How Not to Win Edtech Industry Awards

How Not to Win Edtech Industry Awards


The allure of industry awards is strong. Winning, or even being named a finalist, provides fodder for the marketing machine. Pulling together elements of an entry reminds staff to review and refresh competitive differentiation and core messages. Asking for entry fee approval stimulates creative appeals to the corporate ego.

But it is so easy to screw up when a firm's carefully crafted entry comes up against the arbiters of award worthiness: the judges.

I've sat on the judge’s bench at least two dozen times, judging everything from journalism awards (for the Society of Professional Journalists) to software awards (for the Software and Information Industry Association). Yet there are ways to undermine award entries that cut across industries and categories.

Just look at education technology software and app awards, as one specific example. I have been a first-round judge for one of the longest-running and most prestigious competitions. And what companies manage to do in their efforts to avoid winning can easily be generalized to more than one contest.

If you or your firm would like to waste award entry money, you can do so very efficiently. Just follow these three easy steps:

1. Don’t correctly list the product name in the entry. In a connected world, assume that the judges are going to go to your company’s website to get some background information on your entry. (Especially in a competition for products that were supposed to be available in the previous calendar year.) Yet several entries I've judged were listed with a product name that clearly matched no single product on the entering companies' websites.

In one case, when I did find the name used on the entry form, it was inside a headline in a product description. I figured that was the right product. But I was corrected by the company itself and told that wasn’t what they entered--their own web page was in error.

In a second case, I had a trifecta: A company exec, the company’s website, and the company’s award entry all disagreed on what products made up a “suite” that had been entered. Any customer wanting to buy that suite, should it have made the final award ballot (I don't recall if it did), was likely guaranteed a sour experience.

No company should force a judge to figure out what the entrant meant to enter.

2. Don’t offer a complete customer experience. If your product has different user experiences for administrators, teachers and students (or different modes for authors/creators and users) and you do a guided demo for judges due to its complex nature, don’t just show one mode. For the product to be judged properly, you should show the experience for both administrator/teachers and for students (or how something is created, and then how it’s used).

This seems like a no-brainer. Yet three times in one award competition I saw only part of a product because, I suppose, the company thought it was the most impressive. That would have been fine, if they’d just entered part of a product.

It’s like being asked to issue a full report on the moon but only being shown the side that always faces the Earth.

3. Make your judging material confusing. One company, a major, well-known software developer, kindly provided me with a log-in to its web-based product and a reviewer’s guide. But the thoughtful, detailed steps in the guide didn't match what was actually possible once I logged in. As a matter of fact, all of the demonstration content in the reviewer’s guide was nowhere to be found in the web product; I had to approximate it. All that was missing after I logged in was a splash screen that read, “Imagine if you will….”

Providing a reviewer's guide? Use it yourself before offering it to verify the product and the instructions are still in sync.

In each of the above cases I was able to figure out, to the best of my ability, what had actually been entered, how it might work if I had access to the full product, and what steps to take to see the key features. Barely. Though it also raised the question of whether all judges would be as patient and diligent (I hoped so), or just move on to the next entry (I expected so).

Still, if winning awards has marketing value--and that is, presumably, the major reason companies enter these competitions--dropping the ball when judging begins is akin to dropping the entry cash into a very deep porcelain fixture with blue water at the bottom.

If you’re a marketing or other company exec wondering why your firm never wins any award competitions it enters, I suggest first looking at what you provide the judges after you fill out the entry form, assemble the entry, and cut the check.

Sure, you can’t win if you don’t enter. But you also can’t win if don’t pay attention to what you do after you enter, either.

This post was originally published by Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) on LinkedIn. He is an independent tech and edtech industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies. His regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech, and he's an EdSurge contributor.

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