <h2> and <h3> in your posts, state you only use two levels of subheadings. Should bullet-point lists end with a full stop or not? How will quotations appear? Do you want them to highlight CTAs in green, so you know later to add them to a button?
It’s reasonable to assume that a writer will add links to sources or cite them within their piece. You might want them to also add internal links to relevant posts that are already live. Just be clear about what you expect.
As a working document, your style writing guide is always a work in progress. There’s always room to improve it. So don’t be afraid to adapt, tweak and refine it as you work with more writers. The worse thing you can do is leave it alone.
If you look at Style Matters, you’ll see that the tagline is “Comprehensive, updated regularly – and free”. Even after four decades on the job, Margaret is still willing to update and evolve! And so should you.
What your style guide is not
Don’t use your style guide to belittle your writers or air your grievances. As the editor, it’s your job to give direct feedback after someone submits an article. You’re there to nurture your team, not be a big bad boss.
Instead, stick to creating the guidelines that ensure your team is consistent in tone and format. The investment you make now will be worth it as you scale and hire more writers.
The Brand Style Guide Course
After writing this post and talking with clients, I decided there’s a real need for a short course that helps small businesses and ecommerce store owners create such a document. If you’re struggling, don’t worry. Invest in the Brand Style Guide Course.
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