How to pick a winner
by Josh Bernoff
I've been picking a lot of winners lately. I helped pick our next Forrester book from eight candidates (you'll hear more about this soon enough). I helped pick the winning entries in the Forrester Groundswell Awards (North America winners to be announced on Friday). And within Forrester, we're running an idea contest for improvements to our business on our sharing site, the HERO Platform.
I've learned a little about what works well and what doesn't with all these contests. If you have to run a contest, maybe this can help you. What I learned can be broken down into before, during and after:
Before the entries come in.
- Know why you're doing this. We do the Forrester Groundswell Awards to showcase excellence in social applications, strengthen relationships with people who create it, and generate fantastic case studies. We solicit ideas for Forrester's business not just to improve the business, but to help employees feel they can create positive change. Knowing your objectives will help you make decisions about how to run your contest.
- Set the rules carefully up front and publish them. Your entrants will need to know how you're judging -- and so will your judges. Write it down. Post it. Think of what could be misinterpreted and clarify. Fairness is important; so is clarity, if you want good entries.
- Plan to promote. How will people find out about this contest? There are so many awards and contests, yours has to stand out. That means you need to promote it -- and spreading the word through social is a powerful technique. For the Forrester Groundswell Awards, in addition to a blog post, we and our account folks contacted many technology vendors and agencies who are motivated to participate.
During the entry period.
- Get the entries posted in a public place. It generates a lot of interest to allow people to view the entries -- in all three of these contests, the entries went up where people could see them, either on the open Internet or on our internal sharing system. We encouraged people to vote on, rate, and comment on the entries. This makes the entrants your publicists -- they'll drive people to the site for you. I saw lots of tweets about the Forrester Groundswell Awards entries, for example.
- Panic effectively. Based on only a few dozen entries coming in with a week to go, we got worried. I did videos and we did a bunch of other things to beat the bushes. Maybe it wasn't needed -- we got 204 entries, of which more than half showed up on the last day. This right-at-deadline activity seems to get worse every year. All I can tell you is, if you have only a few entries and there's a week to go, there's no way to know if they'll all come flooding in late . . . or not at all.
- Don't shift the deadline. It's a sure sign that your contest is in trouble, and moving the deadline later doesn't tend to generate more quality entries. What it does do is invalidate the effort of the people who did meet the deadline. I got many pleas to move the deadline on the awards -- but keeping in mind the other entrants, I turned them all down.
During and after the judging.
- Recruit and manage a judging team. The time to recruit a team is well ahead of the judging, not after. Get the judges together, virtually or in a meeting, and make sure the criteria are clear. We have different judging teams on different divisions of the Forrester Groundswell Awards, but a few of us review everything to ensure consistency. I scored the book candidates on various criteria and together with Forrester management, we made the decision. And I have a set of Forrester managers lined up to judge the business innovations. If the team knows the criteria, they typically do a good job. If you have too few people, not only will they be overworked, but they won't benefit from a diverse set of viewpoints.
- Keep track on a shared site. The Forrester Groundswell Awards judging, the book selection, and the idea contest are all on our HERO platform. This works way better than emailing stuff around, and it's crucial to keep everything organized for the next stage.
- Allow time between selecting the winners and announcing. For an external contest (or even a big internal one), you'll want to inform the winners and give them time to prepare. We give winners about three weeks notice. Longer and you risk leaks. Shorter and it's not fair to expect them to react appropriately and come to the event where the winners are announced.
- A token is nice. We've done certificates in the past -- this year we're springing for lucite. People like to show off that they won.
- But public and personal recognition is more important. We announce the Forrester Groundswell Awards at our events. We announce the internal winners at our company meetings. When I'm involved, I contact the winners personally by email, and try to make sure the emails are personal. The 23 emails I wrote for the award winners took a little time, but not nearly as much time as they put in creating the applications and submitting them -- they deserve a little effort on my part. We also allow people to put a graphical "badge" on their sites so people can see that they won.
- Involve PR. While I do the contact, our PR staff take over quickly from there. They also run the recognition at our company meetings. PR people (at least the ones I work with) do this professionally, can help make sure winners don't make inappropriate announcements regarding their wins, and are great with details. There are a dozen ways to screw this up. Our PR staff not only catch and fix them, they make suggestions that make the whole process worthwhile.
If you're running a contest, whether its for ideas in your company or recognizing winners in your industry, I hope this is valuable to you. And pop by on Friday to spy our next round of winning social applications.