The irony doesn’t escape me that I’m currently writing a how-to guide on … how-to guides.
Fortunately, I’ve had my fair share of experiences writing how-to guides for HubSpot over the years — some of my favorites include How to Give a Persuasive Presentation, How to Develop a Content Strategy: A Start-to-Finish Guide, and How to Write a Request for Proposal.
Here, we’ll explore the right structure to use when making a how-to guide and how to write a comprehensive how-to guide. We’ll also take a look at some impressive examples of how-to guides for inspiration. Let’s dive in.
Benefits of Creating a How-To Guide
How-to guides are valuable opportunities to reach new audiences with useful, high-quality content. For both B2B and B2C businesses, how-to guides are often necessary for a healthy lead generation strategy.
For instance, consider how many people search “How to [fill in the blank]” on Google each day:
These search queries demonstrate one of the primary reasons people turn to the internet: to learn how to do something.
If your business can reach those consumers with informative, relevant answers to their questions, those users will begin to see your brand as an authority on the topic.
Down the road, those same readers you first attracted with a how-to guide could become customers and loyal brand advocates who spread the word about your products or services.
Suffice to say: How-to guides are worth adding to your content arsenal.
How to Make a How-To Guide
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1. Conduct research to ensure your guide is the most comprehensive piece on the topic.
Depending on the topic, you want to write something that caters to the specific audience you’re targeting. For instance, if you’re writing a how-to guide targeted toward mechanics, there are certain terms and descriptions you can forgo, as you assume a mechanic is already well versed in this.
However, if you were targeting the average vehicle owner, your content will have to be jargon-free and descriptive enough to resonate with that audience.
As such, it’s important that your first step in how to make a how-to guide is making sure your content is comprehensive. Here’s how to do it:
- Conduct keyword research to see what people want to learn.
- Use Arel=”noopener” target=”_blank” hrefs, SEMrush, or another SEO tool to identify similar keywords and queries. This can help you create a well-rounded piece that will answer all your readers’ questions, and help you rank on Google.
- Look at your competitors to see how they write their guides.
For instance, let’s say you’re writing a blog post, “How to Make an Omelette.” Upon conducting research, you find Simply Recipe’s post is at the top of Google.
Diving into the post, you’ll see Simply Recipe has covered sections including “French Verses American Omelettes,” “The Best Pan for Making Omelettes,” and even “Ideas for Omelette Fillings.”
If you want to create your own how-to guide on omelettes, then, you’ll want to cover all – if not more – of the sections Simply Recipe has in its post.
Even if you know a topic incredibly well, research isn’t a step you should skip. In fact, knowing a topic well can make it more difficult to write a how-to guide on the topic, as you might make assumptions about what should be covered.
For that reason, rely on your research to ensure you’re including all relevant information.
2. Understand your target audience’s concerns and challenges.
For this step, leverage online community forums like Quora or internal, historical data to identify the concerns or challenges your target audience might have. That information will help you identify content to include in your guide.
If you’re writing “How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy,” for instance, you could follow these steps:
- Start by looking at responses to “What is content marketing?” on Quora. These user-generated responses can help you identify common themes, misconceptions, or confusion around content marketing.
- Reach out to your research marketing team to identify common pain points or questions they’ve seen in surveys or focus groups regarding “content marketing.” For instance, you might find that most of your audience says content marketing is a priority for them — but they don’t know how to do it on a budget.
Conducting qualitative research like this arms you with the information necessary to ensure your how-to guide addresses all relevant concerns on a given topic.
3. Structure your steps in the correct order for your reader, and when possible, use screenshots.
Your readers will bounce from your page if it’s too difficult for them to quickly find the answer to their question. With this in mind, deliver it as quickly as possible — and in the right order.
Many readers will use your how-to guide as a list of instructions. For instance, if you’re writing, “How to Take a Screenshot on a Mac,” you’ll want to write down each specific action necessary to take a screenshot. When possible, use visuals like GIFs, images, screenshots, and videos to supplement your instructions.
For less tactical, more ambiguous topics, use bullet points and examples for easy readability and understanding
4. Tell the reader why it matters.
The last step in writing a how-to guide is asking yourself: “Why do my readers need, or want to know, this?”
Understanding the high-level purpose behind a topic can encourage you to write with empathy. Additionally, it will help you create content that accurately meets your reader’s expectations and needs.
For instance, when writing “How to Create a Facebook Group for Your Business,” I took some time to identify that readers might search this topic if a) they are seeking out new ways to connect with customers or want to create a stronger sense of brand community, or b) they want to raise awareness about their products or services.
As a result, I wrote:
“A group is a good idea if you’re interested in connecting your customers or leads to one another, you want to facilitate a sense of community surrounding your brand, or you’re hoping to showcase your brand as a thought leader in the industry. However, a group is not a good idea if you want to use it to raise awareness about your products or services, or simply use it to post company announcements.”
In the example above, you can see I targeted a few different segments of readers with diverse purposes to help readers determine whether this how-to guide would even help them meet their own goals.
Ultimately, understanding the purpose behind your how-to guide is critical for ensuring you target all the various components or angles of the topic at hand.
How to Write a How-To Guide
Once you’re ready to start writing your how-to guide, you might wonder if your tone or writing style should differ, compared to other types of posts.
