What Makes a Good Award Nomination: Advice from a Judge

Award wins can be a powerful way to grow your company. Aside from bragging rights, there are many practical advantages to winning awards, including building credibility and brand awareness, attracting potential hires, and grabbing the attention of investors and reporters.

No matter what your company’s goals are, awards are a great way to get your name out there.

But there’s a big difference between submitting your company for awards and actually winning them. After all, anyone can apply. The winners are the ones who stand out among their peers, in whom judges recognize a spark or a lot of potential or an impressive track record.

So how can you help judges see the best of what your business has to offer?


We had the opportunity to speak with Tom Kuczmarski (pictured left), the cofounder of and one of the judges for the Chicago Innovation Awards (submission deadline: July 31). He’s read through thousands of applications and knows what makes one stand out from the crowd.

Read on for his top three tips for navigating your next award submission like a winner.

1. Prioritize Wisely

Before mindlessly spending time on every award you come across, Kuczmarski suggests, make sure you’re prioritizing in the right ways.

“Are you trying to reposition your company as an innovative startup? Attract talent or investors? Convey credibility to your customers? Find out what your company’s goals are, and then apply to the awards that will help you reach those goals,” he said.

He also emphasized the importance of being realistic about the market your company is in and what its limitations are.

“Last year the Chicago Innovation Awards had 519 nominations, but only 25 winners,” he said. “Not every company is going to be a winner, and that’s okay. Focus on the awards that suit you best.”

That’s also important from a time-management perspective: some awards require multiple essays (like Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies). Others (like the Inc. 5000) want detailed financial information about your business. Look through the entire application before you start filling it out to make sure you’re comfortable meeting application criteria and you have the bandwidth to do so.

2. Understand the Judging Criteria

Speaking of criteria, Kuczmarski emphasized the importance of reading carefully so you understand what the judges are looking for.

“There are three key things we look for in the Chicago Innovation Awards,” he said, and outlined the following:

  • The company addresses a high-level consumer need or a problem in the marketplace and has created new value or new solutions.
  • The company’s offering is done in a way that is unique, or better than competitor offerings. “Competition is fine,” he said, “But your innovation needs to be differentiated enough.”
  • The innovation needs to have demonstrated impact in the market. According to Kuczmarski: “There isn’t a minimum sales revenue that companies need to hit, but we need to be able to know that this is something that is actually making a difference.”

Of course, these will be different for every award. Most awards are explicit about what they want, so do your homework before tossing your hat in the ring. One great way to get a sense of what it takes to win is to look at past winners and see how you compare to them on the relevant measures of success.

But remember: judges won’t be able to accurately evaluate your business if they can’t understand your application. Which brings us to Kuczmarski’s last piece of advice.

3. Don’t Use Jargon

“The most powerful nominations are simple and [written in language] the judges can understand,” he said. “We get nominations all the time that are filled with acronyms and technical wording. Yes, maybe one or two of the judges will get it, but not every judge is going to be an expert in your specific industry. Stay away from jargon, and just talk to us like normal people.”

That can be challenging when you're up to your eyeballs every day in the work you're doing, but it’s a challenge worth tackling. If you’re struggling to de-jargonize your application materials, try rewriting them as if you were explaining everything for an audience of fifth-graders. That will force you to use language that anyone can understand – and will likely make your entire application stronger.

What to Do When You Win

Winning awards is great, but your efforts shouldn’t end with your celebration. To maximize the impact the win has for your company, try some of the following win-amplification strategies we’ve seen succeed in the past:

  • Promote the win internally: Build morale on your team by making sure everyone knows your company just won an award.
  • Promote it on social: Post about the win from relevant company social media accounts. When you mention the win to your team, include the link to these posts and encourage people to share or like them, which will help maximize the visibility you get.
  • Call it out on your website: We’ve seen clients add starbursts calling out their awards to conversion pages on their websites. In A/B tests, the callouts noticeably improved conversion rates, likely thanks to the third-party validation they offered.
  • Congratulate the other winners: If the award includes a celebration of winners, attend. Either way, congratulate your co-winners on social media. This shows goodwill and helps you build relationships with other people in your industry or city.

Interested in hearing how other Chicago startups are finding success in winning awards? Check out this presentation from AlligatorTek: “How I Used Local Buzz to Win a National Award.”