Content principles - what they are and why you need them

Content principles - what they are and why you need them

This article covers what content principles are, why they’re important and shares examples from different organisations.

As well as having editorial themes for this blog, I also wanted all content to be guided by clear principles. This is important to me because the principles will inform what content I create and publish. Together, the themes and principles will ensure content is meaningful, usable and useful.

What are content principles?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a principle as:

A basic idea or rule that explains or controls how something happens or works.

Applying that definition to content means we can descirbe content principles as:

A set of standards that guide how you approach content in relation to planning, creation, publishing and management. Content principles will ensure you have focus and your content has purpose.

In the Cambridge Dictionary definition of a principle it includes rigid terms such as ‘rule’ and ‘control.’ My definition includes ‘standards’ and ‘approach.’ instead. There needs to be room for change as the context of the content requires.

Approaching all stages of the content lifecycle with principles in mind will help you meet the standards set for content.

Why content principles are important

As people, principles in our lives can be a moral compass and a reference point for the decisions we make.

Content principles will ensure my content is meaningful, usable and useful. The reasons why they are important go beyond those too.

In his article, Using content principles to keep your charity website fresh, Tom Saunders wrote:

Developing a set of Content Principles is useful as they can quickly get your content production and management under control and help you focus on what’s important. These principles can provide a set of common beliefs that can become a powerful tool in evangelizing your organisation’s approach to content production.

Principles provide an understanding of how things happen. They also make clear why they happen the way they do and they set the foundation for the work you do. For example, my content principles will guide and remind me why I’m writing this article. They will make sure this article includes everything necessary for it to be meaningful, usable and useful.

Examples of content principles

To explain what content principles look like in reality, I’ll share examples from others. Then I'll write about the first of Fourth Wall Content's principles.

The University of Dundee

The University of Dundee have a great approach to content and they've invested in their own standards. The University’s content style guide is available online. I've referenced this in conference talks and articles because it’s that good of an example.

Section of The University of Dundee's online content style guide showing their content principles.

Their content principles are:

  • Understand your audience
  • Keep it simple, but don’t patrionise
  • Keep it short
  • Show as well as tell

For ‘keep it short’ they add:

Shorter sentences are easier to read, and can make your point more forcibly than longer ones even when you use the same words.

If you take a look at their style guide you can see how they have described the principles. This makes the style guide helpful for those working with content. It will ensure they meet the standards for content set out by the principles.

Greenpeace UK

The Greenpeace UK style guide was made with the help of Contentious, a brilliant UK-based content strategy agency. It's a great example because they state up front why they have content principles. The principles are listed with the useful addition of what they mean in practice.

Section of Greenpeace UK's online content style guide showing their content principles.

The Greenpeace UK content principles are:

  • 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

In this excerpt from the style guide it states the principle, provides a summary and shares what that means for the content creator.

"4. Include the right people for the right reasons

  • We are most efficient when everyone who touches our content does so for a good reason. Content by committee results in substandard content.
  • What does this mean in practice?
  • Follow the agreed, appropriate workflow for the type of content you’re creating. Draw on people with the right skills at the relevant point: subject matter experts fact-check; editors edit.

I like this approach because the principles become something pragmatic and meaningful. These explanations can guide those involved with content at Greenpeace UK. They're more than a list on a page.


It’s the simplicity of the 18F content principles that make this an excellent example. There are five principles in total and they are all explained with clarity. One principle is ‘build trust’ and the description for this is:

  • Talk like a person.
  • Tell the truth.
  • Use positive language and concrete examples.

Section of 18F's online content guide showing their content principles.

The 18F Content Guide covers areas like giving and receiving feedback, use plain language and structure the content. It’s a brilliant example of keeping guidelines simple and helpful.

These three examples all have short titles for their principles with brief but helpful descriptions. This is a good formula as you want your principles to be easy to remember and understand. They won't be useful if they aren't usable.

Making style guides to help yourself and others

At the bottom of the Greenpeace UK style guide it says:

Contentious helped make this style guide. Some of it is loosely based on the MailChimp style guide, which is published under a Creative Commons licence and the 18F style guide, which is also Creative Commons.

At the bottom of the 18F style guide it says:

We drew from multiple sources to develop this. Thanks to GDS, MailChimp, and Facebook for inspiration.

Why start from scratch when there are good resources and examples to use as a helping hand? What’s important here is that credit is given to the style guides they've been influenced by.

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