I judge a lot of awards competitions for professional associations and organizations, and it's always a fruitful enterprise. I just finished judging 60+ entries and processing hundreds of judges' comments for a North American competition and came away with 6 clear take-aways based on work marketers and communications consider their best.

6 Ways to Create Winning Content

1. Content Voice & Tone: Voice makes the difference.

This is the nifty opening image to The Word Factory's Elements of Voice slide deckAll things being equal in terms of design, ideas and writing quality, a clear, strong voice is a clear difference-maker. In entry after entry, the top scorers combine strong design language with strong editorial language to engage and satisfy. Institutional tone was a always a loser, especially when encountered across several pieces. Too often, if you took out brand names, the copy sounded identical. In other cases, the tone was inappropriate for the voice or channel, coming off as patronizing, overly formal or other ways wrong. Voice and tone are the keys to relatability, trust and engagement. Content Voice How-To Tips: Create the right content voice and tone and understand the elements of voice.

2. Content Marketing Design & Editorial: You need both to win.

I was surprised by this one, but a lot of entries nailed one of these elements, but not the other, and the results were disastrous. Do them both well and you crush it. That means putting as much effort into one as you do in the other, and requires deep collaboration between design and editorial. I reviewed many entries that were beautiful to look at but fell apart when I started reading or interacting with the content. Like the gorgeous signage derailed by copy that had no relation whatsoever to the editorial or the useful branded app tanked by a crappy UI. Content Development How-to Tip: Plan projects holistically from the start with designers and writers attacking the same problem and pursuing the same goal together.

3. Audience Engagement: Relevant content wins every time.

This is a nifty picture to illustrate a post on content marketing engagement on The Word Factory blogCreating content that's relevant to your target audience isn't everything, it's the only thing. Top-performing content keeps audience interest, needs and preferences front and center in both design and writing from planning through execution. And that drives effectiveness and return on marketing investment. You can get part of the way there with customer personas and buyer journeys, assuming they're realistic. Winners put time and attention into solving real problems or providing real value for real people. Losers consistently showed evidence of caring more about checking off brand specs, messaging points, keywords, or client directives than creating relevance, value and engagement. These three characteristics are especially important if you content is floating around in a crowded and competitive marketplace in which your audience has lots of alternatives. Which is, you know, pretty much every content marketer in the world. Audience Engagement How-to Tips: Boost content discoverability with relevant content and use customer insights to create better content.

4. A/B Testing Marketing: Honesty is the best policy.

Speaking of engagement, let's talk about truth in testing. Though rare, I've noticed some marketers gaming the A/B testing system by creating an intentionally bad piece of content to test against something better. Let me be clear: This is cheating. A/B testing only yields meaningful results when it measures two pieces of your best work against each other. Making on piece intentionally bad--or even just phoning one in--skews results and only show that you know how to game the system. A/B Testing How-To Tip: Read this great Hubspot primer on A/B testing. [external link]

5. Small but Important: Little details have big impact.

A cool word art image illustrating a blog post on content marketing by The Word FactoryYes, sweat the small stuff is a cliché, but it's still good advice. Small touches like skillful use of spot varnish, beautiful photo filters or thoughtful navigation make a huge difference--particularly when other aspects of writing and design are equal. On many otherwise great entries, careless errors in spelling, punctuation, usage and grammar (SPUG) detracted from credibility and overall quality. Ditto hashtags that go awry by creating a literal or phonetic miscue or being associated with something less than worthy of your brand. And, no surprise, the negative impact was most severe on shorter content and in elements like heads/subheads, captions and social content. Attention to Detail How-To Tip: Read everything out loud to catch SPUG errors and ask trusted associates not on the project to respond to the work before distribution. Think about small touches enhance audience engagement and enjoyment.

6. Content Marketing Metrics & Analytics: Measure what matters.

Yes, I know you've heard that before. But judging by the entries I've seen recently, knowing that hasn't translating to doing that. Assessing the effectiveness of your work based on meaningless metrics hurts your credibility--and your contest scores. For instance, judging sales contest success by how many people enter isn't exactly meaningful, especially if the prize is something of high value to the audience, like a trip to Portugal or two extra week of vacation. Your audience probably would enter no matter how good or bad the contest content was. Similarly, high marks for events doesn't necessarily relate to the quality of the event program itself. Even the number of app downloads is misleading if the app is the only way for users to gain mobile access to something they want, like a bank account or medical records. Authentic, important metrics are the only ones worth measuring, and the only ones that win credibility and rewards for your efforts. Content Marketing Metrics How-To: Take it from my pal Scott Monty: "Not that measurement doesn't matter, but that you shouldn't be misled by the wrong thing. Don't chase followers. Measure what matters." [external link]

These six content marketing tips won't just garner higher scores for your next contest entry. Deploy them on your next project to create higher quality content more consistently, compel better audience engagement, and drive business impact.


All images sourced from HaikuDeck.