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The Art and (Basic) Science of Industry Award Submissions

The Art and (Basic) Science of Industry Award Submissions

A guest post by 2023 TOP100 Winner Ann Kathryn Kelly,
Global Advocacy Communications at Cisco

What better validation that an organization is having a meaningful impact in their market—and more importantly, is being publicly recognized for that impact—than when the industry they’re in recognizes them with top honors for their thought leadership strategy and programming?

That’s the power behind independent industry awards, and it’s why so many organizations in both B2B and B2C want to land one (or preferably, more). It lends additional credibility that goes beyond what a company says about itself. Therefore, when a team’s programming is recognized with an award, it’s cause for celebration.

But as much as the bestowing of awards from a panel of judges may seem or feel like an art, there’s a science to it, as well. And that science often comes down to adequate preparation, collaboration, and lead time on the part of the internal team tasked with pulling together an application worthy of attention in a crowded field.

Community knowledge-sharing

I work for Cisco, a respected international brand whose technology powers the internet, helping customers build bridges between goals and realities. The Global Customer Marketing and Advocacy team I’m part of also builds bridges—not only with our marketing and sales colleagues across the company, but with our customers. Our team develops and rolls out award-winning customer marketing and advocacy (CMA) programs that nurture connections with customers, inspiring them to become storytellers and visionaries for the Cisco brand.

I was honored to be named to the CMA Top100 list for 2023, powered by Base. Being named to this list is a valuable learning and networking opportunity, something I especially appreciate because this CMA community of influencers reminds me of the mission behind the Cisco Insider Advocates community. Just as Cisco built an inclusive community for customers to learn from each other, Base invites those named to the CMA Top100 to contribute to the CMA community. Because I’ve worked in technology marketing and communications roles for decades, the opportunity to write a blog for the Base community felt like a natural fit.

This brings me to today’s post, where I’ll share with the CMA community the basics of what I’ve learned about submitting award-winning applications about award-winning Cisco advocacy programming.

In the last three years, our Global Customer Marketing and Advocacy team at Cisco has won eight industry awards—seven gold and one silver—including from:

  • B2B Marketing Awards​
  • American Business Awards “STEVIE”​ (2)
  • Forrester B2B Summit Awards ​
  • Influitive “BAMMIE” Awards (4 years running​)
  • And, reaching finalist status in a number of other industry awards

As much as the bestowing of awards from a panel of judges may seem or feel like an art, there’s a science to it, as well. And that science often comes down to adequate preparation, collaboration, and lead time.

Ann Kathryn Kelly
Global Advocacy Communications at Cisco

Ready, set … submit

For the sake of brevity, I won’t review which industry awards your team may want to apply to, or how to research opportunities. It will vary widely, depending on your organization’s industry, solution offerings, and business strategy. Instead, I’ll top-line a few basics to keep in mind when planning and writing award submissions after you’ve already identified your opportunity.

The list below may appear elementary, but will speed your application preparation and submission process.

1. Identify the right opportunity.

It sounds obvious, but because industry awards list dozens of categories and because many worthy solutions and programs will be nominated from many organizations, it’s important to choose the right category that is the best match to showcase your narrative and metrics.

Once you’ve narrowed to the appropriate category, you’ll want to brief your team on why that particular category was selected, how your program fits, and how you will need your team’s support in presenting your organization’s best case.

2. Gather the right team.

Months and often years of work go into planning, building, and launching impactful and award-winning programs. Behind each of these programs are teams of dedicated and passionate CMA professionals. Successful award applications are like successful CMA programs: each one strives to hit the mark and must be lifted up through teamwork.

Identify early on—weeks or even a month or two before an awards window closes—who the right team members are to help you nail your narrative. These colleagues should be key contributors with deep knowledge of a program’s goals and desired outcomes, as well as how success was measured. They should also be prepared to share what the team learned and what the next phase will look like, as the program continues growing and improving.

