AWARDS can be viewed by consumers as a mark of quality and trust, but customers may not realise that some plaudits are bought rather than earned. In fact, the business awards industry itself is a lucrative market, with some household brands charging businesses thousands of pounds to be involved.
On top of this, they can charge huge prices for tickets to lavish awards events and even bill winners for trophies and use of awards logos. There are also consultancy firms that charge up to £8,000 to draft entries for flagship business awards.
The practice of bogus awards is so rife that companies such as FirmWise have pushed back and created a database of ‘spammy awards’.
Consumer rights expert Scott Dixon of thegrumpygit.com describes paid-for awards, also known as ‘pay to play’, as a ‘money-making racket’ that lacks transparency and undermines the integrity of free-to-enter awards.
Consumer champion Helen Dewdney of thecomplainingcow.co.uk agrees. She says: ‘We see many awards for products and customer service in all sectors and I think it can mislead consumers greatly. Most don’t know that the winners have paid to enter.
‘It can also have an adverse effect on smaller businesses which don’t have the budget to compete. It can be quite disingenuous when there aren’t many entrants and the consumer doesn’t know.’
So, as a small business what can you do to make sure you enter awards that foster a level playing field?
IS IT ACTUALLY AN AWARD?
This is the first question a small business should ask. Opportunities can be presented as an ‘award’ when in practice they are an advert.
It is not uncommon for a business to be contacted out of the blue by a business magazine declaring they have won an award. This will usually be something quite niche such as ‘Most Outstanding Social Media Consultant — South England’.
In order to ‘capitalise on the good news’, the business or individual will be encouraged to spend £500 or more on a magazine cover feature and digital logo. There will be no transparency over the judging criteria or process. In other circumstances a business may receive persistent emails or calls saying they have been nominated for an award, which they later go on to win. They will then be asked to pay several hundred pounds for a trophy and use of the awards logo, but again receive no information about the selection criteria.
IS IT WELL RESPECTED?
The best way to judge whether an award is credible is to find out how respected it is. Speak to peers in the business community and find out who the previous winners are. Awards run by local authorities will most likely have a better reputation than a brand you have never heard of.
Jess Magill, orchestrator at Powderkeg beer says the brewery is very selective about which awards it enters. ‘Most of them are just an opportunity for the host organisation to promote themselves. We only choose industry-respected ones or those with a proper, rigorous judging process,’ she says.
IS THERE A COST?
Paying to enter awards may be reasonable in order to cover administration costs, especially if it is not a sponsored event. But it is all a question of balance — additional, hidden fees for tickets, trophies and use of logos may be a red flag that a scheme benefits the award facilitators more than the entrants.
Consider whether it is normal to pay to enter awards in your field and what the price of similar competitions are. And remember that high-profile awards that cost thousands of pounds to enter are more likely to be tailored towards big business.
HOW RIGOROUS IS THE PROCESS?
The more transparent an awards scheme is, the more likely it is trustworthy and credible.
Do they require a lot of information, testimonials and examples or samples as part of your application process? Do they have a detailed list of criteria on their website? Are the categories specific rather than vague?
A genuine awards scheme should profile a panel of judges on its website. Research the names to see if they are well known and respected in your industry. Also check to see if there is a public vote, which can be another indicator of authenticity.
DOES THE AWARD HAVE VALUE?
Spending money on an award can be worth the price if there is added value in the form of marketing and networking. It is about considering your budget and how a nomination or award will be perceived.
Samantha Evans, founder of luxury concierge service Humphreys of Henley, says she sees awards as a key marketing pillar for the business.
‘I invest time and effort to design the entry and if we are shortlisted or win, then the accolade is promoted and publicised, which is all good marketing. Some of the awards organisers give great feedback, which is really valuable,’ she says.
‘The spend on the awards dinners is quite high, but I use them as networking events and have made some great contacts.
‘I believe the consumer is savvy enough to understand the process and is unlikely to base a buying decision solely on how many awards a business has won.’
‘Big awards all have a price attached’
AS A new company owner, Keisha Shah has struggled to find affordable awards to enter.
She runs Teddö Play with her husband, Amit (both pictured), selling play-based educational learning products from their base in Milton Keynes. ‘There are lots of big awards but they all have a price attached,’ she says. ‘You have to apply to lots of different categories and you can pay £250-plus per category. Some are £500 just for entering. Then you have the cost of sending out the products to the panel. And if you win, you have to pay hundreds of pounds to use the logo.’
Keisha feels high-profile business awards squeeze out small businesses, making it far too expensive for them to compete. She says: ‘The big businesses are paying to enter because they can afford to and then they are winning, which makes them look more credible.’
She has decided to focus on smaller awards and recently won Best In Children’s Development Products from England Prestige Awards, which was free to enter.
She was very impressed with their thorough process — which involved a detailed application, examination of online reviews and the awards panel secretly purchasing her products to review. As part of her prize she received a free photoshoot and use of the awards logo.
‘The extra mile that they went to was incredible,’ she says. ‘I realised it was a great award even though I didn’t know about them before.’
‘The trust factor is priceless’
LINKEDIN trainer Jennifer Corcoran (above) only enters free awards and those recommended by her peers.
The Devon-based consultant known as MySuperConnector has won more than ten awards — including Enterprise Nation Top 10 Advisors 2020.
Her advice is to follow people you respect on social media and examine which awards they have won.
‘The best awards are the ones where you have to jump through hoops and the application process is lengthy — and may even include an interview face to face,’ she says. But although winning awards can give your customers piece of mind, it is not the be all and end all, suggests Jennifer.
‘It doesn’t guarantee sales for you, as a business owner, but it will raise your confidence and increase your credibility.
‘People will buy into your personal brand, and the independent stamp of approval you receive helps to generate that all important know, like and trust factor, which is priceless.’