Anatomy of a content style guide - Mailchimp

11 minute read

Whenever I talk or write about content style guides, or when I read and listen to others on the subject, there is one example which is regularly cited and shown, the Mailchimp content style guide.

Mailchimp are renowned for their voice, tone, brand personality, and general content goodness. They have paved the way for many other organisations to create a content style guide as part of their content operations, and so it is no wonder that their guide is often used as a best in class example.

Of course, a style guide alone does not a good writer make. It is simply one small window on an organisation’s brand. For the second article of my Anatomy of a Content Style Guide series (the first looked at the University of Dundee's content style guide), I spoke to Erin Crews from Mailchimp and we focused less on the style guide creation, and more on how it is used, governed and part of a much bigger system at Mailchimp.

The online version of  Mailchimp's content style guide was published in 2015 and made available for people to use and adapt as they wished. It’s completely public and available under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. Basically, you can use it as a starting point for your own, so long as you credit Mailchimp.

A content style guide for the community

The origin story for this content style guide starts with Kate Kiefer Lee who was the very first writer at Mailchimp. Kate created the initial version, a PDF, and led on the creation and launch of the online version in 2015 too.

The team was much smaller then, but Kate was still running into issues like sending out the PDF and nobody looking at it. That was a big impetus for Kate to create a living online resource and also ensure it was a useful and usable resource for the organisation.

When it was first released online it was built on GitHub. This was deliberate so the style guide could be open source and used by others under a creative commons license. Mailchimp are advocates for showing their work and making that useful to the community.

But ensuring the style guide is up to date in all instances isn’t a minor requirement. It has to be current and representative at all times. There has to be synergy between all brand components and the documentation, in this case, the content style guide, that will empower the organisation to achieve that needs to be correct.

A best practice example, with a new audience

I was keen to find out how the online version of the content style guide is used internally. It is clearly a well-referenced resource for others outside of Mailchimp but does that mean it now serves an entirely different purpose?

Erin confirmed the current reality is that the style guide has evolved over time to be more of a best practice example. But it still holds value to those at Mailchimp too.

Their interesting challenge is that a lot of the writers and content strategists that are interviewed for roles at Mailchimp are interested in the company because they're familiar with their style. Erin said, ‘it's pretty hard to find people who haven't already read through a lot of that material and are interested because they feel some connection to our brand voice.’

That means a lot of writers who start at Mailchimp don't necessarily need to refer to the content style guide frequently. They may, however, check the guide to be reminded of a style detail such as a timestamp. It’s good in a way if the brand style comes easily and is inherent in their output. But it changes the purpose of the content style guide. Or rather, the content style guide now has a different audience.

Erin added, ‘it's more of a resource for people at the company who are in other disciplines and find themselves writing content for Mailchimp in some capacity. We don't staff every single cross-functional team with a content strategist.’

Over time the content style guide has become more for non-content teams too, as it serves as a useful resource for designers, marketers, and developers, especially when they don't have a dedicated writer on their team. It's become a tool for scale as the company has grown.

Under the hood of the Mailchimp content style guide

As we now understand the short journey from creation to current day, and who the content style guide is used by, we can take a closer look at the guide itself, before delving into how it has been disseminated across the organisation and how it is maintained.

The guide is simplistic in its own visual style. It is unfussy, making it clear and easy for users to get to the parts they need. The menu makes this so:

As with any decent content style guide, they lead with their writing goals and principles. This frames everything else that follows, providing clear goals for every piece of content produced:

Followed by what is needed to achieve those goals:

At the end of each section is a direct way back or forwards to the next section too, never underestimate the impact making people's lives easier can have. One click is better than a scroll and a click!

If you're creating or improving your own content style guide, it's certainly worth considering how people will navigate it to find what they need. The same thought should be given to how sections link together and bring to the fore, the most relevant parts of the content style guide as the user will need them.In the case of Mailchimp's, they've achieved this with simply linking to other parts, a clear benefit to having an online version. Within the voice and tone section they have linked directly to the grammar and mechanics section:

The trouble with any sort of guidelines and rules is that they can be interpreted differently by whoever is reading and receiving them. Informal, relatable, approachable, conversational (!) are all subjective and in many cases, are hard to interpret because often, they mean nothing in the context they are provided. One way to overcome this is with examples. Many content style guides just tell. They prescribe and dictate, becoming the exact opposite to their purpose: unhelpful, not usable and confusing. Those that are succeeding for their teams and organisations show and tell. Real-life examples can provide context and meaning to otherwise obscure guidelines. In the case of Mailchimp, they've offered a simple 'Yes' and 'No' example for writing in the active voice:

These examples continue in the grammar and mechanics section as this is where the nuances of their style are communicated:

Another challenge is trying to remain human when providing so many rules. There's a fine line between being concise and seeming to be abrupt. Mailchimp has struck the right balance in the way they communicate their guidelines, such as in this example about link text:

This is further exemplified at the end of the Web Elements section:

How good is that? 'gross SEO techniques.' Simple rules with a clear reason for their existence, not rules for rule's sake. Also, Mailchimp has written their content style guide in their own style! Sounds obvious but many guidelines I have seen before talk about writing in an approachable, friendly, informal manner but they talk about it using a formal and unapproachable tone. Practice what you preach is very valid thinking for content style guides.

Whilst a content style guide seeks to provide a uniform and consistent way of writing and formatting content, an organisation may have more than one audience, but only one style guide. This means it needs to address how to write/produce content in the appropriate way for the intended audience.In one of my favourite parts of the Mailchimp content style guide, they really have given consideration to this in relation to their technical content. The style guide states:

Technical content articles vary in target audience, goal, and tone. Mailchimp technical content is built from 8 templates, which serve different purposes and readers.

Followed by this table:

As we know though, content is a team game. Hence the need for resources like content style guides. So, sticking with their technical content section, Mailchimp has added:

Before you begin writing a new article, reach out to a subject matter expert at Mailchimp (like an engineer, tester, designer, researcher, or technical support advisor) to get as much information as possible. You may only use a small portion of what you learn, but it helps to have more information than you need to decide where to focus your article.

This really emphasises that a content style guide is no silver bullet, but it offers a good starting point and points people in the right direction for the other information they need. Without this guide, perhaps it wouldn't be known or clear that subject matters experts should be contacted to help.

I could share every section of this guide and highlight why it is a shining example, but the best thing you could do is take a look for yourself. But attention should be brought to this part under social media content:

They use social media content to build relationships. What a great example of making the intention of content known upfront, and alluding to potential pitfalls if anyone gets content wrong! Yet again, this small body of text gives the content style guide purpose and collectively, all of these references and explanations throughout the guide really give it clout, which is necessary to get people behind it and to see it as a useful resource for both them as individuals and collectively for the reputation of the organisation and brand. (The accessibility and translation sections are worthy of your time too).

One final area to highlight, which I've never seen in a content style guide before, is the TL;DR. This brings together all of the key points and rules for those who want to get a sense of the core guidelines or for those who just need a refresh and reminder to keep on track. Because ultimately, a content style guide is only an asset to an organisation if it is used and it is successful dissemination of the guide that is needed to make this a reality.

A pragmatic approach to dissemination

Knowing who a content style guide is for is one part of the challenge. Getting them to use it is another. Battle, meet war! As Kate (and many others in different organisations) discovered, sending around a PDF doesn’t guarantee people will use it as you need and hope.There has to be engagement and education around the content style guide. When Mailchimp's rebrand required the content style guide to be updated, this was the perfect opportunity to invest in effective dissemination. Activity included:

  • Staff training
  • Internal roadshows
  • Working sessions
  • Workshops
  • Company Town Hall presentations

The training and internal roadshows were a chance to showcase and explain the updated guidance around the new voice principles. There were also working sessions for writers and designers to help shape the guidelines as they emerged and then a series of workshops took place with writers and designers to train them on the new guidelines, once they were approved.

Erin presented the new voice principles at Coffee Hour, Mailchimp’s internal company Town Hall meeting which happens every few weeks for the whole company.

All of that activity goes a long way in educating the existing team, but of course, as new people join, whether they are already familiar with the content style guide or not, there will need to be some education there too. The next challenge they are trying to tackle is how to incorporate the content style guide into their onboarding process for new hires, especially those who aren’t joining one of the content teams.

Bringing content and design together

This is a really important point because Erin confirmed that an area of focus for them is how to marry their design systems guidance with their content guidance. Historically, they've lived separately, for the most part. As can be expected, some people refer to the content style guide often and others may not be aware it exists. Some of the methods for dissemination require a lot of effort though so the team also want to look at how to make their training more scalable and not constantly doing a roadshow across the organisation. A key part of achieving that, Erin added, was having one source of truth with supplemental guidance that is specific to writers.

