Content Therapy is Managing Editor’s twice-monthly advice column, where Paul Chaney responds to your questions about the messy dilemmas content marketers face in their work. We are (obviously) not licensed therapists. Send us your questions!

Help! Our Company Doesn’t Have a Sense of Style!

Dear Content Therapist: I recently joined a young company that’s just hiring dedicated marketing staff. Along with evolving our brand guidelines, we’re also struggling to adopt an editorial style guide. No one at the company has a strong background in writing or media. As you might guess, this inconsistency poses challenges for our marketing and content. Thankfully, we have a handle on brand style through a good lead designer and outside consultant, but the writing and messaging are all over the place. Key executives all have their own way of writing and tend to rewrite on a whim. I don’t think they’re trying to cause problems. It’s more that they focus on the product, not the messaging. 

How can I choose and enforce a style guide for our brand? What are the key elements I should include? I don’t expect everyone to memorize AP Style, but I’m struggling to figure out what battles to fight and when to let things go. Additionally, I’m curious about how best to communicate this style guide, especially to anyone touching creative. Are there any strategies or best practices for ensuring consistent brand messaging — without alienating the executives who pay my salary? — FINDING MY STYLE

Paul Chaney: There are several ways to answer your question. The first is why not follow your lead designer’s approach and bring in a consultant who specializes in this area? If it worked for that person, might it also work for you? 

A consultant may have a better chance of not only leading you and your team through a defined style guide creation process but also successfully communicating the new guide to company executives and gaining their acceptance. 

I would give that option serious consideration. Here is some additional guidance. 

Research Your Industry and Company

The research includes your company’s needs, goals, target audience, industry and brand personality. That should give you some insight into what the guide should consist of. Indeed, those are foundational elements worth investigating. 

Get Buy-In From Executives

If you read my columns, you know I often emphasize open communication. That ethic applies here. Communicate your concerns to your supervisor and, if possible, the executive team. Don’t spend a lot of time developing a style guide only to apprise leadership after the fact. Ask for their input and guidance first. By taking that tack, your chances of winning their approval will improve. 

Seek Inspiration From Industry Colleagues

It’s reasonable to think you have industry colleagues or contacts you could ask about their approach. Perhaps they would also share their style guides with you. I’m not suggesting you copy and paste, but you shouldn’t have to recreate the wheel either. At the very least, they can give you some guidance and inspiration. 

Use Parts of the AP Stylebook

Marketers commonly use the AP Stylebook, but it’s not necessary to memorize the entire thing. Instead, focus on the most relevant sections for your everyday needs and apply them. The same is true for the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA and other style guides. 

Collaborate and Get Feedback

You needn’t try to develop a style guide on your own. Involve your marketing team and other stakeholders, including executives. Encourage everyone to provide input and feedback, but don’t shy away from exerting leadership to keep the process moving. 

The process could go something like this: 

  • Choose a base style to work from (i.e., AP or MLA). Decide which parts are essential for your needs. 
  • Showcase examples from other sources. Hopefully, you have secured a few examples to inspire the group. Also, search the web for templates you could adapt. 
  • Determine voice and tone. How formal or informal should your communication be? Is your brand voice casual or professional, technical or conversational? 
  • Decide on grammar and punctuation. Make decisions about the Oxford comma, title capitalization and more.
  • Define nomenclature use. Every industry and company has its nomenclature. Define how your brand will use those terms, including capitalization and spelling. 
  • Settle on formatting. Figure out guidelines for headings, bullet points and fonts. 
  • Focus on visual elements. Include instructions on how to use brand logos, imagery and colors.
  • Include brand-specific details. That could contain a list of words to avoid (along with substitutions) and other information important to your brand. 

Make the Document Clear and Concise

There’s no need for verbosity. Make your style guide as clear and concise as possible for everyone to understand. The Content Marketing Institute recommends four or five pages as the optimal style guide length, although I’ve seen much longer style guides. However, the longer your guide is, the more difficult it is to remember. So, make it as long as it needs to be, but no longer. 

Implement a Review Process

Developing a style guide is not a one-and-done proposition but an evolving process. However, change should be intentional, so set up a periodic evaluation and review process. 

