You've started your business and are ready to take it to the next level; now what? An easy place to start is applying for small business awards. These awards garner credibility and often lead to more brand awareness, sales and business growth. But where do you begin?

We've rounded up 5 expert tips that will make small business award applications a breeze. While it may seem like a lot of work, applying for awards is a necessary part of running a small business and growing its brand authority. The time and effort are worthwhile if you know what to do. So let's dive in.

Do Your Research

Before you can apply for an award, you need to do some research. Investigate what small business awards are available and are applicable to your industry or niche . There are plenty of local and national awards for small businesses, but applying to those that best suit your specific business will yield the best results.

The U.S. Small Business Administration dedicates a week to celebrate small businesses and honors a number of companies based on 14 different criteria. The awards range from the Small Business Person of the Year to the Women's Business Center of Excellence Award. There are local and national components to the National Small Business Week Awards; so even if your business is relatively new, they acknowledge the impact small businesses make in their local community.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also sponsors the Dream Big Awards, which recognizes small businesses from across the country for their contribution to their communities. This is another reputable awards program that has massive potential for gaining national awareness about your business.

While these are larger scale small business awards, there are myriad of awards small businesses can apply for on the state or community level. Start your search early, so you don't miss deadlines and can apply for as many as awards as possible.

Connect Your Story to Theirs

Applying for a small business award is more than just copying and pasting your mission statement and goals into an online form. To make an impact with your application, you need to dig a little deeper and see what the organization values in its award recipients. Reviewing past winners, awards case studies and the "About Us" page to fully understand the application review process is necessary. This information will give you a better sense of what matters to the organization, and how you can align your business with their values.

Once you have the award's priorities clear in your mind, there are two ways to connect your story to theirs:

1. Highlight your unique selling point

When applying for a small business award, highlighting your unique selling point, or USP, is critical. It's a means of bringing your business to life and gives consumers a quick glance into what they can expect from your company without reading through your entire website. In a sea of applications, you want your business to shine, and your USP will help you do so.

2. Tell your brand story

Many small business award applications include a section about your business's story. Do not underestimate the importance of this part of an application. It gives you the opportunity to paint the best picture of your business, including how it began, how it's grown and your future plans. When explaining your road to success, ensure you touch on the mission, values and culture of the business. These elements are the foundational of your brand and are key differentiators as you grow. Underscoring how your coffee shop composts all of its waste or how 10% of all proceeds go to a children's hospital adds authenticity to your business's story. Including these details in your applications makes your business memorable and awards committees will take note.

Note Deadlines

This may seem obvious, but don't miss out on an award because the deadline has passed. Once you determine which awards you want to apply for, add their deadlines to your calendar and set reminders ahead of the due date. For entrepreneurs, these small details can fall between the cracks, so be proactive and make award applications part of your weekly schedule. Having designated time to work on award submissions means you're more likely to complete them and hit their individual deadlines.

Share the Love

After you submit your applications, give the award organizations some online love. Promote the awards on your social media channels by using the branded hashtag or tagging the awards organization when you post about them. This kind of promotion will get you on the organization's radar, but also inform your community about the awards process. If there is any kind of community polling or input, having your followers" in the know" will help your odds of receiving the award. Remember to only share about awards you're genuinely interested in and don't overly post about them. Social media is all about being authentic, and it's easy to tell when a business is trying to toot its horn instead of spread the word about something interesting.

Now that you have these tips are your disposal, hop to it! There are tons of small business awards waiting for your application and your story. Remember to use your brand voice and be genuine; these characteristics will always serve you well, and you'll likely end up with a new award.