Magazine publishers have a unique opportunity to heighten their brand position—not to mention drive revenue—by developing awards programs for the industries they serve. But a well-run program requires a significant effort in building the brand and developing a back-end workflow that provides efficient criteria evaluation and project-management of the submission process.

Light Reading, a Web-based content company targeting the telecom market, has created an awards program, called the Leading Lights Awards, that over the last three years has relied heavily on a thorough, objective analysis of all submissions, which have increased 50 percent from 2005 to 2006. R. Scott Raynovich, editorial director, Light Reading Communications Group, prides the program on its deep analysis of submissions, wide-angle coverage and objective approach. “We wanted to make this awards program a little bit different and very comprehensive. Most awards programs are done in a fly-by-night manner. There’s a lot of subjectivity—an editor likes a person or a company and they just give them an award. There’s not a thorough analysis of why they’re giving the awards,” he says.

The program has 11 categories that present awards for achievement in leadership, new products, innovation and accomplishments. It’s a content approach that offers a wide range of opportunities for participating companies, which helps drive the maximum number of submissions—a key factor of the program. “The quality of the awards is going to be directly proportional to all of the information and entries you gather,” says Raynovich. “We try to beat the bushes and get as many people to enter as possible.”

Raynovich and his team elected not to charge an application fee in lieu of generating sponsorship revenues during the presentation ceremony. “We had an early discussion about what the business model would be,” he says. “So we decided that by making it free we’ll maximize the number of entries. I think charging money would be a gating factor to how many entries you could get.”

Submission Analysis
Light Reading channels all submissions through a Web-based interface. “We’re religiously online. So all the information goes into a database, and all of the editors and analysts have access to that database. There’s no faxing of papers. We manage the information and the research online,” says Raynovich.

From there, Raynovich has his editorial staff divvy up the submissions and do independent research via third-party contacts to verify submitted information. “I’ve been involved in awards programs where editors sit around the table and shoot the breeze. They don’t actually do their homework,” says Raynovich. “I instruct my staff to do some thorough analysis because my top objective is not to embarrass ourselves. The number-one thing is it has to be thorough and credible.”

Key in the process is the involvement of Heavy Reading, the company’s research division. Editors can solicit feedback from the analysts about particular submissions as well. “They’ll give us feedback and we try to leverage their research as much as we can,” says Raynovich.

Winners are announced at an awards banquet at which sponsorships and entry fees provide the revenue opportunity at “extremely high margins,” says Raynovich.

Raynovich starts promoting the program to the entire Light Reading database of 400,000 unique users about four months prior to the final event—keeping the submissions window open as long as possible. Promotions are centered on e-mail blasts and on-site copy, with e-mail messages accelerating as the deadline gets closer.

Raynovich says LR received 300 submissions for last year’s program and expects that number to remain consistent based on a stabilized market. But to keep things interesting, Raynovich tweaks the program each year to fend off a stale finalist list. It’s a challenge many awards programs face. “You have the same leading companies going for awards each year,” he says. “It’s a matter of identifying which of them have executed on certain points that they didn’t the year before.”

A private-company awards category tends to keep things interesting, as well. “There’s always new startups that provide a fresh perspective,” says Raynovich.

A properly run awards program can impact the rest of the corporate brand. “If you create a prestigious awards program, you’ll have a prestigious brand. That’s our goal, to make it credible,” says Raynovich.

The Well Run Awards Program
1. Remain Objective: Don’t dole out awards to companies or people just because you like them. Have judges follow up on the claims of submitting companies. Do your research or you’ll lose face by awarding a loser.
2. Beat the Bushes: Attract as many submissions as you can. This helps generate more revenue, if you charge an application fee, and increases the likelihood of quality submissions. Light Reading’s R. Scott Raynovich says that the quality of the awards is proportional to the number of entries you gather.
3. Mix It Up: Review your awards categories each year. Add new ones to spice it up and fend off a winners’ circle of the usual suspects.
4. Leverage Internal Expertise: Your staff knows the market best. Use them to research the submitting companies and the veracity of their claims.
5. Shoot for Credibility: A credible and respected awards program reflects directly on the corporate brand.