The spirit of competition has been bringing people together for centuries. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Academy Awards or your friend’s nephew’s t-ball game—knowing there’s an award up for grabs raises the stakes and encourages competitors to give it their all. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why so many publishers choose to hold “Best-Of” contests.
These friendly competitions are beneficial for the businesses that produce them AND the ones that win. They help publishers engage with the community, drive up readership and build lasting relationships. Meanwhile, winners gain recognition and prestige.
But how do you make sure your company’s “Best-Of” contest is successful? There are three key rules to keep in mind:
Have Clear Criteria and Guidelines
Your participants need to know what’s okay and what isn’t. Establish clear rules for the contest to ensure fairness and consistency in evaluating submissions. Define the specific requirements, categories, and eligibility criteria for participation. Clearly communicate guidelines to participants, including submission deadlines, formats, and any additional rules or restrictions.
Bring in Expert Judges
Fair. Unbiased. Credible. This is what the judging process should look like. Assemble a panel of qualified and respected experts who can assess the submissions objectively. Select judges who have expertise and experience relevant to the contest’s focus. Make sure to give your selection crew evaluation guidelines to assess the entries consistently.
Promote Engagement and Publicity
Actively promote the contest to generate participation. Use what you can—social media, email newsletters, your website, and your publication—to spread the word. Create buzz and excitement around the contest by highlighting previous winners, sharing participant stories, and showcasing the benefits of winning. Leveraging publicity and engagement can attract a broader audience and helps promote your brand.
Every contest (like every publication) is different. But they’re still a fantastic way to celebrate excellence, foster community and drive engagement. We spoke with a couple of industry professionals for an inside look at what it takes to build a successful “Best-Of” contest these days.
Frisco Style Magazine —Frisco, TX
Keep it fair. That should be one of your top priorities when holding any kind of “Best-Of” contest, according to Andrew Johnson, General Manager of Frisco STYLE Magazine. The magazine holds a “Best of Business” contest every fall, and while they may be in charge of the competition, Johnson says they’re not the ones picking the winners.
“We’ve commissioned a business coach,” Johnson explained. “And he, along with probably six to eight other people, form our selection committee. It would be like the dean of the business school at the local university, or maybe another business owner that’s won our awards multiple years in a row. That gives legitimacy to our selections.”
Frisco STYLE has been holding these kinds of contests for more than a decade, and Johnson says they’re constantly adapting to help businesses grow. By doing that, they’re also helping their own business.
“It’s another way for us to network and get in front of other businesses that may advertise or may not,” Johnson said. “It helps us quite a bit with leads, and by getting to know the other businesses in our area so that we can serve their needs better, whether that’s marketing, advertising, or just helping them along.”
Before the pandemic, Frisco STYLE would hold in-person awards ceremonies to honor the winners of each “Best-Of” contest they produced. They don’t do that anymore, but still find ways to recognize those who win. Johnson says they typically create personalized plaques to present to the winning businesses. This year, they’re also making videos showcasing the winners to post online. Johnson says they have a wider reach there, and the videos are expected to go much further than a simple picture and text.
“We’re really trying to help businesses grow. We’re trying to not just alert them, but to make sure that everyone in Frisco knows that they won this award. That helps their business, and it helps us.”
Advocate Media —Dallas, TX
Rick Wamre, CRO and Founder of Advocate Media, agrees about making the competition as fair as possible. After all, doing so is essential to maintain the integrity of the judging process and instill confidence in participants. Especially since there will always be those who try to cheat the system.
“You cannot leave it as open voting,” Wamre said, adding that publishers need to use screening software that prohibits multiple votes per day by a single person or computer. “Somebody could vote 40 times in a day, they could stack the deck. You want to keep it fair.”
He says being transparent and communicating participant expectations can save you trouble down the line.
“If you don’t post the rules clearly, you’re not making sure that people are following them,” Wamre said. “Most people do things the right way, they follow the rules. But, like with anything else, there’s always a few people who like to play on the edge. You just have to be able to eliminate those.”
It’s time consuming and takes an active hand to make sure things run smoothly, but Wamre says holding the contests is 100% worthwhile for Advocate Media. He says people seem to enjoy getting involved, voting on their favorite businesses and talking with their neighbors about who should win. On top of driving up engagement and building the email database, Wamre says “Best-Of” contests generate a lot of clicks and get more people visiting the website.
“It’s a good way to capture readers,” Wamre says. “Typically, the “Best-Of” stuff is one of our bigger promotions. People end up discovering our website or our newsletters that wouldn’t have discovered them otherwise.”
Experience Share Q&A: Andrew Johnson
Q: How can publishers make sure their “Best-Of” contests are successful?
A: My advice would be to remain as unbiased as possible. Allow this to be an award for the business community, not a way to strategically get into the pockets of your clients. It’s really just a way to award those that are doing an outstanding job.
Q: Any advice for keeping bias out of the decision-making process?
A: We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want this to be something that can be bought, it has to be earned through hard work. In order to make it as unbiased as possible, we decided to bring in a business coach and create a panel of judges that would select winners. Businesses fill out a form and we’ll have our business coach interview them. Then we sit down and go over the top prospects. We start whittling down to the ones that we feel like are the absolute best—the best at lead generation, sales processes, and the best at giving back.
Q: What kind of impact do these contests have on your clients?
A: An example would be a plumbing company in our area. They’ve advertised with us for probably 12 to 14 years, consistently, every single month. Over the last 10 years, they have won our “Best Of Business” three or four times in different categories. It’s not because they spend a lot of money with us, it’s because they’re really good at what they do. Since they’ve won so many times, we brought in the owner onto our business panel as a selection person. Obviously, she understands how business should work. She’s won this award, she’s very knowledgeable. And that’s a perfect example of how we’ve helped a business grow through advertising and business coaching. It’s just a great feeling to be able to help them in that way.
Experience Share Q&A: Rick Wamre
Q: When it comes to holding “Best-Of” contests, what do you know now that you wish you’d known sooner?
A: It takes a lot of promotion to cast the widest net, that’s one thing we’ve learned. When we started, we didn’t promote as much as we could have. The second thing is, the more you engage with the nominees, the more they engage with their list, and the better the voting goes.
Q: What do publishers need to keep in mind before holding a “Best-Of” contest?
A: One, it’s very time intensive. Two, your website and software are very important. And three, if you do it, you are going to annoy potential clients. You may forget somebody who’s an advertiser and deserves to be in it. People are going to complain because they aren’t in it. People who are in it are going to complain because you didn’t spell their name right or something like that. It requires a lot of client service to work right. You can’t just post it and forget it, it takes ongoing work to do it right.
Q: So what’s a good indicator that what you’re doing is working?
A: If you have a lot of readers signing up to vote, that’s a good sign. And make sure you have a decent software setup that can handle crowds of people voting. We’ve done that part of it right and we’ve done that part of it wrong over the years. There’s nothing more frustrating than going to vote on something like this, and then your site locks up—can’t vote or takes too long to load. People just disappear then.
Q: What software do you recommend?
A: We’ve been using a WordPress plugin. We used a larger commercial piece of software for a while. It was pretty solid on the voting, but not very good on the presentation. And it was expensive. So, we’re actually exploring different options at this point. We’re always on the lookout for something better.