3. Start a working draft offline.

There’s nothing more frustrating than crafting a pitch-perfect submission directly inside an awards submission portal, only to lose Wi-Fi halfway through the process—which invariably means losing work you haven’t yet saved. I work from a home office in a lovely but technologically inhospitable Victorian home. Dropped signals at inconvenient times are an unfortunate occurrence in my world, but I’m not ready to trade the charm of my 1890 architecture with ten-foot ceilings and internet-killing horsehair plaster walls for uninterrupted blazing speeds. It’s also why I don’t recommend trying to write answers on-the-fly and on-the-clock inside a portal, when session timeouts can also strike.

I like to download all the questions from each award application into a Word document. Colleagues and I can then collaborate on the draft offline. We use SharePoint. Our offline draft helps us take our time as we discuss ideas, make edits, and gather meaningful metrics and supporting materials.

Thoughtful submissions—those that will stand out in a crowded field—take time to compose. On average, our Cisco team collaborates on an application over several weeks before we submit.

4. Spend time on your narrative.

Storytelling is an important component in your application. Just as strong metrics (see step 5) need to drive home your results, a compelling narrative needs to prove to a judging panel in clear, concise, and convincing language how your CMA program filled a critical need in the market.

The narrative is the heart of any award submission. It’s about strategy, goals, issues your team overcame, what you learned from it, and how it helped end-users. Be as specific as possible (but, within word count limits—more on that in a bit). As a lead writer on my team, I’m often the point-person in crafting our application narratives. I take advantage of that offline document I mentioned above to review points and fact-check with my colleagues multiple times before submitting our final application.

5. Back it up with strong metrics.

If the narrative is the heart, then metrics are the legs that carried your award-worthy program across the finish line. Show the judges why your program deserves to win. Exceptional submissions need to be packed with measurable results. This goes back to point number one: why you need the right team around you, people who can provide impactful metrics. It’s all about proof, proof, and more proof.

Successful award applications are like successful CMA programs: each one strives to hit the mark and must be lifted up through teamwork.

Ann Kathryn Kelly
Global Advocacy Communications at Cisco

6. Follow word count guidance.

This might not seem important, but guidance for word count minimums and maximums for each question inside the portal window (comment boxes) must be followed. Word count maximums are used to give judging panels ample time to read and consider all entries by the deadline date. It ensures that an applicant does not (and cannot) go on for two pages on just one answer.

On the flip side, word count minimums are also included in guidance, to encourage applicants to provide adequate answers to each question. Just as writing 700 words to a 200-word maximum answer will not win you any favors (or, likely, an award), writing 20 words—essentially one sentence—to a 200-word maximum answer will also not cut it. By adhering to stated word count minimums and maximums, it shows judges that you and your team have taken the time necessary to submit an application worthy of their time to read.

7. Don’t forget your supporting material.

Include in your application any visuals or links from social campaigns, blogs, website landing pages, email campaigns, and more—anything at all your team developed to support your CMA program. Most applications have a comment box where you can paste links, as well as a way for you to upload zipped files of visuals.

8. Yes, you’ve already proofed everything. Proof it again.

Right before transferring content from your offline Word document into the application portal, proof the content a final time. It’s likely that you and your teammates have already proofed it a few times but a final review is always a good idea, especially when several colleagues have collaborated on one document.

Exceptional submissions need to be packed with measurable results.

Ann Kathryn Kelly
Global Advocacy Communications at Cisco

9. Submit.

The heavy lifting is done. Now it’s time to wait for the results.

Good luck, and be sure to celebrate your wins! And remember, a vital CMA community is only as strong as its members, so be sure to celebrate your CMA community members’ wins, as well!

Ann Kathryn Kelly

Global Advocacy Communications at Cisco

Ann Kathryn Kelly loves well-told stories and world travel, preferably when they’re combined. Ann is part of Cisco’s Global Customer Marketing and Advocacy organization, a team that puts customers first in everything they do to strengthen loyalty and engagement, while helping Cisco sellers close deals faster. Outside the office, Ann is a writer, an editor with a literary journal, and she recently completed a 240-page memoir manuscript. She’s a solo traveler who crossed the Sahara Desert on a camel, trotted into the Arctic Circle with a reindeer sled, traversed parts of India and Thailand on an elephant, and explored the Amazon Rainforest, among many other awe-inspiring trips. This summer, she’ll join other writers and poets in Prague for a month-long immersive writing residency. Connect with Ann on LinkedIn.