By Jonathan Kranz published August 14, 2016

5 Secrets to Award-Winning Content


I recently had the privilege of being one of many judges reviewing Content Marketing Awards submissions. As I read through the entries (12 each in two categories), I was struck by the sharp contrast between the best work — the top three in each category — and the remaining nine.

I had expected to see a gradient of many shades of gray; instead, there was a black-and-white difference between the losers and the winners. The hard part was selecting a champion among the top three because those three stood out like swans in a murder of crows.

Clear patterns emerged. The contest rules and basic ethics prevent me from citing specific examples. (That absence, by my own standards, prevents this post from being a champion.) I’m forced to summarize the distinctions, but even as abstractions, the following themes may shed some insight on what distinguishes great from grating content.

1. You gotta’ serve somebody — but not yourself

The weakest pieces were clearly self-serving; I could practically hear product managers and PR people whispering in the writers’ ears as they wrote. Product features, “secret sauces,” and obvious political agendas took precedence over audience relevance.

The best work glowed with a laser-like focus on audience concerns, needs, and desires. When I read the champion content, I felt convinced that the authors really knew and understood their audiences, so much so that they could pass as colleagues. They addressed their readers’ hopes and fears without condescension, and presented empathetic solutions to real challenges.

Champion #content glowed w/ a laser-like focus on audience concerns, needs, and desires says @jonkranz #cmworld Click To Tweet

2. Take deep dives instead of throwing in kitchen sinks

I applaud the ambition of much of the work that I saw. Production values ran high, and most of the content creators took on topics of organic interest to their audiences. The mediocre work, however, took on too much, spreading itself wide and thin: These pieces tended to say familiar things about familiar issues.

Champion content favored concentration, digging deeply to uncover fresh and unfamiliar insights or ideas. Again, I can’t reference a real contest entry. But here’s a fictitious example of different approaches: A Homeowner’s Guide to Lawn Care vs. 3 Things Massachusetts Gardeners Must Do Before Winter. The former is too broad to stand out; the latter promises something precise enough to attract urgent interest.

38+ Examples of Brands Doing Great Content

3. Inspired, not tired — champions take risks

At times I could predict, with dismaying accuracy, the substance of a given piece before I even opened it. It was an awful amount of the same-old, same-old: the same-old tips, the same-old recipes, the same-old human interest tearjerkers — even the same-old pop culture references.

The champions all had something daring and unexpected about them: unusual inspirations, unconventional analogies, and surprising stories. Maybe this should be every creator’s rule of thumb: If an idea doesn’t make you at least a little nervous, it’s probably not worth pursuing. The best ideas inspire some fear: “Can we really get away with this?”

If an idea doesn’t make you at least a little nervous, it’s probably not worth pursuing says @jonkranz #cmworld Click To Tweet

Example (not from the Content Marketing Awards): Tim Washer’s video for the Cisco ASR 9000.

At least one person on the Cisco review committee must have said, “Whoa, wait a minute. We can’t pitch a router as a Valentine’s Day present!” Fortunately, someone had the … let’s call it courage … to overrule the naysayer and get the project approved.

4. Execution goes beyond the basics

Facts, figures, concrete examples — these are fundamental pillars for good content. But champions go above and beyond the call of duty.

Facts, figures, concrete examples – these are fundamental pillars for good #content says @jonkranz #cmworld Click To Tweet

In the best work, the production team used original photography, not royalty-free stock stuff. They commissioned professional illustrators to create graphs and other supporting visuals.

And the writing! My favorite pieces went far beyond the Dragnet “Just the facts, ma’am” style to employ fresh metaphors and apply a fine ear for rhythm and meter. The best writers were never breezy, but often funny and always good humored.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it needs to be said (or remembered): If you want to create champion work, you need to work with champion talent.

5. Big money doesn’t always win

This was perhaps the most encouraging discovery of all: The quality of the work did not directly correspond to the size of the underlying budget. I saw plenty of big-brand work created by big agencies that had obviously been supported with a phalanx of dollar-and-resource firepower, yet still fizzled. On the other hand, I saw extraordinary work created on a shoestring.

