Why and how to set editorial guidelines for your blog

For many, the AP Stylebook is the go-to resource, but online content specific to your brand and audience might require additional rules. Here’s how to keep staff and contributors on track.

Virtually every content marketing program involves a blog.

It’s worth taking the time to create (or borrow) the one thing that makes all future planning and collaboration a bit easier: editorial guidelines .

Guidelines keep posts consistent in style and tone, cut down editing time and lead to better content overall. All important ingredients for increasing readership, reputation and lead generation start with your blog.

Editorial guidelines generally include standards for style and grammar, but for a blog you should include elements specific to digital content, such as key phrases and images. It’s similar to a web content checklist, but it’s more formal and used by marketing teams.

Here are eight things to include in your blog guidelines:

1. Blog and content objectives

Start with the reasons for maintaining a blog:

  • Do you want more traffic?
  • Are you looking to rank for specific key phrases?
  • Seeking to expand your email list?
  • Hoping to build your relevance in the community?

Communicating your objective will keep writers focused.

2. Approved topics

Before you can start, know what you’re writing about.

Let your writers and contributors know exactly what type of topics they should pitch or whether topics will be provided. If you’re getting off-topic pitches from writers, add guidelines about what your blog doesn’t cover. Write a quick content marketing mission statement.

3. Headlines

Headlines create people’s first impression about your blog post. They affect search rankings, email open rates and social media sharing. Good headlines drive traffic; with bad headlines, you’ll hear crickets.

Provide a few samples of the types of headlines you’re looking for—the less guesswork the better. Examples can be from your own blog or from others’ outstanding content.

Define your standards for headlines with these questions:

  • How long should the headlines be?
  • Do you expect your writers to submit one headline or suggest several?
  • How should the headlines be formatted? Can they include questions and numbers?

4. Voice, tone, style

Voice and tone guidelines create a benchmark for writers. Consistency with style points is key.

Voice: What does your brand sound like? Is it playful and cheeky, or honest and straightforward? In our guidelines we state:

Posts on the Orbit website are helpful, not self-promotional. No jargon or corporate speak. Keep it interesting and conversational.

Tone: How do writers use language to convey mood and connect with audiences across different channels? Blog posts, social media and email all have different audiences who respond to specific tones.

Style: Details such as punctuation, grammar and word choice will be noticed, especially by your loyal readers. Address these issues:

  • When should capitals be used? Title Case? Or sentence case?
  • How should certain words be written: call to action or call-to-action?
  • Grammar and vocabulary, including taboo words and approved industry jargon
  • Emojis and GIFs

5. Key phrases

Style and tone aside, align your blog post with a key phrase that readers might search for. Recommend a keyword research tool, and identify a few keyword phrases.

Show how and where to indicate relevance: titles, headlines, subheads, body text.

6. Formatting and structure

Proper formatting saves time during the revision process. As with style and tone, formatting and structure require consistency. Answer these questions for writers:

  • Where and how are headers and subheads used?
  • When is it OK to use italics, bold or strikethrough?
  • Should lists be numbered or bulleted?
  • What types of links can be included?

Simple formatting tips such as, “Use headers to break up large blocks of text,” or, “Paragraphs should be four sentences at most,” help lay the foundation.

7. Guidelines for length

Blog post length depends on the post’s objective. The average post has grown to 1,000 words, but if you’re teaching something (guides, how-to articles) and you’re hoping to rank well, your word count can be 1,500+ words.

Experiment with lengths to see what inspires the most reader engagement; then specify a word count. If your blog offers a variety of content, set a word count for each type of post.

8. Blog images

Consider these questions:

  • Do you have standards for colors and use of text? Show examples of suitable images.
  • Do you use multiple images per post? Let writers know minimums and/or maximums.
  • What kinds of images do you prefer and allow? Charts? Animated GIFs? Infographics?
  • Do you use stock photos? If you have a stock photo account, provide the login information or links to the creative commons you prefer.

If you require writers to source images for their content, be specific. Instruct writers how to source their images and give credit when it’s due.

9. Links and attribution

Offers these tips to staff and outside contributors:

  • Internal links. Remind writers to link to related content on your blog. Because great content requires research, include citing guidelines for external resources or statistics.
  • External links and citations. Specify when and how to credit sources and research, as well as when it’s OK to link to a contributor’s external content.
  • Forbidden links. A brief summary of the types of links you discourage is helpful, too. Links to direct competitors, self-promotion and affiliate links are good examples.

Watch out for link spammers. Check sources used by contributors to see whether the content is appropriate for your audience. For further clarity, list approved sites writers can link to.

Don’t wait to get started

Start with the fundamentals, adding new requirements as your blog evolves. There’s no need to write up a 10-page editorial guideline, but put the basics in place to help writers deliver content that meets your standards.

Andy Crestodina is the co-founder and strategic director of Orbit Media Studios. A version of this post first appeared on Orbit Media’s blog.

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