Writing Your Entry: How to Make Your Work Competitive this Awards Season

Maybe it made you chuckle…perhaps it seemed harsh, but that comment by Steve Martin, made during his acceptance speech at an awards show, has bearing on every professional PR, communications, marketing and advertising awards program. Ensuring that your entry has a competitive chance is what this post is all about.

Too many entrants make the same simple mistakes, leaving sections of the entry form blank because they haven’t documented and measured their work. It’s like shooting yourself in the foot – and after all your hard work this year!

Don’t make the mistakes “all the other nominees” make. Give your work a fighting chance and put yourself in the winners’ circle.

In this post, I hope to shed some light on the judges’ perspective, when we’re in the room evaluating entries – what thrills us to the point of wishing we’d worked on a campaign with you and what makes us anguished to the point of wanting to tear our hair out, when great work doesn’t have the measurement and supporting documentation to back it up. I also promised a worksheet to help you write a strong entry (you’ll find info about that under Award Entry Smart Chart toward the end).

First, a pop quiz:

True or False? 

  • The client was ecstatic with our results, which makes this campaign really award-worthy
  • Media impressions are metrics, and we’ve got millions, so we’ll definitely score
  • The CEO thought our all-staff meeting was the best he’s ever seen – that must be worth an award

If you answered True to any of those statements, and you plan to submit your work for a professional award this season, I encourage you to read on.

Last week, I offered some truisms about awards:

  • You can’t win if you don’t enter
  • Far too many entrants don’t give themselves the time to write a thoughtful entry
  • You must be in the right category

Let’s add three essentials for your entry:

  • You must have measurements that support your objectives
  • You must tie the success of your program (as measured by data) to your objectives
  • You must fill in (unless it really doesn’t apply to your program and isn’t a required section) every section of the entry and provide as much supporting detail as possible, even if it’s just planning emails exchanged with the client

Now, let’s get started. This post is divided into two parts: general advice on writing style for your entry and a section-by-section guide to completing a competitive entry form.

Writing Tips

Be Brief: One of the biggest issues entrants struggle with is word or page limitations. The trick here is not to panic. Allow yourself plenty of time to write because for most writers, writing shorter takes longer. If you’re submitting hard copy, read font size/style and page margin instructions carefully. Reducing font size may enable you to cram in more details, but remember that the judge has to be able to read your entry, and you don’t want to make it difficult for him or her. Online entry forms typically allow you to save your work and re-enter the system at a later date. Take advantage of this and read the entry form completely. If you’re worried about 150-word limits on every section of the entry, read through to see, for example, if you’ll be covering things, such as Communications Environment, Business Rationale, Research, Strategy, Objectives, Plan, and Execution, separately. If there are individual fields for these, don’t waste space and time covering specifics about program Execution under the Plan section.

Bring Your Campaign to Life: Whatever your entry consists of – an event, a product launch, an employee newsletter, a 15-second Superbowl spot, a fundraiser – guide the judges through the groundswell of excitement that led to your successful execution. This includes that moment of realization once you’d read all the research; the inspiration behind the campaign; the back-and-forth with the client, gaining their approval. Using an active voice will help, rather than writing in a way that makes your event feel like it happened at the dawn of time. Don’t write, for example: “We had realized…” “Additional research had shown that…” Put the judges in the room with the team as the program unfolds.

Do Not Rewrite the Press Release: Writing in an active voice does not mean rehashing taglines, marketing speak or language used in the press release. Remember, you’re not trying to sell the judges on your product or client, your focus is the campaign. If you’re looking at the press kit while writing your entry, it can be easy to confuse the two. Also, avoid supplying your own hyperbole about the campaign: never call your own work “groundbreaking,” “revolutionary” or “game-changing.” (You want reporters and target audience members to use this language – and you want to tell the judges if they actually did gush about your program, but in the Results or Evaluation sections, not in the sections where you’re describing your work.)

Mind the Jargon: Judges understand marketing- and PR-speak, but they may not be familiar with jargon and acronyms in your particular industry. You want the judges to have a clear understanding of your program from start to finish; if that means explaining something in plain English (even when you wouldn’t have done so for your target audience), use your writing to give them clarity.

The Entry Form

Each award program has its own categories and entry form, so here I’ve imagined a generic entry to cover as many sections as possible.

