End Awards for Marketing in Higher Education

It is time to end awards for marketing in higher education.

What is the point of awards anyway? Yeah, I know:

– Recognition from colleagues

– Institutional Pride

– Morale-building for staff

– Validation of work

But really….beyond the award ceremonies, what do these awards actually do or mean for your operation? While it is nice to preface a sentence with, “Our award-winning marketing department….,” is it really a game-changer in terms of your purpose and goals?

My argument is no.

In this era of increasingly tighter financial resources, entering for awards seems, well, a little irresponsible to me. I know that sounds harsh, but how do you justify spending money on award submissions when that money could be put to use for marketing or staff development? It just doesn’t add up. All of higher education, particularly public universities, faces tougher scrutiny regarding tuition increases and uses of general fund dollars. So, you have to ask yourself, if you were testifying before your state legislators about your budget, how would you explain the line item about marketing awards?

If you’ve entered awards competitions recently, you can’t help but notice that there is a category for EVERYTHING. The cynic in me can’t help but think that it’s nothing more than a money-making operation to have a bazillion categories to try to get more submission dollars from would-be nominees. Plus, the crazy preponderance of categories reminds me of that trend of “We’re All Winners.” It’s like awards were made for the generation where everyone gets awards for just trying as opposed to having fewer awards with higher standards and criteria. When everyone is special, no one is special.

I have experienced the judging of awards a few times. All of my experiences were not that great. Rooms dominated by group think. People with their own biases and experiences judging the work of others. It’s really not a very sound, scientific, or inherently fair process. Quite frankly, I don’t know how it can be–we work in a world of subjectivity when it comes to receiving approval for our work. ROI should be the focus of any marketing initiative, but sometimes I get the feeling people are creating stuff for the sake of winning awards.

Before you assume this post is written by some bitter person who has never won an award, it’s actually not true. Full confession–during my career, I have spent thousands of dollars on award entry submissions. Occasionally we win. I have to admit, it is fun to win. For a moment, you feel like the Tom Hanks of higher ed. You feel that all your blood, sweat, and tears were worth it because someone thought the work that you and/or your team did was worthy of recognition. You feel cool. And then the moment fades, and you have another piece of hardware to dust or stash away.

The thing is, by using social media, it is much easier and less costly to get the same feeling of validation about the work that you do. Sharing ideas and success stories, and then finding out that colleagues around the country like your work and ideas feels just as wonderful as winning. And, the bonus of sharing ideas through social media is that you actually have meaningful conversations about the content of the work, as opposed to making snarky comments about who won at the awards ceremony.

So, who’s with me? Who’s ready to say “no” to award-entry madness? Try this exercise for just one year–whatever you spent on award entry submissions last year, spend that amount on some aspect of your marketing or staff development this year. Your staff (especially the poor slob who gets assigned coordinating all the submissions to the ridiculous specifications of each entry) will actually end up thanking you if you invest in their education. And if you do that,  everybody wins.

Jen Hogan