Your “Cool” Contest Idea Doesn’t Cut It

An online contest can be a marketing boon–or a complete disaster. Here are the Dos and Don’ts of managing a successful marketing contest from start to finish.

Your “Cool” Contest Idea Doesn’t Cut It

It’s easy to see why marketers love contests. They seem like such great ideas until you’re halfway into it and realize no one is signing up except your close friends and co-workers. We’ve all been there.


A great idea is only the first step. Bringing it to fruition–from choosing a platform, to creating an entry page–is often the hardest part. Over a thousand contests later–from sending the “Hey Bob, please sign up for this it would mean a lot to me, thanks!” emails in the early days to huge later successes, I’ve learned a bit about running contests on social networks.

Contests, like anything else in social marketing, are a science, but creating a contest that’s cool is only half of the job–it also needs to attract participation. The next time one of your colleagues comes to you with a great idea for a contest, take into account the following dos and don’ts of running social contests to make sure yours wins.

DO follow their rules.
Facebook has some clear rules for contests and sweepstakes. Twitter and Pinterest looser guidelines. Your state also has its own set of laws and requirements. Get educated on the rules, and then make a beeline for your legal department before doing anything. With their signoff, you’ll be able to avoid contest hiccups that could be damaging to your brand.

But DON’T make yours convoluted.
Most people won’t go to great lengths to enter a contest–even if the prize is spectacular. Keep things simple, from the entry form to messaging and design. A good rule of thumb is that there should be less than 5 steps to entry. I encourage brands to follow the format:

1. Ask: Ask them to submit a photo, vote, comment, etc.
2. Answer or Enter: Create a place for them to submit their answer/enter the contest
3. Contact: Create a place for contestant to submit name and email
4. Complete: Click, done, submitted!


Your last step before going live should be conducting user testing with people at your organization to see where they get stuck. Make changes accordingly then release the hounds.

DON’T restrict yourself to Facebook.
Most brands turn to Facebook when they decide to run a social contest. But, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram offer fertile ground for creative contests that engage your community. In its recent Pinterest contest, Norwegian Cruise Line ran a contest encouraging fans to create a pin board with their dream vacations. The contest featured an entry form on Facebook, encouraged fans to pin via Pinterest and allowed for sharing and promotion via a Twitter hashtag. This cross-platform maneuvering not only creates more awareness of the contest, it also leverages your social communities across platforms. Learn more about Norwegian Cruise Line’s contest and results here.

But DO have a home base.
There’s nothing worse than attempting to enter a contest and being unable to determine the rules. Make sure you have one place that offers clear rules and instructions. Many brands are using a Facebook app or their site as a home base where people can get in the know.

DON’T forget to spread the word.
“If you build it, they will come” isn’t quite true for contests. Promote your contest through all of your marketing channels–from social and email marketing to pitching media or even putting up signage in retail locations. The true emphasis of a contest should be to facilitate sharing. Give your fans the capabilities to easily share and comment on your contest and why they are so excited for it. The goal of a contest should be two-fold: drive fan engagement and obtain access to a new set of fans/followers. Creating a contest with pass-along options is the best way to make a contest successful and make it a habit to share user-submitted content such as photos or videos to keep the momentum going.

But DO make it relevant to the audience.
Giving away a Starbucks gift card may inflate your following temporarily, but what deeper connection does it forge with the audience? Choose an incentive that’s relevant to your fans’ needs and wants. And, make sure it connects back to your brand in a meaningful way. British Midlands International, for example, held a Pinterest contest that gave away a trip from their airlines to an exotic locale. By offering a prize that is unique to your brand or their product, you attract a more targeted customer base that is more likely engage with the brand on future occasions.


DON’T do it alone.
Managing your contest without a third-party tool can be tough going–especially when entries roll into the hundreds or even thousands (not uncommon for a sweepstakes). Pair up with a partner that offers the features you need to design your contests, manage responses, achieve success… and stay sane.

Hopefully you are reading this before your contest has gone live and not five days in thinking, “What have I done?” Make sure you’re not breaking the law, keep it as simple as possible to enter, get all of your social networks involved and then spread the word.

DO remember it isn’t the end once you announce a winner.

I’ll always tell companies to stop looking at the contest as a start and an end. Once the contest is over, use that data to understand what worked, what didn’t. Using the contest to build on the Social Profile data is key. Smart businesses that apply that learning can extend the success of a contest to other areas of their social program. In fact, we had one customer recently that used their contest entries to understand what other Facebook Pages those participants “liked.” Outside of the contest, this is great information to better understand your most engaging fans.

Aaron Everson is the COO and President of Shoutlet, a cloud-based social marketing platform. He has worked with Microsoft and is the cofounder of, an online comparison shopping site which he founded in 2005.

[Image: Flickr user Dmitriy K.]