Sometimes it’s best to leave this section for last. You want to step back and describe the program from a 30,000-foot level. Often this requires that you get all the details out of your system. This is where you want to encompass The Big Problem, The Big Idea, The Big Effort, and The Big Result without driving down to the facts, figures and timelines required in the next sections.

You’re often given a very tight word count in this section, so be clear, be brief and share your excitement for creating a program that truly had an impact on its intended audience.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I provided enough context about the product, client, company or audiences and the need or opportunity, to write a clear case for the way this program solves the problem?

This is where you begin, as one award program judge aptly described it, “threading the logic needle.” Everything you write from this section on must have a logical flow to it. Your strategy and plan must deliver the business or communications results reflected in the opportunity or challenge defined in this section.

You should describe the insights that led to the program. It’s okay if the insights came from your client and not your agency – the point is, What problem are you solving for? You don’t want to leave the judges with the feeling that there was no real business case for the program (say, you produced a special anniversary edition of the newsletter because your department has done one every year since the company was founded) or little understanding of why the program matters to the audience.

If Research isn’t a section unto itself on the entry form, this is where you can share the work your team did, for instance, to understand the market and your competitors or benchmark with other companies to learn how they’re managing the adoption of social media.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Are you being specific about the challenges or opportunities for your business, in the market, or internally? Why do they matter for this product, company or your audiences?
  • Does the audience look at the situation differently or similarly to your organization – have you included their perspective?
  • Is there a clear and logical connection between the communications environment and the campaign you designed to address the problem or opportunity?

Award-worthy programs have the whole package: there isn’t a section left missing or undocumented. Judges like to see more than one example in the Research section to indicate that, say in a marketing category, there was a reason certain consumer segments were included in or left out of your plan.

The research you conducted may have helped define the brand’s problem, clarified the competition, focus groups may have identified a need for employee recognition programs or that older alumni still prefer to be solicited via snail mail. Your research might indicate exactly how you need to measure your results (perfect for threading that logic needle!). Research provides those light-bulb moments or it can confirm what you already assumed about the market.

It’s perfectly acceptable if research came from the client – your job is to show how it shed light on the business environment and how it informed your Objectives, Strategy, choice of Audiences, etc.

If there is no section on the entry for Research and your plan relied on a lot of it, find a way to share the salient points in other sections, like the Overview or Situational Analysis (for any “A-ha!” research insights) or under Strategy to show why you devised this program to meet your client’s needs.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • How did our research unearth a need or an opportunity?
  • Where did it confirm existing opinions?
  • Have I clearly described how we used the research to create the strategy and identify the audiences?

If you worked with large demographic segments, you may want to tier your audiences on the entry and include something like a table or spreadsheet in the supporting documents section (always be sure to indicate when you’ve placed details in the support section, including the name of the tab, for hard copies, and the title of the document).

If you’re dealing with a general audience, like All Employees, it’s helpful to provide the judges (if space allows) with details about the types of work they do, their educational level, and whether they work at one or multiple locations. Go on to explain how these factors affected your strategy, planning and execution.

The key to this section is to give the judges the sense that real strategy was behind the choice of audiences and how you intended to target each segment. You also must demonstrate that you took into consideration the audience’s perspective as you developed your Strategy, Plan and messages.

For example, Netflix can contend that their new tiered pricing scheme was initiated as a convenience and benefit to customers. Whether their customers believe this and consider the new pricing a “benefit” is another thing. And the customer is just one audience; another audience, Netflix’s shareholders, may have a vastly different opinion. Customer service employees who have to field angry phone calls and emails all day are a third audience impacted by this program. If Netflix were to submit an entry, judges would expect a program that identifies each of these audiences and their concerns, and addresses how the plan was created to direct specific messages and tactics to each.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • What did the research tell us about the audience in terms of need and opinion and how can I show this in this section of the entry?
  • Have I clearly and specifically analyzed the audience concerns?
  • Can I explain how we selected messages and media to reach our audiences?

I’ve seen a lot of people describe an objective as a “To statement.” In other words, the statement is a sentence fragment that begins with a verb. This is less than helpful when trying to explain your plan on an award-entry form with a limited number of words.

Yes, objectives can be “To statements.” Yes, you can list them like bullets. But, there are two important takeaways here for the entry-writer: Your objectives must directly relate to the business challenge or opportunity and you need to explain each one, why it will have an impact, and how it will support the needs of the audience.

