In the last decade or so, content marketing has gone from the shiny new trend to a well-established mainstay of marketing strategy. From SMB to global enterprise, marketing teams big and small are producing content to help guide prospective customers towards a purchase.

It’s a great time to be a customer – it’s easier than ever to get the information you need to make a buying decision, before you ever encounter a sales rep. For marketers, however, there’s a downside to the prevalence of content available in their space: the competition for that crucial opportunity to educate the buyer just keeps going up. It’s not enough to simply have content any more. You need creative content that doesn’t just deliver information, but delivers it in a way that stands out from the crowd.

So how do you do that, at scale? We’ve written a whole book about this, but today we’re going to look at one key part of the process: rules.

Admittedly, rules aren’t what most people think of, when they think of ways to enable creativity. The more common conception is that rules prevent creativity, putting up barriers that stop artists from working to their full potential. But this isn’t necessarily true (and in fact, research indicates that constraints can actually make you more creative). 

The key is having the right rules, for the right parts of the creative process. You want to have rules that set your creatives up to succeed, and help them avoid expensive (and demoralizing!) rework. The best way to do that is to make it clear what’s required, what to stay away from, and where your creative team can let loose. We like to divide these into three types of rules: hard rules, soft rules, and no rules. Let’s examine the two simple ones first.

Hard Rules have a right answer and a wrong answer, with no wiggle room. Think of something like using the right logo, or the right Pantone swatch – it’s either correct, or it’s not. These are actually the easiest rules to follow, because there’s no room for interpretation. Any and all hard rules should be clearly explained, and easy to verify.

No Rules are exactly what they sound like. If something isn’t prohibited in either the hard rules or the soft rules (more on those shortly), then it should be considered fair game for the creatives to explore. Even if not every idea comes to fruition, being allowed space to experiment helps your creatives deliver their best work.

Hard Rules and No Rules are both pretty straightforward: “do exactly this,” and “do whatever you want to.” The last category, Soft Rules, is where things get complicated.

These are rules that are more subjective. A prime example is whether something like an image, a word choice or even a whole topic is appropriate for a brand. While obviously you can issue guidelines, at the end of the day the person creating the content has to make a judgement call on whether or not their work complies.

This is always going to be the hardest part – ask anyone who’s worked at a creative agency for a large client with multiple brand stakeholders, and they can tell you that subjective interpretation of what’s “on brand” can vary wildly even within the same department. With Soft Rules, some potential for error is unavoidable.

What you can do, however, is work out a set of questions to help your team determine if they’re on the right side of the line. Examples:

  • “Can you imagine this written by anyone else?”
  • “Are there any buzzwords that should or should not be used?” 
  • “Is this message aimed at one of our key buyers?”
  • “Does this conflict with the global brand standard?”

Soft Rules are also a good place to get explicit about things that might not be strictly part of the brand, but can still impact the content’s reception or success (i.e. the CEO hates a certain color or photo style). 

Rules don’t have to be a buzzkill. With the rules of the road clearly known to your creatives – and with the default being that they have the freedom to do anything that doesn’t cross the lines – then you can actually get more, better work done.