Contests are a bad idea

99.99% of the time.

Why? Well, in my experience, in order to get quality contestants you have to work very hard on the creative side, the prize side and the outreach side. Clicking “publish” and waiting for the flood of entries to come in will likely leave you stranded. I know why you’re doing this contest, too, smarty pants: you want emails so you can get people hooked into your sales funnel. I get it. But not thinking about the how and whys is only going to get you SPAM reports.

In order to make sure your contest is the .01% of good ideas, think about the following:

How does my contest actually help people

Oh, you thought this was all about you? Nope. And this is probably the biggest reason why contests go awry. A negligible number of people want a year’s supply of your product unless it’s to resell it. But you probably put something in your contest rules about that, right? I’ll wait while you do that.

I really don’t like the hippy-dippy phrase “delight your customers” but it’s the best way I can describe what a good contest is all about. The National Geographic Photo Contest gets thousands of entries not simply because of their “brand recognition” but because photogs around the world delight in taking photos of the unusual and jawdropping. They’re out their doing it anyway. Secondly, NatGeo knows its audience: photographers and nerds. If they put up a $500 cash prize for a funny caption contest they would not be appealing to their audience, they’d be diluting it with money hungry Professional Contest Entrants (who I’ll discuss later).

Tapping into your audiences delights is not easy. But it’ll be worth it.

Who’s entering

Know your audience, know your audience, know your audience! And by “know,” I don’t mean obtain illegal marketing reports. I mean make intelligent guesses about what would appeal to them based on past behavior on your website, email or social media page. Is your audience filled with working moms? graduate students? teens with a lot of time on their hands? Think about what would appeal to them and what they would enjoy AND have time to do. Because if you don’t, if you’re contest is too generic, you’re going to have too many Professional Contest Entrants.

The PCE is someone who has google alerts for any mention of the word “contest.” They are not discerning in what they enter because whatever you give them, they will sell. Their Facebook or Twitter pages are filled with retweets and shares of random contests from free groceries to Ferrari key rings. Some of them are more motivated than others. I had one PCE who would pose with a friend to appear to be whatever you wanted them to be: a bride and bridesmaid, step-sisters, Beliebers since the day they met, whatever. Others will only enter contests where they can autofill your forms. Whatever the case, these PCE’s will not turn into customers, they will report your follow-up email as spam (unless you are known for running contests) and they will dilute the audience you have painstakingly curated. Don’t let the PCE happen to you.

How are you going to get butts in seats

Remember what I said about hitting publish and sitting back to relax? Not going to happen. In all the successful contests I’ve run, I had to send out press releases, talk to 6 am radio show hosts, call up friends of friends of businesses with giant lists and wheel and deal. Is your contest worth all that? Put a plan together of what you’re willing to do to get people to enter and run your contest accordingly.

How easy is my contest to enter

Fill this form, like this post, go here first. Anything taking more than filling in a form and uploading a photo is going to lose contestants. The more steps your entrants have to take, the less likely they are to do it. The more steps your entrants have to take, the longer you have to hold the contest. The best example of this is a short story or a song contest that gives contestants at least six months to enter. So make sure the ease of entering is proportional to the amount of time you’re giving contestants to enter. And DON’T link them away from your contest page unless you’re positive they’ll come back.

How valuable is your prize

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and so, too, is your prize. Unless it’s cash. All people would love cash upfront. However, anything autographed, products, special recognition, use of their creative work is all going to depend on how well you can sell potential entrants.

A former client had a $200 product that no one ever heard of and thought that getting free samples in people’s hands would be a great marketing tool. It wasn’t. If you want to give away a free product or supply of your product, everyone better know what it is and want it regardless if you offer it for free. As a side note: It’s one thing to give away small samples, but if your product is high end and can’t be sampled, don’t do a contest until people are clamoring for it. Holding frequent contests is going to condition your audience into thinking your product isn’t valuable. Look at what happened to Bed Bath and Beyond with their 35% coupons. No one paid full price for anything in the store and they hemorrhaged profits.

So think hard about the value of your prize – not just the cash value, but its value to your brand and your customers.

Special note about creative contests

I despise most of these. I think they’re mostly bunk and won’t get artists the recognition they actually need. If your entrants can’t submit elsewhere either during the entry period or after the winner is announced, please don’t hold that contest or change the rules to accommodate artists who might want to submit to more than one contest. Artists are not PCE’s, but they are professionals who slave over their work. It takes a lot of energy to write a good song or story or create a good design – give them the benefit of actually getting their work sold.


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