Well-crafted policies and guidelines will improve your content governance—they give content teams a common understanding of general requirements and criteria relating to their content.
Michael AndrewsMar 15, 2021
What policies and guidelines do
Policies and guidelines are standards for your content. Standards are often characterized according to their state of approval. They may be either “normative” (an official standard must be always followed) or “not normative” (a draft standard that is provisional but whose adoption is recommended).
Policies and guidelines improve the quality and consistency of content by telling you what you need to do when working with content. They define specific practices, indicating what things:
- Must be done (are required).
- Should be done (are recommended if feasible to implement).
- May be done (are optional and depend on the context).
- Must not be done (are prohibited).
A helpful standard won’t be overly formal, however. It’s a good idea to translate these formalities into an easy-to-understand framework that’s clear and quick to use. Use concise, plain language and graphic aids such as colors and icons to clarify the guidance.
Take an inventory of what you have
Enterprises need a range of policies and guidelines relating to their content. They should know which policies and guidelines are already in place. To do this, they should conduct a policy audit, which will answer such questions as:
- What policies exist?
- Who is responsible for them?
- Are they being followed throughout the organization?
- Are they up to date?
- Are they clear and complete?
- Is there any overlap in coverage in different documents, or are there any conflicting directions?
The distinction between policies and guidelines is not clear-cut, but policies often tend to be more formal, involving more intensive administrative review by different parts of the organization, higher-level executive oversight or approval, and stricter change control. Policies may spell out legal obligations or the expected responsibilities and performance standards for different parts of the enterprise. While guidelines are also subject to an approval process, the process for making changes to them may be more streamlined, involving a smaller group that has clear ownership of the area of focus. In some cases, guidelines are living documents that are revised continuously.
What kinds of policies might you need?
The next step is to consider what policies and guidelines you need that you don’t currently have. In these cases, you will need to develop policies for these areas. It’s also an opportunity to look at whether existing policies can be developed further to provide complete guidance.
Enterprises can implement an array of standards to influence how content is created and used:
- Accessibility policy
- AI-generated content policy
- Brand guidelines
- Compliance policies
- Email guidelines
- Guidelines for domain names and URLs
- Guidelines for user-generated content
- Image use guidelines
- Privacy policies
- Social media policy
- Style guide
- Voice and Tone guidelines
Across the globe, private organizations are required to make their content accessible by law. Some regional and national laws mandating that private organizations make content accessible include:
- Americans with Disabilities Act
- Disability Discrimination Act 1992 of Australia
- Equality Act 2010 of the United Kingdom
- European Accessibility Act
Accessibility is especially important for organizations that receive government funding, which may include educational and health organizations. Such institutions often have additional legal requirements above and beyond those imposed on private organizations.
Accessibility is good business practice: it helps customers use your content fully. People have differing visual, auditory, motor, and cognitive abilities that affect their use of content. Content should be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust on whatever platform it appears. The major global technical standard for accessibility known as the WCAG provides three levels of conformance: A, AA, AAA. Your accessibility policy should indicate the conformance level expected. The policy can address:
- Responsibilities of content creators to ensure that the content is accessible
- Tools to check accessibility compliance
- How to make live and recorded video content accessible
- Visual communication guidelines, such as contrast, text size, color perception, and the use of text within images
- How to provide alt text for various kinds of images
- Requirements for time-based and interactive media
- Providing access to screen labels and button text
- How to present jargon and abbreviations
- How to accommodate differences in reading level
More organizations are using chatbots, voice bots, or robo-advisors. Because of its unique characteristics, AI-generated content benefits from having its own guidelines instead of being a part of general-purpose guidelines intended for human writers. Even when a specialized team is responsible for developing AI-generated content, the guidelines may be relevant to other staff interested in knowing how bots can support their business priorities. The guidelines can include:
- Conforming to social norms: handling anger, interruptions, or not understanding
- How to indicate that the message is machine-generated
- Setting appropriate expectations about what the bot can do
- When bots should refer customers to other channels for assistance
A brand style guide is used both internally and by outside agencies when designing digital content or advertising. It presents the brand’s values and the brand’s promise that all content needs to reflect. It provides specific rules about the use of visual elements used in different media and platforms such as:
- Color pallet
- Layout grids
- Logos, including their proper use and any accepted variations
- Typography, which may include the presentation of languages other than English
It also describes how to use and indicate branded text, including:
- Proprietary words or phrase such as taglines
- Service marks for services
- Trademarks for brand and product names
- Regional or national variations for standard conventions for branded text
All sectors are subject to nondiscrimination requirements that will influence content related to employee hiring and customer eligibility for services. In certain sectors, enterprises must adhere to special legal or regulatory requirements relating to health or safety or consumer rights, which will influence the content’s presentation. Examples of compliance issues include:
- Disclaimers that must be made as a matter of law
- The disclosure of mandatory information that must be presented due to a transparency requirement
- The scope of claims that may be made about products or services mentioned in the content
Email is a very important channel of communication for most enterprises. While email content will often be the same as is used in web channels, content delivered by email also has certain unique requirements. Email guidelines explain how to handle specific issues such as:
- Footer requirements, including legal notices about the sender and possibly a link to allow people to opt-out of future emails
- How to handle forms within an email
- The writing of preheaders and subject lines
- When and how to embed video
Guidelines for domain names and URLs
Domain names and URLs influence a range of issues:
- Brand recognition and memorability
- Ease of entering website addresses
- Trademark protection
- Search authority
A lot of enterprises use numerous domain names but don’t have clear governance around their use. In some cases, they have failed to maintain control over the various web properties that are registered by the brand—many domains were set up to host specialized or temporary content that doesn’t have long-term value. When domain names aren’t clear, customers can be confused about from whom they are getting content. Guidance on domain names should consider decisions relating to:
- Appropriate use of a non-standard URL, such as when a microsite can have its own URL
- Country code Top Level Domains (TDLs) for subsidiaries and country-specific URLs
- Generic TDLs (.com and .org)
- Standards for page paths
- Use of subdomains
- Vanity URLs
- What kinds of content must be published on the main URL of the brand
- Who in the organization is authorized to purchase a URL on behalf of the organization
Guidelines for user-generated content
User-generated content is an important source of information for customers. Customers leave reviews of products or services and provide advice or make suggestions in user forums about resolving problems. The quality and detail of this content can vary widely and sometimes may be inaccurate or misleading. Enterprises need rules for how to moderate user discussions and how to maintain user-contributed content so that it stays fresh and relevant. If the user-generated content might be useful elsewhere, the policy should indicate appropriate ways to utilize it for other purposes.
