How to define content principles that improve your content marketing

How to define content principles that improve your content marketing

6 minute read

How to define content principles that improve your content marketing

6 minute read

How to define content principles that improve your content marketing

Lauren Pope

Content Strategy and Digital Transformation Consultant
Content principles are a shared set of commandments for how your team approaches content and collaboration. They help you do your best work by allowing you focus on the right things, make the right decisions, and work together. This post will provide a definition of content principles, explain why you need them, share examples of what they look like, and discuss how to define content principles for your team.

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What content principles are and why you need them

An old boss of mine described principles as ‘knowing how we do things around here,' and I think that’s a good way to approach them. Principles should give everyone on a team a shared understanding of your approach and ways of working.

Content principles are the core beliefs and rules that your content team will abide by, regardless of the format, channel, or subject matter.

If you have the right principles defined, they will help to:

  • Frame your work: give you a focus for how you approach your work
  • Guide your decisions: help you choose the right path and pick the right solutions
  • Align your team: find your way as a team and collaborate better.

Each principle should address a specific challenge the team wrestles with. Here's an example. Let's say a big financial services company has the challenge of needing to stand out and embody the brand in a sea of similar content. The principle might be to focus on what only the financial services brand can do. By focusing on differentiators when creating content, the brand will be able to stick out in the industry.

But how do we really define content?

Before we jump into what content principles look like, we need to define content. According to Oxford Languages, content (ˈkäntent) is "the material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style." For example, "the tone, if not the content, of his book is familiar." (Not to be confused with content (kənˈtent), which means "in a state of peaceful happiness," "to satisfy someone," or "a state of satisfaction.")

Another definition from Oxford Languages may hit a little closer to home for content marketing professionals. Content is also the "information made available by a website or other electronic medium." For example, "online content providers."

Definition of content
The definition of content from Oxford Languages reveals the different ways people think about content.

The way that we define content for ourselves as marketers is important because it influences the way that we approach creating content. And the way that we approach creating content is what forms our content principles.

For example, if we define content as a valuable, engaging, and helpful tool for educating and connecting others, our principles will focus on how to create content that goes beyond mere "information made available by a website or other electronic medium."

As you begin to think about what content principles you'd like to develop for your own team, consider how you define content itself. This may be a good exercise to do with your team so you can come to an agreement on what content means to your organisation.

What do content principles look like?

So do content principles actually look like in practice?

Principles are typically a set of four to eight short, punchy statements with a slightly longer clarification of what each one means.

There are plenty of brilliant examples out there to take inspiration from, particularly if you consider the broader picture and include design principles as well as content-specific ones.

Let's look at an example of design principles first. The best-known set of principles is probably the UK Government design principles. Here are their content principles:

  1. Start with user needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again
  6. This is for everyone
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

These design principles have clearly been created with the user's best interests in mind. They will help the UK government develop content that is accessible, valuable, and consistent, which will only benefit its users.

Here's an example of the UK government's design principles at work on their website page about voting:

UK Government design principles
The UK Government's design principles are apparent in all of their content, including this web page about registering to vote.

Notice that the page has a simple design, and the written content is delivered in a way that's easy to read with headings and bullet points. The content also offers additional context with links to other pages where users can learn more.

A great example of content principles that are specific to written content is the Greenpeace content principles:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Put the user first/focus on the audience
  • Choose quality over quantity
  • Include the right people for the right reasons
  • Teamwork makes the Dreamwork
  • Test, iterate, and learn
  • Be open and transparent
  • Promote flexibility and modularity

While these are specific to written content, they share a similar goal to the UK government's design principles. They aim to create the most accessible, useful, and easy to understand content for the user.

Here's a look at the breakdown of one of these principles:

Greenpeace content principles
Your content principles should provide some context for why they exist and what they look like in practice like this content principle from Greenpeace.

Notice that Greenpeace explains why this principle is important and what it looks like in the actual practice of content creation. This is excellent inspiration for when you create your own content principles.

What your content principles should cover

Your content principles should respond to the specific context of your work and the specific needs of your team. What your principles should be will depend on where you are, what you struggle with, and where you want to go.

With the examples above, you’ll notice that most of the principles focus on how to design or how to create your content. This is an important part of any set of principles, but it’s important to think about collaboration and ways of working too. In pretty much every content project, collaboration can be a huge part of the challenge. Principles can help you address these kinds of issues.

Here are some ideas for principles to address collaboration and ways of working. A lot of them focus on making people feel safe and included, which is so important for building a strong team:

  • Your work is important as mine: No one’s work is more important. We’re all equal
  • We prototype together: We make prototypes as a team, so we can attack the problem from every angle
  • No question goes unasked: We never leave a question unasked and we never assume what the answer will be
  • We’re not defensive: If someone’s asking questions about our work or critiquing it, we’re open to what they say
  • We give good feedback: When we give feedback we’re constructive and kind
  • We eat together on Tuesday: We sit and eat together on Tuesdays and talk about anything but the project
Need to know: Collaborating on content can be made easier with GatherContent. Find out for yourself and start a free trial today!