Note that you can have one business challenge and multiple objectives to address it; what judges will be watching (and grading down) for is objectives that don’t align to the challenge or opportunity. At this point, you may want to assign numbers to your Objectives because, when they get to your Tactics and Results sections, you’ll want to direct the judges’ attention to the relationship between Tactics and Objectives and, ultimately, Results and Tactics and Objectives.

Judges expect programs to be well-rounded. If you’ve got a product launch, a satellite media tour, a social media campaign, or an internal change management program, it’s not going to be enough to say your objective was: “To increase awareness among target audiences.” You’ve got to explain why and how you’re going to measure that increased awareness.

Likewise, going after media placements won’t pass muster. You must define the specific hits you want to get, why you’re targeting those media outlets, which messages you want to see in stories, and how those media outlets will reach the target audiences.

Perhaps most important: your objectives have to be measurable. While adding “Likes” to your company Facebook page, increasing Twitter followers, or achieving 5 million media impressions is a kind of measurement, these are generally closed loops, as they don’t take into account what those numbers mean in terms of audience mindset or impact. A more measurable set of objectives is something like this:

  • To grow our donor base among women age 18 – 39 by 12 percent using our first social media campaign
  • To solicit contributions from targeted donors in the $1 – $10 range during a six-week campaign

This is a well-rounded, measurable campaign: by the end, this nonprofit will be able to show whether they met, exceeded or fell short of 12 percent new donors in their targeted age bracket and they’ll be able to define the level of contributions.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I “threaded the logic needle” and explained how the objectives align with the client’s business challenge/opportunity?
  • Do objectives support the audience’s needs?
  • Are objectives reasonable and achievable (and not too easy to hit) for the scope and budget of the campaign?
  • Are our objectives a closed loop (i.e. are we just racking up numbers) or do they measure something meaningful and produce tangible campaign results for the business or client?

This section is where your program can really shine. Your campaign isn’t required to be as novel as Scotty’s engineering tricks when the Enterprise was stranded inside a tractor beam, but judges will be looking for creative responses to the client’s or company’s business challenge/opportunity.

The strategy is where the business challenge or opportunity meets your research and understanding of the audience’s needs. You need to demonstrate how you analyzed each of these factors to create a solution that reached the hearts and minds of the audience.

An interesting side note: judges are professionals; they do the same work you do. If you have the space to discuss the paths not taken and the rationale for choosing a different path instead, as long as it’s grounded in your analysis, they will appreciate the discussion, and you’ll have given them a deeper look into your process.

The most important thing: don’t lose steam. You’ve done a lot of writing to get to this point. You don’t want your strategy to read like it could be cut-and-pasted into any other entry. It should be original and focused on your business challenge/opportunity and all the research and analysis you conducted.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I described how we intended to achieve objectives and reach our audiences?
  • Does this section sound like The Big Idea or more like a list of tactics?

Think of the Plan as your Strategy in action to achieve your Objectives.

For marketers, check the entry form instructions or with the program coordinator, because this section can be more heavily weighted for your campaigns – and earn you more points – than for PR or communications programs. This is where you bring your program to life, like playing a film for the judges, and give an overview of your outcomes.

Your Plan or Execution section should describe how you set out to achieve your Strategy, including any surprises (good or bad) along the way. If you ran into a roadblock, you need to describe it and how you got past it. If you haven’t been asked to describe your messages, this is the place to include them, along with an explanation of why and how they addressed the target audience’s needs.

Tactics are the step-by-step mechanics of your campaign. Which media did you select? What internal channels did you use to communicate to employees? Why did you use an electronic press kit instead of a website? These, too, must thread the logic needle, so you need to show (don’t assume the judges will see it if you don’t call it out directly) the direct correlation between your Tactics and Objectives. Again, you can have multiple Tactics aligned to one Objective – just make sure you connect the dots between them.

Many entrants choose to use a table to provide all of this information, including audiences, to show how the plan was executed in detail. You may choose to list the audiences along the left side and have columns running across the top of the page for media outlets or channels, messages or talking points, timing, and even a brief overview of the result.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I included the key messages and rationale for messaging by audience?
  • Is it clear why we chose specific media outlets or to use certain internal channels for our program? Does this tie back to the challenge/opportunity in the communications environment?
  • Have I provided enough information about the surprises we encountered and how we handled them, including any additional strategies or tactics devised?

The Timeline is a rundown of the important tactical pieces of your plan and when they took place, such as when long-lead magazine outreach began or when you conducted stakeholder analysis on a change program. Depending on the length of your program, you can list Tactics by week, month or quarter.