What was the difference? Imagination. The mediocre work stuck to conventional paths. But great work blazed new trails. The creators showed a deep understanding of their audiences, and were willing to take inspiring leaps with their creations. The best content made me laugh out loud, want to try out a new idea, or nod my head in empathetic understanding.

The best #content made me LOL, try out a new idea, or nod my head in empathetic understanding says @jonkranz Click To Tweet

Yes, production values matter. Having a core vision and capacity for dogged execution matters more.

Yet even also-rans have real value

Here’s the beautiful thing about content marketing: It’s not a winner-take-all competition. With perhaps one or two exceptions, all of the work I reviewed probably made a positive contribution to their organizations’ ambitions.

As marketers, our goal is not to make the “best” content per se, but to create relevant content that reinforces bonds and encourages trust. Sure, champions may be rare. But the only chumps are the marketers who don’t seize the opportunities content creation can open for them, and fail to enter the ring at all.

Want to be there in person to learn who wins in the Content Marketing Awards’ Project of the Year, Agency of the Year, and Content Marketer of the Year? At the same time, you can expand your own skill set to become an award-winning content marketer with the lessons learned during Content Marketing World, Sept. 6-9. Register today and use code BLOG100 to save $100.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Jonathan Kranz

Jonathan Kranz is the principal of Kranz Communications and the author of Writing Copy for Dummies and the novel, Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea. He will lead two sessions at CMWorld 2016: Writing for the Web 201, and the Professional Services Lab. Follow him on Twitter @jonkranz.

Other posts by Jonathan Kranz

  • Dr Keith Meadows

    A good article but, would have liked more examples.


    • Jonathan Kranz

      Dear Keith,

      Me too! I have my fingers crossed that, after the formal CMW awards are distributed, I’ll be invited to do a follow-up post that includes examples I wasn’t at liberty to share while composing this one.

      Do you examples of excellent work you’d like to share?


  • Roger C. Parker

    Dear Jonathan: As a fellow judge, I am in total agreement with the points you raise, especially the deep shelf between the top 3 contenders in each field, and the drop to the next level.

    Content marketing may be become more and more accepted, yet the basic rules of “persona needs first,” “helpful, relevant service,” easy reading, and design for readability seem to be far from universally implemented.

    • Jonathan Kranz

      Dear Roger,

      Thank you! Perhaps you can share some of things you discovered while judging. Are you going to CMW in Cleveland? I’ll be there Monday evening through Friday. Perhaps we can meet?


      • Roger C. Parker

        Dear Jonathan:
        Among the things I found disturbing was the lack of “context,” or “obvious relevance” for the information shared. There were no “obvious benefits.”

        The other thing that I noticed in several cases was the lack of “bridge,” or “action segue,” between the content and the market. In most cases, after the information, there was no obvious “next step.”

        In other cases, there were checklists, exercises, lists, worksheets, or note-taking that eases the transition from passive information-gathering to action.

        I look forward to meeting you at CMW, as well!

        • Jonathan Kranz


          Thanks for bringing up the “next step” issue. I cut my teeth in direct marketing; focusing on the next step was one of the most important disciplines I learned–and it’s one that’s too often missing in content marketing.

          This lack of “next step” thinking produces two problems: 1) It results in content without focus; and 2) It fails, as you mentioned, to direct passive readers into active engagement.

          See you at CMW!

  • Roger C. Parker

    Even worse when it’s taken *me* a month! g)

    • Tim Brown

      Haha, that’s actually more accurate to what I’m talking about too.

  • Jonathan Kranz


    I love lists, especially how-to lists like these. I’m not trying to be a wise-ass here, but…just as you mentioned in your first post, concrete examples would be great. They would reinforce each of the listed points while adding real-life credibility too.

    • Dr Keith Meadows

      Thanks I’ll do that for the eBook

      • Jonathan Kranz

        You might find this helpful for your ebook:

        Good luck!

        • Dr Keith Meadows


          I’ve already got it – very helpful.


