Dear SA Blog Awards organisers,
Firstly we would like to thank the organisers of the SA Blog Awards 2010 for doing what by all accounts is a thankless job. Whatever gripes any of us may have with the organisers, the process, the outcome or the ceremony, nobody can deny that there is considerable effort that goes into arranging and running this type of competition. Rather than hang about and wish that South Africa had an award to rival the Bloggies, these guys actually get up and do the work to make the awards happen. Secondly we would like to congratulate all the category winners in this year's awards. Blogging is a lonely and sometimes frustrating hobby and it is a great feeling to be recognised by your peer group for this thing that you put so much time and effort into and that has your family shaking their heads in incomprehension. Whether or not one agrees with the choices, we all need to realise that the winners are not to blame for the judging/voting process and any criticism of the process should not be taken in any way to belittle the achievement of the winners – well done to you all.
We have been blogging since shortly after the Middle Ages (or so it feels sometimes!) and have been keen supporters of the SA Blog Awards from the outset. Between us, we have been winners, finalists and runners-up, and have sponsored prizes. With any award, there will always be a certain amount of controversy about the process for choosing the winners, and the winners themselves. But it seems that the grumbles that have followed the awards in previous years have reached a crescendo this year and distressingly, a lot of the "suck it up and go away" comments are coming from category winners, while a lot of the harshest criticism is coming from those who did not make the finals. The danger is that the criticism is seen purely as sour grapes and not taken seriously, so as runners-up (podium finishers, as somebody put it on Saturday!) we felt compelled to write this letter.
At the risk of sounding lawyerly, we are great believers in the fact that justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done, and much of the commentary that follows is based on this motto. The organisers may have been 100% happy in their own minds that the process was fair, but on many levels that's not how it appeared to voters and nominees – and appearances do in fact count. And because there is nothing we like less than people shouting criticisms from the sidelines without making helpful suggestions, we have suggested ways in which we think things could be improved.
1. RULE CHANGES
When the rules originally went up, each e-mail address could only nominate and vote once. But somewhere between that day and the day that voting started, the rules were changed to allow voting once every 24 hours. There is absolutely no excuse for changing the rules once they have been put up. It creates an unprofessional impression and makes people wonder what else is being changed behind the scenes.
SUGGESTION: if you want to change the rules that have already been published, then wait till next year's competition! Changing the rules after they have been published is a sure-fire way to upset all and sundry.
2. THE VOTING PROCESS
One of the biggest gripes was that each e-mail address was allowed to vote every 24 hours over a period of three weeks. The argument from the organisers is that this benefited people who post regularly and "highlighted" those who have lots of loyal readers. Wrong. Despite the fact that both of us DO post regularly and DO have lots of loyal readers, we both feel that all that the multiple vote system meant was that each and every shortlisted blogger managed to annoy the hell out of their friends, family and readers by bombarding them with daily requests for votes via e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. Obviously this was not compulsory, but as soon as the first blog did it, others had to follow or risk being defeated by an aggressive marketing campaign. It did NOT force people to post more often and it did not drive traffic to blogs – all it did was force bloggers to trawl for votes on social media sites to try and keep up with the competition, and forced hundreds (if not thousands) of people to visit the Awards site daily. Which made everybody wonder what sort of per-click ad revenue the Awards site might be getting from all this…
SUGGESTION: the way to weed out blogs who do not post regularly is to set a minimum number of posts per month over the past 6 months or similar. And the way to find out who has lots of traffic and loyal readers is to make Alexa traffic stats and FaceBook/Twitter followers a mandatory criterion for judging. The 24-hour voting rule did nothing to improve the quality of SA blogs or blogging – it just turned us all into vote-whores. Please don't use it again.
3. THE JUDGES AND JUDGING PROCESS
Much has been said about how the voting turned into a popularity contest, and how the judging was too subjective (and erratic). We feel strongly that both components are necessary: some sort of public vote is needed because taking note of a blog's popularity should be a criterion. But some sort of judging process is also needed, if for no other reason than to make sure that blogs fit in their category and adhere to the criteria for being nominated; and to make sure that the entire process does not solely hinge on popularity but also on some judgement of quality. The main criticisms of the judges were that their qualifications/expertise to judge were not immediately obvious; and that the criteria they applied were not clearly defined or publicised (the first mention of the criteria came only after the event, as the Awards organisers moved to defend themselves against criticism).
a) Would it be too much to ask that beside each judge's name there is a one-line bio as to who they are and what their field is? Seeing that "Joe Bloggs" is judging my category does not fill me with hope. Seeing that "Joe Bloggs – Head of new media communications at Woolworths" or similar is far more reassuring.
b) Publicise the criteria right from the start (e.g. reader stats, site usability, content, frequency of blogging, reader interaction), not only to the judges but also to the contestants.
c) Make the judges write a one-line reason as to why they chose one blog over another ("good design but posts too infrequently", or "great content but no search function and no About page" – whatever takes their fancy) and publicise this when the results are announced. It may take a little more time, but if each judge only looks at one category, that would still only have been 10 lines to write.
d) Allow the top 10 finalists in each category to rate the blogs in their own category (excluding their own blog). That way nobody can accuse the judges of knowing nothing about blogging – it will be a jury of their peers! The final tally can be weighted, say, 70% public vote, 15% peer judging and 15% official judging. All you need is one good spreadsheet for all judges to enter their scores and it should be able to calculate the final results instantly as the scores come in. Anybody reasonably proficient in Excel should be able to set this up. The Does My blog Look Good in This food photo contest runs every month with 50+ entries and at least 5 judges inputting scores in three categories for each photo into a spreadsheet, generating fair and universally accepted results. So it can be done…
e) To prevent the same people winning year after year, make each category winner a judge for their category the following year and therefore ineligible to enter the competition for one year after their win, but free to enter again in 2 years time.