List resources by name, job title, agency or client, and responsibility.

Judges typically evaluate programs to determine whether the Budget was efficiently used. If your agency, company or the client won’t disclose this information, award programs often allow you to use a range rather than a specific dollar figure. Be sure to indicate why you are using a range instead of the exact budget.

Talk with the program coordinator to ensure that this is the correct way to handle budget and any other information you aren’t allowed to disclose (such as sales figures).

Whatever you do, be honest about your budget or range. You must be clear about the budget you were given to execute the program you’ve described, and you should expect to demonstrate ROI in your Results.

If you received additional funding from elsewhere in the company, from an ad agency as part of a PR program, or from a joint collaboration, you need to account for those extra dollars and how they were utilized in the campaign. Judges will spot discrepancies, such as collateral that cost far more than the budget allowed or an ad, executed by an agency, that boosted audience awareness far beyond what a PR campaign could accomplish.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Have I given an honest account of the budget and resources? Do either seem too large or too small for the program described?
  • Is it clear the team listed in the Resources did the work rather than another agency or department?

I can’t stress this strongly enough: Your Results must clearly relate to your Objectives – you must point out the Objective you are measuring at the end of your program. For example:

  • An Objective to boost sales by 5 percent must show a dollar and/or percentage increase over the previous year (if your client won’t release dollar figures, you’ll need to ask permission to use the percentage increase – you need a measurable result against this Objective)
  • An Objective to increase attendance at an annual event must demonstrate by number of attendees or percentage growth in headcount the achievement of this Objective
  • An Objective to increase employee awareness of an annual giving program must demonstrate how great awareness was before the program launched as well as after and how the program impacted giving, by a dollar or percentage increase

You will be judged not only on Results that match your Objectives, but on the quality of your Results overall. Wherever you exceeded your original Objectives, make sure to highlight these additional Results for the judges (and tie them back to Objectives or the Business Challenge/Opportunity, even if they weren’t intended Results).

Avoid writing around missing metrics. Judges spot this instantly when an entrant writes something like: “Clearly, we had an unprecedented turnout, unmatched by any previous year.” Especially when there are no attendance figures to back up such a statement.

Also, you will lose points if your metrics are merely related to tactical execution of your program, such as: “We mailed out 2,500 copies of the alumni newsletter” or “We produced 20,000 copies of the annual report.”

Many of us who’ve judged awards programs over the years have shaken our heads over the dearth of data needed to support entries. We’re talking exciting, innovative, professional work that has nothing to back it up – nothing to indicate the work had some kind of impact on the audiences the client hoped to reach.

Let’s review the answers to that pop quiz for a moment:

An email from your client, saying they are ecstatic with the campaign, is a great pat on the back for any agency. It is not a measurable achievement. You can place the email in the footnotes of your award submission as backing documentation, but it is no substitute for providing evidence of, say, an increase in sales.

A spreadsheet and a large stack of magazine and newspaper clippings aren’t metrics either. I know this will shock many of you. But, even a spreadsheet that demonstrates millions of impressions doesn’t make a campaign awardable. If your campaign rests on getting media, you must show that you:

  • received coverage from the specific outlets indicated in your Objectives that you targeted because they were key to reaching your audience
  • have clear examples of your messages in the coverage (if you can’t afford to have TV and radio coverage transcribed, then call it out yourself in quotation marks); for hard copy entries, use a highlighter marker over the messages
  • can demonstrate some connection between media hits and audience response – whether it’s an increase in sales in certain markets, greater attendance at an event, or sign-ups on a website or for a coupon or contest, your media should have resulted in some tangible impact on the audience

I was on a panel many years ago, judging PR programs. A large agency submitted a store opening promotional campaign with a hefty budget, stunning collateral, and millions of media impressions (no messages or key outlets highlighted). The notebook with their entry could’ve broken a foot if someone had dropped it. Competing in the same category (because in those days, categories weren’t segregated by budget) was a small nonprofit community awareness campaign with almost zero budget, strong strategy and messages, impressive media hits with clear examples of their message platform highlighted throughout, and evidence that their campaign had brought other nonprofits on board to educate the public.

