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.
How to Guides are incredibly valuable opportunities to reach new audiences with useful, high-quality content. Plus, for both B2B and B2C businesses, How to Guides are often necessary components of 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 users with informative, relevant answers to their questions (related to your own products or services), those readers will begin to see your brand as an authority on the topic. Additionally, they'll appreciate the value you've provided them.
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 to friends and family.
Suffice to say: How to Guides matter.
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.
How to Make a How to Guide
1. Conduct research to ensure your guide is the most comprehensive piece on the topic.
People read How to Guides to learn how to do things. And even if you know very well how to do something, it's critical you conduct research to ensure you're writing content that can help both the beginner and the expert who's searching for your post.
Additionally, to rank on the SERPs, you'll want to conduct keyword research and competitive research to ensure your How to Guide is the most comprehensive post on the subject.
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 covered in its post.
Additionally, you should use Ahrefs or another keyword research tool to explore similar keywords or queries people ask when searching for topics like "Omelette". This can help you create a well-rounded piece that will answer all your readers' questions, and help you rank on Google.
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, since it feels like second-nature to you. For that reason, you'll want to rely on your research to ensure you're including all relevant information.
2. Understand your target audience's concerns and challenges.
For this step, you'll want to use online community forums like Quora or internal data to identify all the various concerns or challenges your target audience might have that your How to Guide can answer.
If you're writing "How to Create a Content Marketing Strategy", for instance, you could 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.
Next, you might 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 answers 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, so you want to deliver all relevant information 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, images, screenshots, or videos can also help take your content to the next level.
For less tactical, more ambiguous topics, you should still list your tips for easy readability.
4. Tell the reader why it matters.
To write a high-quality How to Guide, it's important you start by 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.
If you're writing a How to Guide, there are a few best practices to keep in mind when it comes to writing:
- Use verbs when writing out steps. For instance, you'll want to 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 — but it probably also attracts professional marketers who need to create a channel for their business to attracts and converts 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.
To explore what this looks like in-practice, let's explore some examples of How to Guides next.
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 you'll need, and c) instructions for cooking.
If a reader already knows the ingredients necessary for french toast, she can click to "Instructions" to get started right away. Alternatively, if a reader prefers viewing instructions rather than reading, she can click "Watch How-to Video". This offers good variety when it comes to how readers' prefer consuming How to materials.
Takeaway: When you're structuring your own How to Guide, consider how you can best organize it so readers can jump straight to what they need. For instance, perhaps you put the most important information at the top, or include a jump link so readers can determine what they need to read — and what they can skip.
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 empathetically-written.
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 make internally as an option for readers to download and use. 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 — for instance, 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 towards 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
"How to Find Data in Google Sheets with VLOOKUP" isn't necessarily the most interesting topic, but How-to Geek 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 towards helping the reader 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 it expecting a few quick, easy tips for stopping stress — but, 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 why they should stop stress before knowing how. This Medium writer did a good job understanding the structure he should use to keep readers engaged throughout.
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.