The irony does not escape me that I am currently writing instructions on how to … conduct instructions.
Fortunately, over the years I have had a lot of experience writing guides for HubSpot. My favorites include How to Make a Compelling Presentation, How to Develop a Content Strategy: A Guide From Start to End, and How to Write a Request for Proposal.
Guides are incredibly valuable ways to reach new audiences with useful, high quality content. For both B2B and B2C companies, instructions are often a necessary component of a healthy lead generation strategy.
For example, consider how many people search for “How to” [fill in the blank]”on Google every day:
These searches reveal one of the main reasons people turn to the internet – to learn how to do something.
If your company can reach these users with informative, relevant answers to their questions (related to your own product or service), these readers will see your brand as an authority on the subject. In addition, they will appreciate the value you have given them.
On the flip side, the same readers you first attracted with a how to guide could become customers and loyal brand attorneys who share your product or service with friends and family.
Suffice it to say: How to make guides important.
Here we will examine the proper structure to use in creating a how-to and in writing a comprehensive how-to. We’ll also look at some impressive examples of how-to guides for inspiration. Let’s dive in.
How do I create a guide?
1. Do research to make sure your guide is the most comprehensive piece on the subject.
People read guides to learn how to do things. And even if you know how to do something very well, it is important that you do research to ensure that you are writing content that can help both the novice and the expert looking for your post.
Also, to rank on the SERPs, you should do keyword research and competitive research to ensure your how to guide is the most comprehensive post on the topic.
For example, suppose you are writing a blog post titled “How to Make an Omelette”. After doing some research, you find that Simply Recipe’s post is at the top of Google.
If you dive into the post, you’ll see that Simply Recipe has covered sections like “French Verses American Omelettes”, “The Best Pan for Making Omelettes”, and even “Ideas for Omelette Fillings”.
If you’re looking to create your own how to make omelets, make sure to cover all (if not more) of the sections that Simply Recipe covered in its post.
Additionally, you should use Ahrefs or another keyword research tool to examine similar keywords or queries that are asked when searching for topics like “omelette”. This can help you create a well-rounded piece that will answer all of your readers’ questions and help you rank on Google.
Even if you know a subject incredibly well, research isn’t a step that should be skipped. Indeed, when you know a subject well, it can be more difficult to write a guide on that subject as it feels like a given to you. It is for this reason that you should rely on your research to ensure that it includes all of the relevant information.
2. Understand the concerns and challenges of your target audience.
For this step, you want to use online community forums like Quora or internal data to identify any different concerns or challenges your target audience may have that can be answered in your guide.
For example, if you were to write “How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy,” you may start with the answers to “What is Content Marketing?” on Quora. You can use these user-generated responses to identify common topics, misunderstandings, or confusion related to content marketing.
Next, you can reach out to your research marketing team to help identify common vulnerabilities or questions raised in content marketing surveys or focus groups. For example, you might find that most of your audiences say content marketing is a priority for them – but they don’t know how to do it on a budget.
Conducting qualitative research like this will give you the information needed to ensure your guide addresses any relevant concern on a particular topic.
3. Structure your steps in the right order for your reader, using screenshots whenever possible.
Your readers will bounce off your page if they find it too difficult to quickly find an answer to their question. You therefore want to provide all relevant information as quickly as possible and in the correct order.
Many readers use your guide as a list of instructions. For example, when you write “How to take a screenshot on a Mac,” you want to write down every specific action it takes to take a screenshot. If possible, pictures, screenshots, or videos can also help take your content to the next level.
For less tactical, ambiguous topics, you should still list your tips to improve readability.
4. Tell the reader why it is important.
In order to write a quality guide, it is important that you first ask yourself: Why do my readers need or want to know this?
Understanding the general purpose behind a topic can encourage you to write with empathy. Plus, you can create content that exactly meets your reader’s expectations and needs.
For example, in writing “How to Create a Facebook Group for Your Business,” it took me some time to determine if readers might be browsing this topic if a) they are looking for new ways to connect with customers, or want to develop a stronger sense of brand community or b) they want to raise awareness of their products or services.
As a result, I wrote:
“A group is a good idea if you are interested in connecting or connecting with your customers, promoting a sense of community around your brand, or promoting your brand as a thought leader in the industry. However, a group is not a good idea when you want to use it to promote your product or service, or when you simply want to use it to post company announcements. “
In the example above, you can see that I’ve targeted a few different reader segments with different purposes to help readers determine if this guide would even help them achieve their own goals.
Ultimately, it is important to understand the purpose of your guide to ensure that you address all of the different components or angles on the subject at hand.
How do I write instructions?
Once you’re ready to start writing your guide, you may wonder if your tone or style should be different compared to other types of posts.
In short: yes, it should.