        • Dr Keith Meadows

          Just been rereading your ebook whilst I’m producing my own. It’s really helpful, particularly the part on the the intro to your ebook, which I’m following by the letter.
          Can I ask one question is it o.k. to add your company logo to each page of the ebook?
          Thanks for your time

          • Jonathan Kranz


            Ultimately, there are no hard and fixed “rules”: you can do as you please. Consider this, however: adding your logo to every page sends a message; NOT adding the logo sends a message, too. One of the consistent themes in my content is the importance of customer-oriented copy, of language, themes, and ideas that speak FROM the point of view of the prospect or customer. The content I produce to promote myself must be consistent with the approach I encourage with my clients. That’s why I focus on making each page (to the best I’m able) as relevant to the reader as possible, and deliberately downplay overt self-promotioon.

            My approach is not and should not be everyone’s. You have a different business model, a different brand, and a different way of communicating value. Your choices (logo vs. no logo, for example) should reflect your own governing principles.

  • Jonathan Kranz


    Agreed. I think that’s why it’s so important to line up your strategic ducks BEFORE you execute on tactics. When you know who you’re talking to, what they want, where the hot buttons are, how your expertise intersects with buyer needs, you have a foundation that makes it much easier to create engaging content faster and with greater consistency.

    • Tim Brown

      I’ll strategize for a year and a half and then create one final golden piece of content everyone wants.

      • Jonathan Kranz

        You know, it’s very possible that one piece is so golden that it justifies the 1.5 years of prep work. But if there’s any way you can apply everything you learned (and the good will/consensus you built) from that investment to other projects, you’ll enjoy even greater rewards. Or at least greater peace of mind!

  • Cheryl

    Terrific and very useful post. I think it’s particularly helpful for gaining buy-in and direction from both internal and external clients. Thank you.

    • Jonathan Kranz

      Cheryl, thank you!

  • Eric Wholley

    I think what you have surfaced is incredibly important and something that we marketers seemingly do a poor job of discussing in a public forum.

    Throughout the spectrum of content marketing we are still seeing that very few companies actually demonstrate real empathy for their marketplaces. They unwittingly ‘out’ themselves via self-serving content, repeating what is safe and comfortable. They are isolated from the very audiences they are trying to serve. Unsurprisingly, they fail to know HOW to take risks like those you referenced.

    Think of someone you care about and/or know very well. Would you feel comfortable walking up to them in a crowded place and do something or say something out of the ordinary? Sure you would.

    Yet, here we are in 2016 and most still cannot connect the activities of content marketing to that one non-negotiable rule we all learned in on the first day of our first marketing class: know thy (*$#&ing) customer!

    When more of us adopt that “laser-like focus on audience concerns, needs, and desires… present(ing) empathetic solutions to real challenges.” Your job as a judge will be a lot tougher – and our world will be a lot better.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Jonathan Kranz



      “Knowing thy customer” is hard work. Instead, we often fall back on, “know thy own wishful thinking.” The latter is easier (and more tempting), but will never produce the results of the former.

  • Kaminska Zakrzewska

    The important thing is thinking long-term. Writing unique and original content in a constant style sometimes sounds tiresome, but in a longer period it could help a lot to branding your website.

    • Jonathan Kranz


      Absolutely. Too many marketers waste time chasing “airplane shadows” (the fads inspired by high-flying brand names) instead of digging deep to establish who their customers are and what their company means to them.

  • Steve Hedstrom

    Thanks for a great post Jonathan! I’m excited again to step into more creative territory on my next client blog. That Cisco video is classic too! Enjoy a terrific Tuesday and I’ll be sharing this with my network today. 🙂

    • Jonathan Kranz

      Thanks Steve! I’m glad you’re pumped about your next blog post — will you be able to share it with us when it goes live?

      • Steve Hedstrom

        I’ll ask my client if it’s ok with him. 😉

  • Tetsutaro Tashiro

    Very instructive. Thank you very much indeed. 🙂

    • Jonathan Kranz


      You’re very welcome!

  • Gambit Technologies

    Highly insightful, Jonathan…I, however, have never been able to judge whether what I write is award winning or not. Haven’t ever had a mentor, research a lot, I avoid plagiarism absolutely, but I’m never confident enough. Your article however, is one of the best I’ve read. I could actually visualize the submissions you reviewed. 🙂

    • Jonathan Kranz

      Thank you, Gambit! If you’re at CMW next week, perhaps we can talk there.