4. COMMUNICATION WITH CONTESTANTS
From the perspective of a contestant we have to say that the communication with contestants was pretty shocking. (People complained that the announcement was made only on Twitter but we can't get excited about that. Folks, in previous years it was not even made on Twitter! You just found out about it via the grapevine, so no real change there !). Our major gripe was that, despite registering on the site very early on so that our correct details were on file with the Awards organisers, communication was not very forthcoming and often long after a public announcement had been made. Again – not the way to project a professional image! The rules stated that the top 10 finalists would be notified ahead of a public announcement whether or not their blogs had made it, but this was not the case. I (Jeanne) kept checking for an e-mail that never came and eventually wandered over to the Awards site where I found I was in fact a finalist. I think the e-mail finally turned up 2 days later. After the final 2 in each category were announced, mail went out to the 10 nominees saying that the voting had closed and if they did not receive a further communication then they had not made the cut – leaving people guessing. Despite receiving this mail and seeing that I was a finalist, no further correspondence was forthcoming. I could not understand why, as a finalist, I did not get an invitation to the ceremony. Finally I contacted Chris Rawlinson and searched my spam folder where I found a pre-invitation mail. According to this, I was a finalist but if I did not respond to this pre-invitation mail saying I was likely to attend, I wasn't even going to receive an invitation to display on my mantelpiece. Nothing like that to make you feel warm, fuzzy and special.
a) If you say you will notify people in advance of a public announcement, then make sure that you do so, even if it means delaying the announcement by a day until you have sent out all your e-mails.
b) How hard can it be to send slightly less generic e-mails to those who did not make the final two, thanking them for participating and telling them they have not made the cut, rather than leaving them waiting for some other notification that they might have gone through (and which might end up in their spam folder!). Communicating information by saying nothing is never a good idea. I know that would have meant a fair-sized mailshot, but surely not insurmountable?
c) Having to pretty much RSVP before you even get an invitation is needlessly complicated and gives the impression that organisers are secretly hoping you won't attend. Just send invitations to ALL the finalists!
5. PRIZES & THE AWARDS CEREMONY
There has been much grumbling about the organisers' decision to change from previous years' format and not to invite all top-10 finalists to the awards ceremony; and about the mystery of more sponsors but fewer prizes this year. As the chances of my (Jeanne's) ever attending an SA Blog Awards ceremony seem very slim (!), I do not have strong feelings about the format. However, if part of the stated aims of the SA Blog Awards is to promote blogging in SA and presumably networking between bloggers to create a stronger and more vibrant community, then surely a more inclusive ceremony might be better? As for the prizes, if you look at the amount of bitching and nastiness that has accompanied these awards where people were competing for nothing, can you imagine how much worse it will be if there are cash prizes involved? The point of the awards is not to benefit from them financially – it is to promote good blogging in South Africa and for bloggers to feel recognised and appreciated by their peers. We say return to the days when the prize was a token R20,10 (or R20,11 next year!).
a) Seeing as there can only be a very small number of winners, attending the awards ceremony is the highlight of the event for the majority of participants. So why not include as many people as possible? Limit the numbers with a strict 2 persons per invite rule, and invite ALL the top 10 finalists. Not all of them will come, and the organisers get to look magnanimous. Set a limit on the bar tab if that's the worry.
b) Instead of using sponsor money to fund prizes, use it to fund the awards ceremony. Yes, this will irk some people who are not able to attend the awards, but handing out prizes just gives everybody something more to bitch about.
6. BEST BLOG
There is no way that you can meaningfully say "this is the best blog in South Africa" – or any country for that matter. Other than the obvious ones like traffic stats and frequency of posting, a food blog, a politics blog and a lifestyle blog have different criteria for determining quality of content. Comparing them is unfair and bound to lead to unhappiness and a result that nobody can ever agree on.
Just drop this category. It serves no purpose other than to generate controversy. Having a category winner in each of the categories is plenty, and a far fairer comparison of like with like.
7. PAST WINNERS/FINALISTS ON THE WEBSITE
Before the site redesign for this year's awards, there used to be links available to pages listing finalists and winners all the way back to the first awards in 2005. Now, these have all disappeared, except for the 2009 winners. This year the top 10 finalists in each category were only visible until the winners were announced and now only the winners are listed. This is not great for the morale of the finalists (who are, by definition, the majority of bloggers who took part). It is as if the message is "if you didn't win, you don't count". Surely this is not exactly going to promote any sort of community feeling among bloggers in South Africa but will more likely exacerbate the current us/them, winner/loser mentality?
You've paid for the shiny www.sablogawards.com domain. Adding a few pages of pure text will not be kill you cost-wise or effort-wise. Why not add a page for each year of the awards, simply listing the category finalists and winners, just like you have done for 2009. Spread the awards love around.
We hope that organisers and contestants alike will take the points that we have raised in the spirit of constructive criticism in which they were intended and give some thought to them before this competition runs again. We continue to support the awards and believe that they give bloggers in South Africa a chance to be recognised by their peers (seeing as international blog awards seem to think Africa stops approximately at Egypt!), but we truly hope that future awards can be less about controversy/sponsors/prizes/complaints and more about blogging.
Bloggers are already a tiny lunatic fringe… umm, I mean minority in South Africa. If we can't even have one awards ceremony a year and be civil to each other, then how on earth do the Awards work in raising the profile of SA blogging? We just look like a playground full of petulant children throwing sand at each other, and that's generally not seen as a good look.
Once again, thank you to the organisers for their efforts, congratulations to all the top 10 finalists, and happy blogging to all.