How to define your content principles

Creating a set of principles has to be a team effort. You’ll struggle to get buy-in on anything that your team doesn’t feel a sense of ownership over. So make sure that you involve the entire team in designing your content principles.

You may want to hold a meeting or workshop where your team can brainstorm, define, and finalize your content principles. Sessions like this can be very therapeutic for teams that struggle with collaboration because they let you deal with problems constructively.

To define your principles, it's helpful to share examples like the ones above. But while you can take inspiration, you won’t get a great deal of value from just copying principles wholesale from elsewhere. They need to address your specific context and issues.

A future mapping exercise is a great approach to this. Start by asking people to write down where things are with content and collaboration right now. Then ask them to imagine a perfect future where the team is collaborating brilliantly, producing amazing content, and find work fulfilling.

Get them to write what they’re imagining on Post-it notes. From there, work backwards: Where are the gaps? What are the things that need to happen to get to that ideal state? What barriers or bad habits do you need to break? What new ones do you need to build?

Once you’ve done that, ideas for principles should start to flow. Get people to write ideas on Post-its, cluster similar ideas, and use sticky dots to vote on the ones that are most important. Then narrow it down to between four and eight ideas.

Bringing your content principles to life

It’s not enough just to have the workshop and come up with the principle. You need to bring them to life and make them a part of your work.

After the workshop, spend some time perfecting them and polishing the copy to make them memorable. Do this as quickly as possible to keep up the momentum. Once you’ve done that, put them where your whole team will see them: a poster on the wall, pinned at the top of a Slack channel, on your wiki, wherever your team hangs out.

The most important thing of all is to actually use them. They need to be part of your day-to-day work and process. Depending on how you work, this might mean making them a part of your team meetings, planning, prioritisations, or retrospectives, incorporating them into your content project briefs or acceptance criteria.

Style guide in GatherContent
One way to ensure that your team is putting the content principles into practice is to include them as part of your style guide. There's a place to do this inside GatherContent.

Talking about your content principles and using them in conversations matters too. By repeating these principles and making them a part of your discussions around content, you're getting your team used to the idea of using these principles from the very beginning of the content creation process. The goal is for them to become shared mantras among your team members.

Content principles are like a set of commandments for your content team. They’ll help frame your work, guide decision-making, and enable better collaboration. You should create your principles together as a team, and make sure they address your specific context and challenges. And finally, don’t create them and forget them: make them a part of your processes and conversations about content to realise the full benefits.

Need to know: GatherContent allows you to embed your content style guide in your editing environment so authors can easily follow voice and tone content rules.


What content principles are and why you need them

An old boss of mine described principles as ‘knowing how we do things around here,' and I think that’s a good way to approach them. Principles should give everyone on a team a shared understanding of your approach and ways of working.

Content principles are the core beliefs and rules that your content team will abide by, regardless of the format, channel, or subject matter.

If you have the right principles defined, they will help to:

  • Frame your work: give you a focus for how you approach your work
  • Guide your decisions: help you choose the right path and pick the right solutions
  • Align your team: find your way as a team and collaborate better.

Each principle should address a specific challenge the team wrestles with. Here's an example. Let's say a big financial services company has the challenge of needing to stand out and embody the brand in a sea of similar content. The principle might be to focus on what only the financial services brand can do. By focusing on differentiators when creating content, the brand will be able to stick out in the industry.

But how do we really define content?

Before we jump into what content principles look like, we need to define content. According to Oxford Languages, content (ˈkäntent) is "the material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style." For example, "the tone, if not the content, of his book is familiar." (Not to be confused with content (kənˈtent), which means "in a state of peaceful happiness," "to satisfy someone," or "a state of satisfaction.")

Another definition from Oxford Languages may hit a little closer to home for content marketing professionals. Content is also the "information made available by a website or other electronic medium." For example, "online content providers."

Definition of content
The definition of content from Oxford Languages reveals the different ways people think about content.

The way that we define content for ourselves as marketers is important because it influences the way that we approach creating content. And the way that we approach creating content is what forms our content principles.

For example, if we define content as a valuable, engaging, and helpful tool for educating and connecting others, our principles will focus on how to create content that goes beyond mere "information made available by a website or other electronic medium."

As you begin to think about what content principles you'd like to develop for your own team, consider how you define content itself. This may be a good exercise to do with your team so you can come to an agreement on what content means to your organisation.

What do content principles look like?

So do content principles actually look like in practice?

Principles are typically a set of four to eight short, punchy statements with a slightly longer clarification of what each one means.

There are plenty of brilliant examples out there to take inspiration from, particularly if you consider the broader picture and include design principles as well as content-specific ones.

Let's look at an example of design principles first. The best-known set of principles is probably the UK Government design principles. Here are their content principles:

  1. Start with user needs
  2. Do less
  3. Design with data
  4. Do the hard work to make it simple
  5. Iterate. Then iterate again
  6. This is for everyone
  7. Understand context
  8. Build digital services, not websites
  9. Be consistent, not uniform
  10. Make things open: it makes things better

These design principles have clearly been created with the user's best interests in mind. They will help the UK government develop content that is accessible, valuable, and consistent, which will only benefit its users.

