07/05/2011 01:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Bottle Rockets and Content Writers Have in Common

Bottle rockets are a lot of fun. You set them up on the ground, propped inside of a bottle, light the fuse and run. The firework takes off, curving and spinning through the air, whistling until... POP! Repeat for the rest of the pack of 50 they came in and a good time is had by all, except maybe the neighbors (infographic on the most dangerous fireworks).

While watching fireworks over the 4th of July weekend, it got me thinking about web content. Creating content for a new website is exciting -- tons of ideas and nothing but potential. Once a content plan is created, the content writers are set off to task. What happens next depends on the web style guide.

Without a web style guide, content writers will act like bottle rockets and spin in their own directions, creating different standards for spacing, font weight, color, embedded media, pictures and linking (hopefully not blinking). After each content writer, volunteer or intern has done this about 50 times on the site -- you have a fireworks show! Suddenly there are hundreds of web pages on the site giving users an inconsistent brand experience. This problem is especially difficult for not-for-profits, since they usually manage multiple volunteers and interns that contribute site content.

Do not do this at home, or on your site.

Some webmasters think a web editor tool or WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) is enough to guard against the 'Bottle Rocket Problem.' These tools give content writers an interface that looks and behaves like Microsoft Word, but to carry this metaphor even farther -- these tools only serve as the bottle holding the rocket.

Three ways to stop the 'bottle rocket problem'

1. Have a style guide! Start the site with a basic web style guide including, but not limited to:
  • Brand tone (i.e. fun, encouraging, informative, helpful)
  • Writing style (voice, MLA standards for structure, Inverted pyramid)
  • Linking guidelines
  • Guidelines for different types of content (blog, facts, background, etc.)
  • HTML and CSS classes and examples (Go to
  • Standard web colors/fonts

2. Allow for input
A web style guide is not static. It evolves with the needs of the staff, users and changing tech standards. This is owned by the content writers, and if the writers are handed this document, they are less likely to adopt it and .... POP! Consider using a Google doc that acts as a wiki if your org is brave enough to open up parts of the guide.

3. Training!
All content writers should spend time on and do reading on web writing and the inverted pyramid. People browse the web, the important info needs to lead and the points need to be highlighted and bulleted in a consistent on-brand way.

It is likely that over 50 percent of your site's visitors are coming to a sub page of content on your site (only 40 percent of's traffic comes to the home page). This means a user's first brand impression is not the carefully crafted homepage, but a sub page of relevant content they searched for. So, help your content writers own their web style guides and save the fireworks for the 4th of July.