How to write a great how to guide

As consumers demand more transparency on services and pricing, companies are coming under increasing pressure to produce honest How to guides. Here’s how to write a good one…

 How to write a great how to guide

1. Pick a topic that adds value for your consumers

As consumers, we all like getting something for free, be it in the form of discounts and giveaways, or just good old fashioned honest advice.

How to guides can be a great way of sharing genuine recommendations, and can be flexed to fit pretty much any topic – from DIY and home improvement tips to money-saving and financial advice. Think about how you might use a How to guide to add value to your content and keep consumers coming back for more.

If you work in a heavily regulated industry like energy or gas, for instance, why not share some honest advice on how to cut energy bills – just like Age UK has done in this example:

Hardware retailer Homebase also uses the How to format to help its customers learn about common DIY tasks like painting and tiling – all the while pushing them further down the sales funnel by linking to related product pages.

2. Front load for readability – but don’t be too bossy

Remember the rule of 2s. According to web usability guru Jakob Nielsen, we only read the first 2 words for most list items, so don’t start all of your points with ‘How to’. Readers will get bored or think a point has been repeated. Instead get your keywords up front and think about using verbs to make your points feel active and alive.

Be careful not to just bark orders, though. Choose verbs that your audience will reactive positively to, and rewrite some points as suggestions rather than commands.

This ASICS article on how to fit running into your schedule is a great example of how to front-load headings in the right way. Here, the key phrases that appear in cross-heads –  ‘Aim for a running target’, ‘Go out during your lunch break’ and ‘Run home from work’, for example – are all actionable and motivational in this context. Adding cross-heads in this way also makes the piece easier to read and digest.

3. Work your tone of voice to stand out from the pack

Lots of How tos tend to cover similar ground, which can make it hard to stand out. One way to make yourself heard, however, is to add a bit of your personality and tone of voice.

If you’re a trusted brand, readers will feel reassured that the advice is instantly recognisable as yours, and they’ll be more likely to share it too. Look at how the tone of voice shines through in this scenario-based How to on baby weaning from UK parenting community, Bounty:

4. Introduce real-life scenarios that are easy to understand

Bring your How to guide to life by illustrating your points with real life scenarios that your audience can relate to – using plain language they will understand.

The Money Advice Service does both of these things really well, and introduces examples of when consumers might use its service right up front in the standfirst. ‘Want to get that deposit for a home, or save enough for a dream holiday?’ You’d better start saving then…

5. Mix up your content with words and pictures

When you’re looking to provide in-depth analysis on a subject, think about supporting your written How tos with infographics and video.

This Telegraph piece on watching a solar eclipse augments a classic How to copy format, with video, gifs and infographics. This way it can present complex information as clearly as possible.

Don’t leave infographics as an afterthought, though. Treat them like a written piece of content and define your strategy early for best results. Get started with our top tips for briefing in an infographic.

One word of warning…

How tos are good for explaining any activity that involves moving through a step-by-step process, such as creating an effective editorial calendar, or planning how to fill it.

But they don’t work for everything. How tos certainly aren’t a suitable format for more discursive pieces, where the author is expected to share his or her personal opinion on a topic.

As with all copy formats, think carefully about what you are trying to achieve with your content – provide advice, spark debate, etc – and then choose your format carefully before putting pen to paper. Don’t try to shoehorn anything into a format if it won’t go. Here are a few other examples of formats you can use.