Here's an example of the UK government's design principles at work on their website page about voting:

UK Government design principles
The UK Government's design principles are apparent in all of their content, including this web page about registering to vote.

Notice that the page has a simple design, and the written content is delivered in a way that's easy to read with headings and bullet points. The content also offers additional context with links to other pages where users can learn more.

A great example of content principles that are specific to written content is the Greenpeace content principles:

  • Have a clear purpose
  • Put the user first/focus on the audience
  • Choose quality over quantity
  • Include the right people for the right reasons
  • Teamwork makes the Dreamwork
  • Test, iterate, and learn
  • Be open and transparent
  • Promote flexibility and modularity

While these are specific to written content, they share a similar goal to the UK government's design principles. They aim to create the most accessible, useful, and easy to understand content for the user.

Here's a look at the breakdown of one of these principles:

Greenpeace content principles
Your content principles should provide some context for why they exist and what they look like in practice like this content principle from Greenpeace.

Notice that Greenpeace explains why this principle is important and what it looks like in the actual practice of content creation. This is excellent inspiration for when you create your own content principles.

What your content principles should cover

Your content principles should respond to the specific context of your work and the specific needs of your team. What your principles should be will depend on where you are, what you struggle with, and where you want to go.

With the examples above, you’ll notice that most of the principles focus on how to design or how to create your content. This is an important part of any set of principles, but it’s important to think about collaboration and ways of working too. In pretty much every content project, collaboration can be a huge part of the challenge. Principles can help you address these kinds of issues.

Here are some ideas for principles to address collaboration and ways of working. A lot of them focus on making people feel safe and included, which is so important for building a strong team:

  • Your work is important as mine: No one’s work is more important. We’re all equal
  • We prototype together: We make prototypes as a team, so we can attack the problem from every angle
  • No question goes unasked: We never leave a question unasked and we never assume what the answer will be
  • We’re not defensive: If someone’s asking questions about our work or critiquing it, we’re open to what they say
  • We give good feedback: When we give feedback we’re constructive and kind
  • We eat together on Tuesday: We sit and eat together on Tuesdays and talk about anything but the project
Need to know: Collaborating on content can be made easier with GatherContent. Find out for yourself and start a free trial today!

How to define your content principles

Creating a set of principles has to be a team effort. You’ll struggle to get buy-in on anything that your team doesn’t feel a sense of ownership over. So make sure that you involve the entire team in designing your content principles.

You may want to hold a meeting or workshop where your team can brainstorm, define, and finalize your content principles. Sessions like this can be very therapeutic for teams that struggle with collaboration because they let you deal with problems constructively.

To define your principles, it's helpful to share examples like the ones above. But while you can take inspiration, you won’t get a great deal of value from just copying principles wholesale from elsewhere. They need to address your specific context and issues.

A future mapping exercise is a great approach to this. Start by asking people to write down where things are with content and collaboration right now. Then ask them to imagine a perfect future where the team is collaborating brilliantly, producing amazing content, and find work fulfilling.

Get them to write what they’re imagining on Post-it notes. From there, work backwards: Where are the gaps? What are the things that need to happen to get to that ideal state? What barriers or bad habits do you need to break? What new ones do you need to build?

Once you’ve done that, ideas for principles should start to flow. Get people to write ideas on Post-its, cluster similar ideas, and use sticky dots to vote on the ones that are most important. Then narrow it down to between four and eight ideas.

Bringing your content principles to life

It’s not enough just to have the workshop and come up with the principle. You need to bring them to life and make them a part of your work.

After the workshop, spend some time perfecting them and polishing the copy to make them memorable. Do this as quickly as possible to keep up the momentum. Once you’ve done that, put them where your whole team will see them: a poster on the wall, pinned at the top of a Slack channel, on your wiki, wherever your team hangs out.

The most important thing of all is to actually use them. They need to be part of your day-to-day work and process. Depending on how you work, this might mean making them a part of your team meetings, planning, prioritisations, or retrospectives, incorporating them into your content project briefs or acceptance criteria.

Style guide in GatherContent
One way to ensure that your team is putting the content principles into practice is to include them as part of your style guide. There's a place to do this inside GatherContent.

Talking about your content principles and using them in conversations matters too. By repeating these principles and making them a part of your discussions around content, you're getting your team used to the idea of using these principles from the very beginning of the content creation process. The goal is for them to become shared mantras among your team members.

Content principles are like a set of commandments for your content team. They’ll help frame your work, guide decision-making, and enable better collaboration. You should create your principles together as a team, and make sure they address your specific context and challenges. And finally, don’t create them and forget them: make them a part of your processes and conversations about content to realise the full benefits.

Need to know: GatherContent allows you to embed your content style guide in your editing environment so authors can easily follow voice and tone content rules.


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About the author

Lauren Pope

Lauren is a freelance content strategy and digital transformation consultant, working with organisations that make the world a better, fairer, more beautiful place.

Lauren has been working in content and digital since way back in 2007 and since then has worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, including adidas, American Express, Microsoft and Tetra Pak.  

She lives in Brighton, and loves the Downs, the sea, dystopian fiction and bold lipstick.


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