Crafting a Strong Award Program Entry for Your Work

I promised a post for marketing, PR, corporate communications, and advertising pros interested in entering their work for awards. While that list corresponds to a broad swath of industries, award categories and potentially award-worthy programs, there is one thing they all have in common: the entry form.

The focus here is on creating a strong entry.

Out of necessity, this discussion is going to be on the long-ish side, so I’m dividing it into two blog posts: this first one covers Preparation and The Hard Truth, while the final one will offer tips on Writing Your Entry. For those truly serious about crafting a competitive entry, I recommend reading each section, though you may want to peruse the first post to see where you net out before tackling the actual entry-writing advice.

Preparation

I mentioned in my previous post that, these days, judges are looking for quantitative results. There’s only one sure thing with today’s award programs: if you don’t have the data to demonstrate results, no matter how excellent your creative or campaign, you will not win.

Set Aside Enough Time for Your Entry
You’ve worked hard all year. You pulled all-nighters strategizing the best way to connect with target audiences. You flew cross-country in a blizzard to do print check on the annual report. You gave up weekends seeing to every detail of a spectacular launch or event. You felt like you’d developed an alternate personality after tweeting non-stop for months in your client’s Twitter style.

To paraphrase that lottery tagline: You can’t win if you don’t enter. It’s a sad truth that many, many worthy programs go unrewarded because the people who shepherded them through to successful conclusions moved on to new work and were too busy to submit an award entry.

Your work deserves the chance to compete. You and your team deserve it. Your clients deserve it – and an award has the potential to boost your reputation and your client’s.

Set aside the time you’ll need to complete the advance work – client permission to enter, legal approval regarding any proprietary information (if that’s relevant), gathering research and result metrics – and the time required to write a competitive entry. (It once took me 27 hours just to gather the accurate statistics and backing documentation needed to accompany an entry – and that wasn’t the half of putting the entry together!)

One reason I’m writing this now is that some of the bigger award programs launch early in the new year. This gives you time to review your 2011 programs to decide which might be suitable for entry; more important, it gives you time to collect additional data on well-executed programs that could be award-getters if only they had the kinds of details that back up your strategy. Doing follow-up should be easier for corporate and institutional advancement communicators (who tend to have full access to the audiences they’re communicating with), but even agency folks may be able to survey their clients’ audiences with the goal of gathering metrics or researching campaign effectiveness.

Take Advantage of Early-Bird Deadlines
Perhaps the best reason to start early is the reduced entry fees for early birds. And won’t it be nice, when all your competitors are scrambling come late February, to kick back and focus on your stacks and stacks of regular work?

Time to Reacquaint Yourself with Your Campaign
Now is the time to revisit everything you developed for your campaign – down to emails with the client. When you sit down to write your nomination, you may be asked to provide detailed descriptions of the Communications Environment, Business Challenge, Research, Planning Documents, Competitive Analysis, Market Share and Positioning, Strategy, Goals, Plan, Integrated Activation, and Execution of your program. In addition, you’ll be expected to provide a succinct evaluation of the impact of your efforts and, quite likely, a blurb that encapsulates all of the above in under 100 words (to be used in case you’re a winner).

If you conducted extensive research, used those insights to drive your strategic platform, wrote detailed program strategies, objectives and goals, and put together a spreadsheet of projected media hits, you shouldn’t have any trouble. But, let’s be honest, how often do programs get that kind of attention to detail? And what about a crisis program, where you just did it and didn’t have time to document it (much less plan it extensively beforehand)?

Now is your chance to go back over your notes and planning emails, to retrace your brainstorming, and develop language around each of the questions you’ll be asked on the entry. You can still find previous years’ entry forms on most awards websites; the questions won’t vary too much from year to year.

If you created a campaign this year that utilized a brand new technology or that focused on an entirely new category (a few years ago, most programs added social media campaigns and environmental sustainability categories, for example), now is also a good time to look over the 2012 programs to see if a new category has been added to cover your program. If you don’t see it, connect with the program coordinator ahead of time to see if there will be new categories this year or to figure out which existing category is best for your program.

Better to Kill a Tree than Kill Your Darlings
I completely understand how hard it can be to watch what appears to be a video at your desk for 45 minutes while everyone else in the office is working. But, several of the larger award programs offer live webinars weeks in advance of entry deadlines, featuring award program coordinators and previous years’ judges and winners.

Since every program is different – and some have their strange little quirks, like still not providing an online entry capability – webinars are especially instructive. If you can attend a live webinar versus taped, you’ll really develop an understanding of the mindset of the judges, and you can ask questions. Take advantage of this and remember: if you need to ask the question, chances are another 10 people attending the webinar want to ask it, too, but are afraid to electronically raise their hands.

A few programs provide podcasts while others supply downloadable guides to the specifics of their programs, categories and entries. Go ahead and kill that tree – download it, print it out, comb through it, highlight it, refer to it when writing.

IABC offers an entire webpage of resources, including advice on award categories. PRSA’s Silver Anvil site provides a Search feature of previous winning entries by year and category and there’s an ongoing Twitter discussion about the awards and entry preparation at #PRSANVIL.

All of these are essential viewing/reading/listening/tweeting.

