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Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Contests, Awards and B2B 

A week ago, Sue Pelletier, who runs the face2face blog, emailed me:

I was reading this post (http://www.poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=89591) on Poynter’s E-Media blog, and had a thought I’d like to hear your opinion on. The author, who was talking about online media contests, tells readers at the end to watch the winners to see who's "doing things right." And it reminded me of something that’s become especially noticeable to me when it comes to contests in the B2B media world.

While niche pubs that really serve their market's specific needs are loved by their readers, they seldom win these types of contests for the simple reason that, if the judges aren't members of that industry, the content just isn't all that interesting to them. Not to slam the judges by any means--it's just human nature--but it is an issue. At one of these B2B award ceremonies, my table was able to predict the winners just by the headlines after the first few rounds (women's health, anything to do with children, national defense, and the Iraq war were the winning topics in every category they were entered in this year. The only doubt came in if Iraq and babies had to duke it out in a single category). After all, the judges are generally journalists, not buttonhook manufacturers or hog farmers or whatever a particular B2B pub’s readers are. I’m not saying these winning stories aren’t great, just that we more obscure folks don’t really have much of a chance.

One guy told me he planned his "X award" entry specifically to appeal to the judges, even though he knew it was too basic and not very relevant for his readers. And yes, he won. But I wouldn’t necessarily say he “did things right.”


I completely understand--years ago, while at Video Store Magazine (now re-named Home Media Retailing), we set out to win a Jesse Neal Award. We looked at past winners, and realized the more consumer-friendly we were, the better. So we chose a topic that we thought would have cross-over appeal: porn and the video industry. At the time, Edwin Meese was rampaging, local communities were worried that video stores had done what the porn industry couldn’t do on its on, which was introduce mini-red light districts into bedroom communities. And adult video revenues were an important part of a typical video store’s revenue base. So we built a multi-part feature around all of these topics, added consumer research, and invested more heavily than we would normally into graphic presentation (though the investment was still miniscule).

We didn’t win the Neal, but we were awarded a certificate of merit. Not bad for a tiny (at the time) magazine with almost no editorial budget. I still have that framed certificate of merit.

I think our winning (sort of) feature had value for our readership, but we frankly designed the piece to be a contender for a Neal, not to serve the best interests of video retailers.

So to Sue’s question, which I’ll rephrase as follows: If business media awards can be “gamed,” do they still have value?

One of the things I learned from our Neal experience was this: making our content as reader-friendly and as broad as possible (ie, consumer-like) wasn’t a bad thing. Back in those days, b2b media was more commonly known as trade publishing, and often earned its Rodney Dangerfield-like lack of respect. People used to ask me what I did for a living, and when they discovered that my publishing career didn’t entail anything they’d ever heard of (“Can I find your magazine on a newsstand?” was a common question), their eyes would glaze over, and they’d move on to telling me the exciting things they did. The difference between trade publishing and consumer publishing was harsh indeed. We weren’t even a farm league for the consumer-side, since we seemed to carry the taint of trade publishing like a bad odor.

Things have changed. Business media is sexy (or at least, sexier than it once was). Business coverage has become omnipresent. Even Conde Nast, that bastion of high falutin’ consumer media, is dipping its toe in. And while there’s still an immense amount of pretty poor trade journalism out there, there seems to be an equal amount of mediocrity on the consumer side.

More and more b2b magazines treat their audiences as what they are: consumers, who are exposed to flashy media throughout each day. There’s more good writing, more good and friendly design, bigger-issue topics, more depth. And if some of that is done to win awards, of which there are now a gazillion*, that’s okay with me.

That’s not to say that there aren’t a number of problems with awards. There are a lot of awards, for one thing (primarily, I think, because awards programs can be a revenue-generator as well as brand builder for the award-giver). For another, finding the right judges is problematic, because of the time and talent required to judge hundreds of entries properly. (As a judge myself, I can attest to the exhaustion that sets in, and the tendency to skim toward the latter parts of the judging process). And yes, magazines with the biggest budgets and the most consumer-like audience (a market that most judges can generally relate to, like computer technology or marketing), tend to dominate.

But that’s not always the case. Take, for example, Heavy Duty Trucking, which has won 12 Jesse Neal Awards, as well as a truckload of others. Their approach:

“Heavy Duty Trucking leads its field in both readership and advertising volume. With good reason. Exceptional journalism, a strong editorial philosophy and a no-holds-barred reporting style have set the standards to which all trucking publications aspire.”

Sure, they have a big budget, but they earned that budget through their editorial dominance. Any business magazine, with any budget, can at least aspire to the same, whether covering buttonhook manufacturers or hog farmers.

So, Sue, while awards can be gamed, I think the process of attempting to game them is a healthy one for b2b media of all sizes. Simply spending the time trying to anticipate what will attract a judge's attention may lead to spending more time trying to attract and command the reader's attention. Any topic, no matter how complex or technical, can be treated with great writing, great context, great illustration and great presentation.

Postscript: There are some alternatives. I'm a big proponent of internal editorial and design awards. We did them at Advanstar. We did them at Phillips Business Information. (I still have the honor of judging the editorial awards for what is now Access Intelligence). These types of awards (which need a cash prize to be relevant) can recognize the highly specialized work of many b2b media companies, and serve as a scout for entries which may succeed in outside awards.

I'm also a believer in supporting specialized or targeted awards, such as the Aerospace Journalist of the Year.


*A short list of recent awards and honors

My friend Paul Conley points to a few recent b2b awards.

View the CEBA winners.

See Folio:'s Dream Team.

Also, check out the nominees for Folio:'s Eddie and Ozzie awards.

Other award givers:

The Maggies

ASPBE

Folio:'s new FAME (Folio Award for Magazine Events) award.

Folio:'s Aveda Environmental Award ("...the first major magazine industry award to recognize environmental achievement by magazines through their paper use and production processes").

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