Every business has an arsenal of marketing tools that includes advertisements, e-blasts, Facebook pages, and direct mail pieces. But did you ever consider entering business contests as another way to garner publicity as well as business insight?

Going into a competition, it may be all about the prizes and publicity. But win or lose, entering contests can be used as a tool to reevaluate the performance of your company, especially in arenas where you have to reveal your business model to industry judges, competitors, investors, news media, and potential customers. Spending precious hours filling out an application and preparing for a presentation before a panel can help you unearth flaws in operations and management.

One of the benefits of entering contests is that it helps entrepreneurs to look at a 30,000 foot view of their business and think about what strategic moves they need to make to strengthen areas of the business, says Margaret Shepard, senior director of marketing and communications at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors an annual DREAM BIG Small Business Awards competition with a grand prize of $10,000.

Inc. spoke to one entrepreneur that is using these contests as a secret weapon for gaining prize money, visibility and credibility as a top-notch company in her industry and internationally. Judi Henderson–Townsend, the co-owner of Mannequin Madness, has won eight awards and contests since 2002, including a $100,000 technology grant from Intel, the Business Breakthrough presented by Visa and Microsoft award, and most recently the 2009 and 2010 Face of Opportunity contests sponsored by British Airways.

Mannequin Madness, headquartered in Oakland, California, is a liquidator that sales, rents, and recycles mannequins. It was important for Townsend to have a physical presence in London. While the iPhone, Skype and e-mail are great communication tools, sometimes you just need a face-to-face meeting with someone to move the relationship to another level, she says. With free travel provided by British Airways as last year's Face to Face winner, just one of the Face of Opportunity prizes, Townsend was able to meet with someone who could help her business get a leg up on the competition.

London–based Mannakin Ltd. offered a similar service and was looking for a United States–based distribution partner. In addition to its existing services, the new partnership with Mannequin Madness sprung a series of new ventures such as developing resource guides for the mannequin industry. By winning British Airways Face–to–Face contest, Mannequin Madness was able to reach retailers on both sides of the Atlantic. In order to serve the needs of her ever expanding global retail clients, Townsend also is making great use of 10 international roundtrip airline tickets courtesy of British Airways, one of the prizes offered to this year's winners.

Not every contest offers a cash value, however, there are intangible rewards. Business owners like Townsend are tapping into contests and awards to help grow their companies. But it takes more than a little bit of luck. You need to work at it if you want to win.

With careful planning and preparation, you can improve your odds of winning. Here's some tips to beating out the competition.

1. Follow the Instructions

With thousands of competitors, the first round of elimination may come down to ruling out applicants who fail to follow the rules. Read the questions carefully, fill out the form properly, use the right format, and meet the deadline, advises Shepard. Spell-check the application; minor mistakes can detract from a powerful story. 

2. Take Your Time

You may be juggling a lot of duties, but don't rush it. Do a rough draft. Write all of the answers out and then take a day to step away from the application, suggests Shepard. "Go back and look at it with fresh eyes to make sure you are painting the best picture for the judges." Address each point specifically and with thought behind it. Judges affiliated with U.S. Chamber's competition look for companies that have great business strategies, employee practices, customer service, and community involvement.

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3. Keep it Simple

The genius is in brevity. Don't over complicate it. Don't try to impress the judges with a lot of jargon. Make sure you write, communicate, and present in a fashion that the least common denominator can also understand, suggests Scott Riley, CEO of Fintech in Tampa, an electronic payment system provider for distributors. Fintech received a $10,000 cash prize as a winner of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's 2010 DREAM BIG Small Business of the Year. People want to know who you are, what you do, where do you get your customers, and how you make your money, adds Riley, who is no stranger to awards, having been recognized by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce on multiple occasions and the 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

4. Showcase Strong Business Strategies and Strengths

You have to show or tell judges where the business is headed and how winning the contest will help you get there. What strategic plan is in place to continue to grow your company and gain market share in your niche, says Riley. Also, know your audience. Is there a way you can show a connection between your company and the sponsoring organization, judges, and general audience? Your company may have an environmental or a social element for example, Townsend says. "How can you quantify the impact that your company makes."

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5. Start Small, Then Go Big

Look to trade or association affiliated contests and awards. "I started out on some of the smaller ones first and then worked my way up to some of the national ones with the cash prizes or in-kind prizes," says Townsend. "Because I worked on several contests, I had a good feel for what types of things resonated with people." It's always good to get in some practice runs before you apply for the really big competitions.

6. Have Some Fun

Lighten up. Tell a funny tale. Find a way to humanize your story by sharing a few memorable moments, says Townsend. Any opportunity to add a little humor to an entry is usually well received. Be engaging. Be creative with your approach, adds Townsend, whether it is a written essay or a five-minute PowerPoint presentation with great visuals.

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