Content principles - what they are why you need them

This article is the first in a series where I explain one of the content principles I've defined for Fourth Wall Content. As it’s the opener, I also define content principles, cover why they’re important and share examples from others too.

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.


18F


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.


Content principles - attribution and referencing


This leads onto the first content principle for Fourth Wall Content that I want to share:

Always give attribution to sources of content.

It’s easy not to give credit. Content in all forms gets shared quickly and passively. I see people on Twitter lamenting that one of their photos is being used with no credit or attribution.

In 2011 I had a book published called Designing the Invisible. Within weeks there were copies of the entire book online available as a free PDF. These sites were giving my content away for free and they weren’t mentioning or linking to me. That experience made me hyper-aware and mindful of attribution.

Content and information are traded in a disposable and care-free way. It’s easy to take something that someone else wrote or created and to pass it on. It’s also easy to take other people’s ideas and examples and use them without giving credit. When people see things for free online, like stock imagery, they can claim them as their own. But we all have a responsibility to give credit at every opportunity.


When I studied for my degree in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting it took me hours to add footnotes and attributions at the end of essays. For my dissertation it took days to do the referencing. Was it boring? Yes. It’s making me anxious writing about it seventeen years later. Was it important? You bet.

A community that shares and gives credit


Part of what I love about the content and UX community is the desire to learn, share and encourage one another. So many people are good at giving credit and that’s where I place myself too. Since I started the Fourth Wall Content blog every article has an attributions and references section at the end.

Example of an attribution and reference section at the enf of a Fourth Wall Content article listiing all referenced content with links.

Every source of content mentioned in the article is listed and linked to. That means I link to content within the article and again at the end in the attribution section. Is this more academic style of referencing over the top? Some may say so. I do this for several reasons:

  • links in the article may not say where the link is going or who created the content

  • attribution is given to all content including films, audio and images. It’s not only about other websites

  • giving this amount of attention to where I link makes me consider my sources of information

  • I feel better for acknowledging the work of others and as practitioners we can set the standards we want and expect

For article header images I use my own photos or images from Unsplash that give permission to be used by others. I could use them without credit, as per their guidelines, but I will always link to the image creator. When you download images they have a nice little prompt to encourage attribution.

Example from Unsplash of pop up encouraging attribution with links and text to copy.

The Content + UX Slack group have a code of conduct for all new members to agree to upon signing up. At the end of the code of conduct they have an attribution message.

A message on the Content and UX slack sign up page stating when the code of conduct was last updated and what example policy they based it on.

This group are setting high standards for inclusivity, fairness, salary transparency, and accessibility. It was no surprise then to see them highlighting their attribution, as did the style guides referenced earlier. It doesn't need to be a long list, any attribution is better than none.


Give credit in any way you can


I appreciate that if everyone credited everything it would take a lot of time. It’s manageable for me to attribute as I do on my blog. I also appreciate it’s more detailed than is perhaps necessary. Give some sort of credit wherever possible such as taking time to find the twitter username of the author of an article you’re tweeting about so the author knows their work has been shared.


Acknowledge the work of others, think about what sources you’re sending people to, try to elevate the people and content that you’ve found helpful.

Other principles for Fourth Wall Content focus on plain language, audiences and inclusivity. More to follow on those soon but in the meantime if you need help defining your own content principles - Find out how I can help

Article attributions and references:


Fourth Wall Content article: Defining editorial themes

Cambridge Dictionary

LinkedIn Post: Using content principles to keep your charity website fresh

The University of Dundee content style guide

Greenpeace UK style guide

Contentious - Content Strategy Agency

18F Content Guide

Unsplash: freely-usable images

Content + UX Slack Group

Give Thanks cover photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

Give Thanks cover photo edited using Duotone