In short: Yes, it should.
When people search “How to …” they’re often in a rush to find the information they need, which means it’s critical you write in short, concise sentences to provide an answer quickly.
Additionally, how-to guides need to offer tactical, actionable advice on a topic so readers can begin implementing the steps immediately.
There’s a world of difference between readers who search “What is an RFP?”, and those who search “How to write an RFP.”
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 create one ASAP.
When writing a how-to guide, here are some best practices to keep in mind:
- Use verbs when writing out steps. Say, “Write a company background” rather than “Your RFP should start with a brief background on your company.”
- Use numbered lists, headers, and bullet points to break up the text and make your content as easy to skim as possible.
- Use both screenshots and written text for readers who can’t load the image on their screen or don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them from the image itself.
- Link out to other relevant blog posts, pillar pages, or ebooks so readers can find follow-up information on certain topics mentioned in your how-to guide.
- Provide examples to show your readers what you mean.
- Write with empathy, acknowledging it can be frustrating when learning or refining a new skill.
How-to guides often attract a wide range of readers, all with varying levels of expertise.
“How to Create a YouTube Channel,” for instance, likely attracts YouTube beginners who are simply interested in creating a channel to watch and comment on friends’ posts.
However, it probably also attracts professional marketers who need to create a channel for their business to attract and convert leads.
With such a diverse audience, it’s critical you write clearly, but not condescendingly, to ensure you retain readers regardless of skill level or background experience.
Is there a difference in how you would write a tutorial vs. a how-to guide?
Tutorials and guides are often used interchangeably to define content that explains how to complete a particular task. While some argue that one is more descriptive than the other, you’ll find that it varies from one brand to the next.
Perhaps the most distinctive difference is between a how-to guide and a user manual. A how-to guide is typically a top-of-the-funnel piece of content meant to attract users and generate leads.
A user manual is typically created for someone who has already purchased a product or service and needs step-by-step instructions on how to use it.
While one falls under marketing materials, the other relates more to the product.
How-To Guide Examples
1. The Recipe How-To Guide
McCormick’s “How to recipe guide on french toast” is neatly organized so readers can quickly determine a) how long the recipe will take, b) the ingredients they’ll need, and c) how to find the recipe.
If a reader already knows the ingredients necessary for french toast, they can click on “Instructions” to get started right away.
Alternatively, say a reader prefers viewing instructions rather than reading, they can click on “Watch How-To Video.” This offers a good variety for visitors who consume content differently.
Takeaway: as you’re structuring your own how-to guide, consider how you can best organize it so readers can jump straight to what they need. In addition, account for the medium that your target audience will prefer.
2. The B2B How-To Guide
Atlassian’s “How to Write the Perfect 90-Day Plan” provides important contextual details to the 90-day plan, including “What is a 90-day plan?” and “What should be included in a 90-day plan?” The piece is well-researched and written with empathy.
Best of all, the guide provides a downloadable 90-day plan PDF, so readers can immediately download and use Atlassian’s plan with their own team.
Takeaway: Consider what ebooks, PDFs, charts, Canva designs, or Google Sheets you can create internally and offer to readers to download. Readers will appreciate the option to immediately apply what they’ve learned.
3. The B2C How-To Guide
This “How to Become a Freelancer” guide from FlexJobs does a good job providing relevant links and data to create a comprehensive overview of what freelancing is.
Additionally, the post uses action verbs to inspire the reader.
Under “How to Start a Freelance Business.” you’ll see tips such as “Do Your Homework,” “Create a Brand,” and “Plan Ahead.” The language used in this post goes a long way toward encouraging readers to get started immediately.
Takeaway: Use action verbs and concise language to keep a reader engaged. When possible, start with a verb instead of a noun when listing out steps.
4. The Product-Related How-To Guide
This article by How-To Geek, titled “How to Find Data in Google Sheets with VLOOKUP,” isn’t necessarily the most interesting topic.
However, the brand effectively keeps the content engaging with empathetic statements like, “VLOOKUP might sound confusing, but it’s pretty simple once you understand how it works.”
Additionally, How-To Geek includes useful, original images to demonstrate each tip they’re describing.
These images don’t have to be state-of-the-art visuals created by a professional design team, either — as this post proves, a few simple screenshots go a long way toward helping readers understand a complex topic.
Takeaway: When possible, create your own visuals/screenshots to walk readers through each step-by-step instruction.
5. The Lifestyle How-To Guide
I recently saw this post in Medium titled, “11 Ways to Quickly Stop Stress in Your Life.”
I clicked on it expecting a few quick, easy tips for stopping stress. Instead, I was engrossed in the first section of the post, “The Effects of Stress in Your Life.”
While I previously mentioned the importance of starting with a quick answer to the searcher’s how-to question, there are exceptions to that rule.
In this case, it’s important readers understand the why before the how.
Takeaway: Play around with structure. Consider what your readers need to know in order for the rest of the post to matter to them. For instance, you might start with a section, “What is XYZ?” and “Why XYZ matters” before diving into, “How to do XYZ.” This way, your readers are fully invested in finding out how these tips can improve their lives in some small (or big) way.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in March 2021. It has been updated for freshness and accuracy.
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