I know the competitors, and the professional organization sponsoring the awards, were shocked when we gave the top prize to the nonprofit. As a panel, we were ahead of the curve in not being swayed by impressions alone. In that case, it was clear that the agency hadn’t efficiently used the enormous amount of funding it had received, while the nonprofit, with minimal budget, had spread their message far and wide and exceeded their original objectives by pulling in support from other nonprofits and community groups. Today, these programs wouldn’t compete against each other, but if the submissions – and the results – were the same, the nonprofit’s would still be a competitive entry while the PR agency’s would not.

For internal programs, you may understand how hard it is to garner approval from your CEO, but the judges will not. As with a happy client, a happy CEO isn’t a tangible result that can be traced back through your Tactics, Objectives and Business Challenge/Opportunity. If your audience is employees, your measurable results need to come from their response to your program or the action they took as a result of it. As a judge for employee communications programs, I’ve seen empty Results tabs in award submissions and I’ve seen paltry amounts of emails from staff, responding to an article or series of articles, including emails that say things as unenlightening as, “Wow!” What you need is something with statistical significance: you need an audience survey to determine whether your program realized its original objectives and shifted mindset or inspired action.

If you don’t have backing data for a program you’re thinking of entering in an award program, there’s still time to gather it. Go back to my previous post and review some of the suggestions there. If you have no way of collecting measurements for a program, or no budget to do so, you should pass on this year’s awards season. It’s heartbreaking, but your time will be better spent building the case – with your department, your agency, your clients – for building measurement into all future programs, so they have a fighting chance during awards season.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Can I trace my measurable Results to my Tactics and back to Objectives and the Business Challenge/Opportunity? Is there a logical sense that each one relates to the others?
  • Have we measured the correct thing? Have we measured the program’s outcome? Do our measurements demonstrate a change in audience behavior or action?
  • Am I reporting numbers, dollars, or percentage changes or am I writing around the subject because I don’t have statistics?

Do a real evaluation: don’t assume a spreadsheet of media hits will suffice. Judges will be looking for genuine analysis of the effectiveness of your program, tied to your Objectives, and the impact it had on your audience.

Questions to ask as you write:

  • Am I continuing to thread the logic needle (even if I feel like I sound like a broken record) and have I tied my evaluation to the original Business Challenge/Opportunity for this Audience using these Objectives?

Honestly, judges don’t look at everything you submit; they simply don’t have the time. You need to be judicious in figuring out the supporting material to upload or include in the tabs of a binder.

It’s not necessary, for example, to submit every issue of a paper newsletter for the last five years – it’s the entrant’s responsibility to “narrate” the story and provide the appropriate context. If you want to show how you revamped a newsletter, then pick examples that demonstrate the Business Challenge and the Opportunity you created in your makeover.

Other critical points:

Highlight, highlight, highlight. You don’t want a sea of neon yellow on the page, but you can’t assume that a judge knows why you’re including a document in a subsection of your entry. Draw the judges’ eyes to the message or metric or information you want them to incorporate in your score.

Note where things are. Whenever you have a supporting document that’s not part of your main entry form, indicate this in the appropriate section, letting the judges know the title of the Supporting Material, where it can be found, and why it’s being included.

What am I looking at? Do take the time to properly scan collateral so you’re providing clear examples of your creative.

Award Entry Smart Chart

I’ve developed a free and simple guide for preparing competitive award entries that enables you to track the correlation between Business Challenge/Opportunity and Objectives, Tactics and Results for almost any award program.

I’m happy to email it to you, and you can request one by:

  • leaving a request with your email address* in the Comment section on the blog
  • sending me your email address via DM on Twitter @NoBadLanguage
  • contact me at vickie@vickiebates.com

*All email addresses will be kept private and will not be saved or used for anything other than this one-time exchange.

Some final words of advice for those planning to enter a program in more than one category: Read the category descriptions and instructions carefully and write a separate entry specific to each category. It will be painfully obvious if you submit a generic entry, and you’ll probably lose points for not providing all the information required for the category.

Remember to give yourself time to write your best and most competitive entry possible. You will likely feel like you’ve had a crash course in the professional organization’s accreditation program once you’ve completed your entry. And, in a way, you have. These organizations are dedicated to standards of practice in the marketing, PR, advertising and communications industries. They’re rewarding creative excellence to be sure, but the judges are also honoring adherence to standards and ethics in the execution of programs. When you receive a gold, silver, bronze or honorable mention, you know your work has been held to the highest standards, judged against the best in the industry, in a fair and rigorous competition.

Good luck!

For further information on making your entry competitive and helpful links to resources provided by the award programs, check out my two previous posts: