Let’s be honest. As a marketer, do you love standards for creating and managing content in the digital world or do you, like many of the people I talk with, consider them an unnecessary hindrance to creativity? If you find yourself in the latter camp or if you’re not sure of the value of digital standards or even what they are, I hope that you’ll read on. When digital standards are positioned correctly within an organization, they not only give your audience better content experiences, but they also boost your team’s creativity.
What are digital standards?
What exactly are digital standards? They’re an organization’s specifications or guidelines for what to do regarding some aspect of digital publication.
If you’re new on the job, if it has been a while since you did a particular content task, or if you disagree (respectfully, of course) with a colleague over some content decision, the digital standards are what you turn to for answers.
In her book, Managing Chaos: Digital Governance by Design, Lisa Welchman lists four types of digital standards: design, editorial, publishing and development, and network and server infrastructure. I would use slightly different terms, especially for organizations whose content is hosted in the cloud or at least off-premises. Here’s how I think of the types:
These four types overlap. They’re not mutually exclusive categories but rather a continuum. While you might find it helpful to document some standards separately – design standards over here and editorial standards over there, for example – you may want to document some types of standards together.
For instance, a taxonomy may need both editorial standards (to help writers determine which terms to use and which to avoid, for example) and standards related to tools and publishing (to help the production team understand how and when to apply categories and tags in the CMS, for example). You might document your editorial standards and your tools-and-publishing standards separately. Alternatively, depending on who’s going to use the standards and how they use them, you might find it handier to put all your taxonomy-related standards in one place.
However you structure your digital standards, what matters is making them clear, concise, and accessible to everyone who needs them.
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If digital standards dictate how to do things, how can they enable creativity?
By clarifying the aspects of content that must be consistent, digital standards free us to think innovatively about other aspects of our content. They keep us from wasting energy on decisions that have been made so that we can focus on the creative side of creating content.
Imagine that you’re designing a car. Imagine it red. Now imagine it black. Now make it the color of your dreams, say, satin cashmere. You can paint it any color in your mind’s eye – your creativity can run wild. The whole time, you don’t have to spend one second deciding (and re-deciding and re-deciding) how that paint should be applied to protect the car’s surface and keep it looking good for years to come. The car-painting process has been standardized, freeing the designer in you to think creatively where creativity is needed.
Examples are all around us. Picture all the drinks you might purchase at the store. The sizes and shapes of most bottles, cans, and cartons have been standardized. So have the processes by which the drinks are formulated. But what goes in those standardized containers – for better or worse – varies widely. The possibilities for the drinks themselves are endless.
Digital standards work in a similar way. For example, when a digital standard specifies the ideal average sentence length for a web page, authors have room within that parameter to create compelling text in an unlimited number of ways. The same freedom applies within parameters set for images, videos, and so on.
Standards allow us to focus on the fun, engaging, creative aspects of content without having to think about those aspects that should be the same every time.
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My organization needs digital standards. How do we get started?
Where you start with creating standards depends on where you want to go.
If you want to strengthen brand recognition by ensuring that your company represents itself consistently around the globe, you might focus on design standards: which colors can be used on each country’s website, where the logo must appear, and what to consider when using those colors and that logo in various channels (mobile apps, social media, email campaigns, and so on).
If, on the other hand, you are a small exporter looking to expand your reach beyond North America, you may want to start with editorial standards that guide content creators on the appropriate tone of voice for each of your target markets: polite for Latin America, objective for Nordic countries, formal for Asia, and so on. You might echo those guidelines in your design standards, suggesting ways that visual elements might convey the appropriate tone for each market.
You may need standards for tools and publishing or for hosting and delivery as well – or you may not. For example, if your digital solution is hosted in the cloud with few options for changing the look and feel or the technical infrastructure, those limitations are de facto standards. No decisions or documentation required.
To create digital standards that will serve your organization well, follow these steps:
- Set goals. Determine your organization’s goals related to digital content – what you want your content to help the business achieve.
- Review existing digital standards. Identify the digital standards you already have that support your organization’s goals. For example, corporate style guides are often an excellent source of existing standards.
- Update your digital standards. Modify existing standards and develop new ones to more fully support your organization’s goals. Work with subject matter experts and content creators – anyone who needs to comply with these standards – to determine which aspects of your digital content to standardize and which to leave to creativity.
- Put your digital standards where they’ll get used. Determine how to document your standards and where to store them. Wherever possible, embed them in your tools.
This last step is critical. Standards that sit on a virtual shelf unused do no good. For example, let’s say you want page titles to stay under 65 characters for SEO. If you embed that guideline in your content management system as a physical limit, your titles will hit the target every time. That won’t happen if you rely on authors to memorize or look up everything specified by the standards.
If you don’t have a content management system, consider other ways that you might embed your standards into your tools. For example, let’s say you have a press-release template, and let’s say that you’ve adopted AP as your style standard for press releases, and certain style inconsistencies pop up over and over in the work your writers submit. In that case, you might embed the relevant AP guidelines in your template.
For more information on embedding your guidelines into your tools, read 6 Steps (And One Tool) to Clean Up Content Messes.
As your digital standards evolve, keep all stakeholders involved. With a little luck and a committed effort, you’ll achieve equilibrium between developing quality content, meeting your business goals, and encouraging creativity.
What are your organization’s most important digital standards? How are they communicated and enforced? How do they boost creativity for your teams? Please share your insights below.
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Cover image by Viktor Hanacek, picjumbo, via pixabay.com