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Guidelines are a great way to keep everyone within your marketing team, as well as the broader organisation on the same page. They help us understand who the brand is and how best to embody it as we develop and implement the marketing strategies that help it grow.

Most guidelines, however, tend to be long, drawn out instruction manuals that don’t serve the purpose they were intended for nor help the people they were built for. Today we’re talking about the stuff that goes wrong when writing guidelines and how to de-suckify them.


Start with generic and branch out

The most frequent issue with guidelines it that they don’t exist. People try to document everything in a great, big book of things which takes time and effort. In the meanwhile, everyone else twiddles their thumbs and works based on crumpets of information.

This doesn’t just pile most of the workload on a handful of people but, because of this “need to know” way of working, actual knowledge-sharing is slowed down considerably.

Instead of trying to do everything in one go, start with the stuff everyone needs to know to do their jobs better. That’s the stuff they need to know, not the stuff you want them to know. In general, this involves your marketing strategy, in broad strokes only.

Coming up with these simplified insights that outline the bigger picture, then allows you to branch out and build guidelines that help people support your goals by improving the way they perform their daily tasks. Enter tailored guidelines.

Adapt your message to your audience

It’s astonishing how many marketers tailor their messages to the target audience of their brands but completely forget to do so when building guidelines. This is where a healthy set of guidelines tends to grow to morbidly-obese proportions. It may be easier for you to dump everything into a single bucket but it sure won’t be for the people trying to follow this stuff.

You know how you build personas for your brand’s audience and match their needs with your products/ service through content? Well, building effective guidelines works largely in the same way.

You’ll need to understand who you’re writing them for, the different level of experience the people working with them have, the situations they apply to and develop purpose-built guidelines. If done well, you’ll end up with several short, to-the-point how to’s, tailored to apply to various people trying to perform different tasks.

Understand what they understand

Since we’re talking about responding to different levels of expertise, it’s important to mention that the key to creating an effective set of guidelines that people won’t want to shove in the rubbish bin is that they apply to their level of marketing proficiency.

Writing intricate language and tone of voice guidelines for an intern is about as useful as giving a smartphone to a caveman. (no offense intended) The tool itself is good but they won’t have a clue how to make the most of it, because it wasn’t built for them.

This is why there’s no one size fits all when it comes to guidelines and you need to adapt them to support different people, in different functions in understanding what you need them to do and why.

Foresee and push limitations

While overly-complicated and bulky guidelines make them a pain in the buns for anyone having to follow them, given some time, research and a lot of questions, people might get the hang of what they need to do. Which kind of turns guidelines into less of a helper and more of a conversation starter but they do serve a small, adjacent purpose.

Using guidelines as an exhaustive instruction manual of all the ways people can drive from point A to point B, when said person doesn’t even know how to drive, makes them completely useless or, even worse, forces people to work to accomplish something that simply cannot be done.

The clue is in the name. Guidelines. They are nothing more than a savvy sherpa taking you on a journey once you understand what hiking is, know how to get your gear together, where you’re going and have a very good idea of how to look out for yourself.

Guidelines don’t teach. They are a blueprint that shows people who already know what they’re doing a way of doing things that yields results. That’s it. If you want people to learn, you need to train them.


The Bottom Line

Within the rapidly-changing marketing industry, guidelines are beginning to loose their roadmap-like quality and have begun to define everything from informal training manuals, to booklets documenting a cumbersome marketing strategy only the people who built it understand and even processes within a team.

Once they’re merrily dropped in the lap of people who may or may not have any marketing training and likely have different marketing experience, they do little more than gather dust. If you don’t want to waste the time of everyone from the people building them to the ones using them, focus on the shortest way possible you can guide someone at a certain skill level to adopt a way of working, specific to the job they’re performing.

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