According to the U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy, there are an estimated 29.6 million small businesses in the United States. The question is, what can be done to help cash-strapped businesses stand out from the crowd?
One of the easiest and most inexpensive ways for you to stand out from your competitors is to win industry awards. They are a way to gain recognition for yourself, your business and your company website. Awards bring you prestige and more traffic, and they enhance your credibility as a business.
It can take a considerable amount of time to apply for industry awards, even though winning can lead to measureable growth. In this economy, how do you justify that time? Here are the top five reasons you should add awards to your marketing program.
- To land new customers. Customers like to be associated with a winning company, and potential customers often make their purchasing decisions based on the decisions of other businesses like theirs. When prospective customers see that you've won an award, it can sway them to choose you over your competition because you're seen as a stable and high-quality company.
- To help land VC funding . This is an essential part of the recipe for your company's success, as VCs and the banking community look at awards lists and rankings to find powerful growers. Awards can help small businesses become profitable, get funding, get purchased or go through an IPO.
- To retain existing employees. Winning awards can improve employee morale. When employees are proud of their company's achievements, they have an excuse to tell prospects and customers why you won a particular award. If they're selling your product, it makes their job easier because of the "stamp of approval" from an unbiased source.
- To attract new employees. Awards can actually help you attract the best new employees. People are drawn to award-winning businesses because they want to work for a winner. During a recession, potential employees are looking at awards and company rankings to determine who will prosper in the future.
- To be associated with the elite. When you win an award, you're in league with some great companies and remarkable leaders. You can use this to your advantage when networking, because you have something in common with other companies you want to do business with.
Finding the right awards to apply for is as easy as a couple of quick internet searches for terms such as "small-business awards" and "entrepreneur awards." You should also use keywords specific to your industry.
Since applications can be time-consuming, it's important to ensure you're focusing on the awards that will grow your business. To use your time wisely, keep the following tips in mind:
- Choose industry-specific awards: When your business is targeted at a niche group of customers, you should go after awards that will highlight your expertise there. For example, a winery owner should target winery awards.
- Focus on your strengths: To give your business a better chance of winning, make sure you only focus on awards that relate to your strengths. For example, if your business excels at customer service or has a really great website, pursue awards that focus on those aspects. Examples of these awards are the Stevies and the WebAwards, respectively.
- Think local: Target awards that are specific to your region; these will mean more to your local customers. Research the awards for your city and your state. For example, if your business is based in the San Francisco area, you might want to enter the San Francisco Business Times' fastest-growing private companies in the San Francisco Bay Area contest .
- Learn from your competitors: If your competitors are large enough, it's easy to do a quick internet search or visit their website to see the awards they have won. This will give you a good starting point for the awards you should be targeting, especially if they've won for a few years in a row.
- Focus on your people: Don't just target awards for your small business or your products; think about which staff members you could nominate for awards. For example, the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur awards are a great publicity opportunity for your staff and business. You might even want to nominate yourself for an award.
The most important consideration is this: Make sure you qualify! There's nothing worse than starting to submit an award nomination only to find out you're disqualified because your company or product doesn't meet the entry guidelines. It's common for awards to focus on companies and products launched within a specific time frame, so ensure your company meets the requirements when applying.
5 Ways to Market Your Awards
Once you've submitted the application, ensure you monitor the progress by signing up for e-mail updates so you know when the winners are announced. If you're nominated for a shortlist, receive ranking--or better yet, win--there are a variety of ways to promote this:
- Press releases: There are a number of free press release services you can use to distribute your release. These include Free Press Release Online and PR.com . In many cases, the award organizers will actually supply the winners with a press release template for the award, making the process even easier for your small business.
- E-mail marketing: Include the news of the award in your e-mail newsletters. Share the story behind your award and why you won. You can even include a link back to your award press release.
- Use the award logo: Use the logos and the phrase "award-winning" in your online advertising, put them on your direct mail pieces, include them on your business cards, display them on your home page, and include them in your bio or on your about page. The more prominent you make them, the better your small business will look.
- Social media: Post links to the official award website where they list the winners; you might also link to your own press release. Do this on all of your social media sites. For example, include quick links on Twitter and post the press release on Facebook. You will also want to list the awards you have won on your LinkedIn company page.
- Use your storefront as a showcase: Whether you're an online-only business or you have a physical retail store, display your awards. Ensure that employees and customers see your awards by framing them, displaying them on a stand or putting a sticker on your window. It doesn't have to be hokey, just prominent.
Industry awards can be a valuable addition to your marketing arsenal, but keep in mind they are not a replacement for quality work. As one of my customers recently stated, "Awards will only get you the business--the only way to keep customers loyal and increase referral business is to supplement the awards by adding real value." Check out your industry award possibilities today.
Janine Popick is CEO and founder of VerticalResponse , a lprovider of self-service e-mail marketing, online surveys and direct mail services for small businesses. She also pens a blog dedicated to educating small businesses on e-mail marketing http://blog.verticalresponse.com/.