Establishing a style guide round table

Keeping anything up to date takes time and effort and it is easier not to do something than it is to do something.  Rather than being reactive and updating a content style guide when something happens to make you realise it is out-dated, it is better to be proactive and create a process for ensuring it is maintained.

Erin is working towards achieving this by establishing a content style guide round table. There are representatives from each discipline that is content heavy, around 10 people in total from marketing, technical, design, support, social media, and corporate communications.

The round table meets once a month and have an agenda of things that they potentially need to revisit and update within the content style guide. This also includes things that might be missing entirely from the guide, this is especially true as the core product has evolved in recent years and there are now brand new product areas and related vocabularies to consider. No meeting guarantees action, so actionable items are agreed and assigned during the round table meeting. The dual purpose of the round table is to keep the content style guide updated but it is also a means to establish joint ownership and get perspectives from all the different teams. It creates organisational alignment, via content practitioners, which is needed in a relatively decentralised model. Where many look to Mailchimp for inspiration, Erin gave a shout-out to Dropbox who first told her about the round table meeting that they have too.

A product with a recognisable and consistent voice

There have been two main benefits to having a content style guide:

  • A tool for scale.
  • A tool for alignment.

One of the things that have really helped to set Mailchimp apart over the years is how they've been able to infuse a recognisable brand voice into different areas of the product. They have writers and different types of content disciplines who are well aligned and they are able to scale content across those departments with confidence in their expertise.

Thinking ahead to how the content style guide can continue to benefit the organisation, there are plans to bring it together in some way with their design system. Erin states, ‘if design doesn’t have content it is just empty boxes.’ and so the focus is on creating an all-encompassing and cross-discipline resource that puts content front and centre. Mailchimp is also thinking about the way they can incorporate non-text based style rules. An example of this is their image library and how that's governed, and as the brand develops, they will be giving consideration to content like GIFs and the guidance that needs to be developed around those. More recently, the support department has been working on piloting a chatbot and they used the guidance in the content style guide as a reference to ‘train’ the bot on the Mailchimp voice.

Top tips for creating a content style guide

As someone who is responsible for such a well-known content style guide, I asked Erin what advice she would give others who may be looking to create their own or make changes to an existing style guide:

  • If you don’t have a content style guide yet, don’t reinvent the wheel. At Mailchimp we started by referring to the Yahoo Style Guide. So if you’re setting off on creating one, find another from an organisation, or refer to those from the APA or Chicago as a starting point.
  • Defining and understanding your audience is key too, both internal and external. Look what makes those audiences unique, and understand who internally will be using the style guide. Ask questions like what is their technical skill level, are they a writer, how many people are there, what is our publishing process, how will this content style guide fit into all of that. You could also consider the people being written for in terms of their reading level and what devices they use to access your content.
  • Have some specific reasons why you are creating the content style guide in the first place, beyond ticking a to-do item off a list or appeasing a stakeholder. What problems are you solving by having this guide?
  • A useful way to start out is to think about scenarios you want to avoid and identify writing practices that aren’t working. At Mailchimp we have a blacklist of words we don’t use. It can be easier to focus on the ideal and the positive guidance you want to give but try noting what you know is wrong.
  • For keeping it updated, stress test your principles and some of the rules early on. Test with writers and designers, because the words and the visuals are dependent on each other to be completely effective.
  • Bring people along for the process, especially if you want them to use the content style guide later. They will have an important perspective to share.

When you do take these tips to create or refine your own content style guide, or if you need to build a business case for having one, show stakeholders the Mailchimp version as a good example too. There's a reason why it is referenced and cited as a good example and so it makes sense to be inspired by one of the experts in this area.


Content Style Guides Checklist

A free checklist to help you plan, create, disseminate and maintain a content style guide.

About the author

Robert Mills

Rob is Head of Content at GatherContent. He is a journalism graduate and has previously worked as Studio Manager and Head of Content for a design agency and as an Audience Research Executive for the BBC. He’s a published author and regular contributor to industry publications including Net Magazine, Smashing Magazine, 24 Ways,WebTuts+, UX Matters , UX Booth and Content Marketing Institute. On occasion Rob speaks about content strategy and ContentOps at leading industry events.

Related posts you might like