Communicate the Guide

Once you have developed the guide, communicate it to all stakeholders in a way that works best for your organization. I recommend digital options, such as Google Docs, Sharepoint, OneDrive or Notion, which enable document sharing and easy updating. 

Is SEO Really Dead? And What Does That Mean for Content Marketing?

Dear Content Therapist: I keep seeing articles about generative AI disrupting Google and even the idea that brands and publishers will lose most of their search traffic. This worries me because so much content marketing is still predicated on long-form SEO-optimized blog posts. Without that, I’m left wondering what that means for marketing budgets — and the editors and writers who work on this content.

Maybe, as importantly, I’m wondering what kind of content can be justified as business-critical if SEO stops being important. Is SEO dead in the age of AI, or is it just changing? And if it’s time to move away from SEO, what should marketing leaders do differently? — POURING ONE OUT FOR SEO

Paul Chaney: I can assure you that consumers’ search habits are changing thanks to AI. As testimony, a Forbes Advisor survey found that 67% of respondents would use ChatGPT or other AI tools instead of search engines like Google. 

That said, search has been disintermediated for some time. If you’re searching for a product, where do you often start? Amazon, right? YouTube has long been used as a search engine. Even TikTok has become a search engine. That said, AI is transforming search exponentially. 

Consumers searching via AI use conversational queries instead of keywords. (That’s why OpenAI calls it “Chat” GPT.) AI-powered platforms like Perplexity and Microsoft Bing (and, to an extent, Google) have become “answer” engines. Ask Perplexity a question, and it clearly labels the response as an answer. This phenomenon also explains why Google and Bing are incorporating generative AI responses in search queries.

Brands are even getting in on the “AI as search” action. Walmart is harnessing the power of generative AI to help customers find products quickly and make confident purchase decisions. Shopify’s e-commerce platform also incorporates AI to help sellers recommend the right products to customers. 

But all is not lost. You can improve your chances of securing a spot in AI responses by following these steps:  

Offer Detailed Information on Your Website

Go beyond the basic details of pricing, service explanations and potential outcomes. The more specific your content, the more value you offer to potential customers and the more likely you’ll be featured in AI-based search results.

Demonstrate Expertise

Follow the advice from Marcus Sheridan’s book “They Ask, You Answer” by using common customer questions to showcase your company’s expertise. Providing detailed answers to user queries can boost visibility in AI-based search results.

Keep Up With EEAT

Google’s EEAT concept still applies, even as you adapt to AI’s role in search. Continue to produce high-quality content that demonstrates experience, expertise, authority and trustworthiness. 

Optimizing voice search content is essential as AI integrates with virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant. Voice searches tend to be more conversational and may require different keywords and content structures.

Integrate Multimedia Content

Multimodal AI can parse and generate multiple content types, including video, images and podcasts. Incorporate multimedia content into your strategy to cater to diverse user preferences and improve engagement. 

Conversational search queries require not only more information, but also more context. Analyze your most frequent customer queries for inspiration, then optimize related content for AI searches. 

Ask AI Tools for Help With SEO

Copy-pasting your content into ChatGPT isn’t advised, especially if there is confidential or sensitive information. But with SEO tools like Semrush or a trusted alternative to ChatGPT that’s SOC-2 compliant, you can ask the AI to optimize existing content for SEO. Or, you might look outward for inspiration, asking such tools to explain why your competitors outrank you. 

Stay Compliant

When implementing AI-powered technology, make sure you’re complying with privacy regulations, including the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Because consumers are both eager to use AI and wary of AI-generated misinformation, compliance is one way to maintain customer trust.

Final Thoughts

SEO expert Ann Smarty has spent a great deal of time researching AI and search. Check out her advice from using multiple AI tools. She notes that organic rankings remain important, especially on Bing. Moreover, what your brand says and does online is only growing in importance.

If you keep doing everything you can to rank highly in SERPs and act on the steps outlined here, you should do well in AI-assisted search. Of course, we’re still early in the game; only time will tell how this will evolve. 

SEO isn’t dead, but it’s changed, so you must adapt. Learn everything you can about genAI, and keep experimenting. 

Disclaimer: The advice offered in this column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to substitute for advice from a licensed mental health provider, health care provider or legal professional.