Carefully Compare Your Campaign with Award Categories
This step is far more important – and confusing – than you might think. Where might your client’s campaign for an existing product fit amongst categories as specific as Event Marketing, Influencer Programs, Branding Campaigns, or Re-positioning Programs? Did you notice whether there was a single and a multiple Event category?

Category selection is critical because once your entry is before the judges, there are no do-overs. If, during the judging sessions, the panel decides your entry is in the wrong category, it will be eliminated – completely – from the award competition. They will not contact you during the judging session. For every professional award program I’ve looked at, the judges have no discretion to move an entry to another category. Programs consider it entirely your responsibility to select the correct category for your entry, which is one reason why you’re allowed to enter a single program in multiple categories. Note that if you enter the wrong category, you typically forfeit your (hefty) entry fee.

So read the category descriptions carefully and, if there’s any question, ask early and often. Take advantage of webinars and expert resources to find the right answer for your program. It will be worth it.

A side note: many organizations honor career, individual, agency, and student achievement. Sometimes these are given out as part of their main awards programs, but schedules do vary, so while you’re taking a look at award program websites, it’s worth the time to explore all of these options.

Study Previous Winners
A number of programs share examples and case studies of prior winners on their websites. These can be especially valuable to read when they include the entire written entry. It’s worth noting that if you are reading a short and snappy write-up about a campaign, this is typically not what the judges used to determine the winner; rather it’s the blurb or summary you’re asked to include if you win. Blurbs can give you clues to why a program was awarded a top prize, but they are often too superficial to be helpful guides to writing your own nomination.

Ask Questions
If you’re planning ahead, you’ll avoid that frantic, last-minute phone call or email to the award-program coordinator five minutes before the entry deadline. Ultimately, everything about putting together your nomination is your responsibility, my final tip in the Preparation section is this: some resources may be more helpful than others.

This is not a diss on the official Contact person for these programs – in almost every case, they are standing by till the very last nanosecond, typing at a furious pace to reply to every email query, and returning every last voicemail. They are responsive and diligent. They are also official representatives of this year’s program. As such, they typically won’t provide specific answers, such as which category to enter, in areas deemed the entrant’s responsibility.

While previous years’ judges and winners are usually members of the sponsoring organization, they may be able to provide more specific guidance. As always, remember this advice doesn’t guarantee that this year’s judges will agree. Also, these folks are under no obligation to respond – as the program coordinator is – to close-to-deadline emails and calls. But, it can be more reassuring to hash out a rationale for entering one category over another with someone who’s been there before than feel like your entry is taking an expensive blind leap into the wrong category.

The Hard Truth

Revisiting your program may have the unfortunate effect of highlighting its shortcomings. Awards season is expensive and can get even more pricey when you think about entering a campaign in multiple categories across different programs. (The lowest entry fee I’ve seen is about $160 per campaign; some of the highest are well over $400 per entry, with late fees up to $195 for missing early-bird deadlines.)

Two areas that will be crucial to helping you make your decision are metrics and the timing of your campaign.

The bulk of your campaign should have taken place in 2011:

  • If you had a short-term program or event, you should be fine.
  • If your campaign launched in late 2010, but ran through 2011, it’s always a good idea to confirm eligibility with the award program coordinator.
  • If your program is longer-term and still running – or will continue into 2012 – you will have precious little or no time to produce measurements. Talk it over with the award program coordinator; these programs are best left to the 2013 award season when your results and data will make them competitive.

The good news about timing is that these awards aren’t like the Oscars, where films released in January are forgotten by November. Judges are reviewing your whole program and measuring your results against your strategy and objectives; timing isn’t going to be as heavily weighted as metrics (unless, say, you launched your big 4th of July event in late August).

I’m going to spend more time on this in my next post, but if you discover, after looking over your campaign, that your results or metrics don’t exist, don’t reflect your original objectives, or actually contradict your objectives, you do not have a competitive entry.

If, for example, the goal of an event for a consumer product was to “increase brand loyalty,” and the only data you have to offer the judges in support of your program is the number of attendees at the event and the amount of media impressions you got, you do not have a competitive entry. Your metrics are not tied to your goals because you haven’t measured how the event induced attendees to buy more product or promote the product via word of mouth.

To reiterate, there is still time to gather data before the major award programs launch in 2012. The results you need must be tied to your original program objectives and goals, so review what you set out to do with this campaign, figure out the kinds of data that will back up your goals and how it can be measured.

Once you’ve defined the data needed, you’ll have to ask yourself the hard question about whether it’s attainable. Do you have access to the target audience? Will they be agreeable to having you use their contact information? Can you gather the metrics you need without further cost to your agency or client?

The hard truth may be that the data aren’t within your reach. But, that’s okay. Even though it eliminates this year’s program from award season, it will spur you to include well-defined measurements in every future program you develop. And that, in large part, is what these awards are all about: rewarding the application of rigorous standards to every PR, marketing, advertising and communications program we undertake.

NEXT WEEK: In Part 2, I’ll focus on Writing Your Entry. The writing required for award program entries is highly structured, so I’ll provide more than pointers; I’ll share a free spreadsheet that I’ve developed which you may find helpful in preparing your award entries.