When people search for “How to …” they are often in a rush to find the information they need. Therefore, it is important that you write short, concise sentences in order to provide a quick answer.
Additionally, guides need to provide tactical and actionable advice on a topic so readers can begin implementing the steps right away.
There is a big difference between readers searching for “What is an RFP?” Search, and readers, who are searching for, “How do I write an RFP?” Search. While the former group is looking for a definition of RFPs and maybe an example or two, the latter group likely already has a fair understanding of RFPs and needs to come up with one as soon as possible.
When writing a guide, there are a few best practices to follow as you write it:
- Use verbs when writing steps. For example, you might want to say, “Write a company background,” not “Your RFP should start with a brief background about your company”.
- Use numbered lists, headings, and bullets to break up the text and skim your content as easily as possible.
- Use both screenshots and written text For readers who cannot load the picture onto their screen or who do not understand what you are trying to tell them about the picture itself.
- Link to other relevant blog posts, Column pages, or e-books to help readers find more information on specific topics listed in your guide.
- Give examples to show your readers what you mean.
- Write with empathy It can be frustrating to acknowledge this as you learn or hone a new skill.
How-to guides often attract a wide range of readers, each with different levels of expertise.
“How do I create a YouTube channel?” For example, it will likely attract beginners to YouTube who are simply interested in creating a channel to watch and comment on friends’ posts – but it will also likely attract professional marketers who need to create a channel for their business and will attract leads and comment transform them.
With such a diverse audience, it’s important that you write clearly but not condescendingly to ensure that you keep readers regardless of their skill level or background experience.
To find out how this looks in practice, let’s look at some examples of how-to guides next.
Instructions for examples
1. The recipe instructions
McCormick’s “How to Recipe Guide on French Toast” is neatly organized so that readers can quickly determine a) how long the recipe will take, b) what ingredients you will need, and c) cooking instructions.
If a reader already knows the ingredients required for French toast, they can click “Instructions” to get started right away. Alternatively, if a reader prefers to view instructions rather than read, they can click “View How-To Video”. This provides a nice change of pace when it comes to how readers prefer to consume materials.
Bring away: As you structure your own guide, consider how best to organize it so readers can jump straight to what they need. For example, you might fill in key information above or add a jump link so readers can determine what to read – and what to skip over.
2. The B2B guide
Atlassian’s “How to Write the Perfect 90-Day Plan” provides important contextual details about the 90-day plan, including “What is a 90-day plan?” and “What should be in a 90-day plan?” The piece is well researched and sensitively written.
Best of all, the guide includes a downloadable 90 Day Plan PDF so readers can instantly download the Atlassian plan and use it with their own team.
Bring away: Think about which ebooks, PDFs, diagrams, Canva designs, or Google Sheets you can create in-house for readers to download and use. Readers will appreciate the opportunity to apply what they have learned right away.
3. The B2C instructions
This How To Become a Freelancer guide from FlexJobs does a good job of providing relevant links and data to get a comprehensive overview of freelancers.
Additionally, the post uses action verbs to inspire the reader. For example, “How to Start a Freelance Business” provides tips like “do your homework,” “create a brand,” and “plan ahead.” The language used in this post goes a long way in encouraging readers to get started right away.
Bring away: Use action verbs and concise language to keep a reader busy. Whenever possible, start with a verb instead of a noun when listing steps.
4. The product-related instructions
“How to find data in Google Sheets with VLOOKUP” isn’t necessarily the most interesting topic, but how-to-geek keeps the content effective with empathetic statements like, “VLOOKUP may sound confusing, but it’s pretty easy once you get it how it works. ”
Additionally, How-to Geek includes useful original images to demonstrate each tip they describe. Nor do these images have to be ultra-modern images created by a professional design team. As this post shows, a few simple screenshots go a long way towards helping the reader understand a complex topic.
Bring away: If possible, create your own pictures / screenshots to guide readers step-by-step through the individual instructions.
5. The lifestyle guide
I saw this post on Medium recently, titled “11 Ways To Stop Stress In Your Life Quickly”. I clicked this and was waiting for some quick and easy tips on how to stop stress. Instead, I was immersed in the first section of “The Effects of Stress in Your Life”.
While I mentioned the importance of starting with a quick answer to the finder’s how-to question, there are exceptions to this rule. In this case, it is important that readers understand why they should stop stressing before they know how. This medium writer did a good job understanding the structure he should use to keep readers engaged throughout.
Bring away: Playing around with structure. Think about what your readers need to know in order for the rest of the post to matter to them. For example, with the “What is XYZ?” Begin. and “Why XYZ Matters” before diving into “How to Do XYZ”. That way, your readers are fully invested figuring out how these tips can make their lives better in small (or big) ways.