Image use guidelines
Guidelines for images explain the proper use and handling of images. They will go into more detail than would typically be included in the Brand style guidelines, dealing with technical, contractual, and editorial considerations. Some image use practices will be specific to an enterprise. For example, some organizations do not want people featured in their product imagery, while other organizations use product imagery with people in everyday situations. Image use guidelines may cover:
- Acceptable backgrounds within images, the placement of subject of images in context, and required contrast of foreground and background objects
- Authorized sources of images
- Commissioning specialized graphics or photography
- Focus, lighting, and legibility of imagery
- How to use stock images
- Image size and resolution
- Images of text, such as photos of product packaging
- Tinting and cropping of photographs
- Release requirements for photos of people
- Rights and restrictions when using licensed images (copyright obligations, restrictions on editing or modification of images)
- Use of decorative images
- What content should and should not appear in images.
- When and how to indicate credits and copyright
Privacy requirements are becoming more complex. As the range of data that enterprises collect about customers grows, privacy requirements are affecting more kinds of content. Many enterprises will need to conform to privacy laws in multiple jurisdictions. Privacy policies will affect marketing content and customer service content in particular. In some cases, customers explicitly contribute personal information about themselves, such as their names, addresses, phone numbers, payment information, and email addresses. In other cases, identifiable information such as IP addresses or access dates and time is collected by tracking customer behavior. Customers must be informed of what information is collected and why, and they must give their consent for the data to be collected and retained. Privacy policies should also address:
- How customers can contact the organization if they have questions or concerns
- What has changed since the customer last consented
- What measures the organization takes to protect personal information
The content relating to many customer tasks will have privacy implications:
- Account settings and information
- Analytics tracking notices (website cookies, performance monitoring)
- App setting preferences that involve personally identifying details, especially relating to the sharing data with other apps
- Contests and sweepstakes
- Customer surveys
- Disclosures in Terms of Service agreements and other contracts
- Event registration
- Forms customers use to submit feedback that isn’t anonymous
- Newsletter sign-ups
- Orders for purchases
- Sign up and onboarding content
Social media policies
Social media is a major channel used to promote and distribute content. The content in social media may be among the most visible for an organization—sometimes generating press coverage. Social media can amplify your content or become the story. Social media policies should indicate what can be said and who can say these things. Topics may include:
- Which social channels to use to reach specific audiences
- What kinds of topics and content are best for specific social media platforms
- When certain kinds of topics are appropriate to promote in social media
- How to address customer complaints on social media
- How to comment on unfolding events such as future plans or widespread service issues
- How to use hashtags
- When and how to refer customers to other channels
Social media accounts can sometimes generate confusion about who is behind a statement. Policies can clarify the appropriate roles for:
- Brand mascots accounts
- Corporate marketing accounts
- Corporate press or investor relations accounts
- Corporate service or support accounts
- Staff accounts
A style guide provides guidance on writing standards such as:
- Grammar advice
- Word usage
It often includes an A-Z listing of words and abbreviations with their preferred spelling and usage notes. It may include preferred language for discussing emotionally sensitive topics such as health or financial hardships by indicating which words or phrases to use and not use. Diversity and inclusion guidance is an area of growing importance, such as how to avoid:
- Age bias
- Culture bias
- Gender bias
- Gender-specific language
- Language offensive to ethnic groups
- Racial bias
- Sexual orientation bias
Voice and Tone guidelines
Voice is a brand’s personality in its written communications. Tone reflects how messages are presented in different situations. When an enterprise has several brands, guidelines should show where they are similar and distinct from one another. Voice and tone guidelines can cover:
- How to address the customer
- How to deliver bad news, such as error messages
- Message patterns, including structural elements to include
- Product value pillars
- The formality or informality of various messages
- Themes to express in feature descriptions and feature value propositions