Step-by-step guide for how to run an online contest

Play games; win prizes! This is true both for the contestants and whoever’s running the show.

Over the years, you’ve probably seen plenty of product giveaways or contest promotions on social media. And you’ve probably participated in a few yourself. In 2012, AirAsia famously offered a full free flight to one lucky winner and more than 300 of their closest friends. That prize cost a pretty penny for the airline, but you can bet they got far more in return from the exposure and online engagement.

If you’re wondering how to run an online contest for your brand, this primer offers a comprehensive overview of what steps to take and how it can benefit you and your customers.

Why online contests?

People like to win — and the better the prize, the more coveted it will be.

Because of the excitement they can generate, contests and giveaways offer an amazing opportunity for brands to go viral and reach consumers who previously never heard of them. When done right, this type of gamified marketing can

  • Help penetrate valuable consumer demographics and build positive brand recognition
  • Go viral and generate more leads and conversions than possible with traditional advertising and marketing — and at lower costs
  • Massively increase website traffic, social media engagement, newsletter signups, and other audience-building metrics
  • Generate substantial media coverage that further increases the contest’s virality — the AirAsia plane giveaway garnered headlines all over the world

None of these things happen automatically or by accident. It takes a real strategy to create an online contest and run it successfully. Here’s how to do it.

1. Define your goals

Every contest, no matter how intricate, is about one thing: increasing KPIs. Everything about the contest should be formulated around smart goals that will drive results in these KPIs. Reverse engineer the giveaway, the prizes, the angle, or the rules of the contest from there. 

Do you want to grow your email list, increase your social media following, or gather user-generated content? Contests and giveaways are prime strategies for doing all of this. But make sure to clearly define what KPIs you want to focus on and what goals you want to reach before you start the fun. 

Try not to make your goals too big. Focus on one primary KPI and define the goal you want to achieve, such as tripling your Instagram follower count or doubling your email list. This will prevent you from making an overcomplicated contest and allow you to focus your efforts.

2. Set your budget

Running a contest or giveaway can be considerably cheaper than a traditional ad, but it still requires money and resources. Figure out how much you’re willing to spend to cover the prize and how much you need to promote the contest. There are clever ways to mitigate the cost of a contest, such as using unsold merchandise or leveraging a relationship with a partner.

3. Find the hook

To be successful, every contest or giveaway should have a compelling reason to participate. Usually, it’s the allure of the prize. In the case of AirAsia’s plane giveaway promotion, getting a free international flight for you and everyone you know is hard to pass up — and obviously, it set people’s imaginations on fire around the world.

But there can also be a real draw in the experience of competing in the contest. Caption contests on platforms like Instagram engage players’ creativity — and for participants who get struck with inspiration and like to shine, the endorphin rush of posting their contribution might be a bigger incentive than the actual prize of the contest. 

Because marketing professionals are inherently creative, you’re likely more inspired by this step of the contest and giveaway creation process than the ones before it. Keep your ideas flowing, but do your due diligence and have a goal and budget in mind before you act on your inspiration and launch the contest. 

4. Choose your medium and entry structure

There are so many platforms and social media networks to promote a contest. There are even software products that can help you manage every aspect of a contest or giveaway, such as Strutta, Gleam, or Rafflecopter

Jotform offers nearly 100 templates for contest entry and registration forms to optimize a contest for the most successful engagement.

To narrow down your choices, determine what type of contest you’re going to sponsor. Some ideas include

  • A photo or video contest
  • Sweepstakes
  • Vote, Play, Enter, or Sign up to Win
  • User-generated content contest (such as a caption contest)
  • Social like/tag/share/reply
  • Product giveaway
  • Scavenger hunt

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the types of online contests you can run, but it’s a good starting place. As you come up with the contest format, the goals you outlined in step one will be incredibly useful in helping you make your decision.

For example, if your goal is to increase your Facebook following, it would make the most sense to run the contest entirely on Facebook and design it to get the most organic exposure within that ecosystem. If your goal is to increase your follower count across all of your social media platforms, design a contest that can easily be rolled out across them all. The results of this contest could give you insight into which platform your brand performs best on as well. 

You’ll have to determine what the barriers to entry and guidelines should be. Is your contest appropriate for all ages? Are there state or national laws you’ll need to be aware of? Also, make sure you know the rules of whatever social media platform you’re promoting or running your contest on. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest all have specific guidelines.

5. Promote your contest and engage the entrants

The most exciting part of the contest, for both you and the participants, is when you put the word out and people start entering. This is also where your promotion budget comes in handy, as you might have to spend some money on Facebook or Instagram ads or advertising on a particular site.

Whatever promotion strategy you choose, make sure the marketing content is optimized for the platform where it’s being deployed. Explain rules and entry requirements as clearly as possible without detracting from how fun and awesome your contest is.

Answer the questions people ask, and engage with participants as they submit their entries. Most important, have fun to maximize the good vibes your work is generating. 

6. Wrap up and reflect

Phew! Once the contest is over and the winner(s) announced, be sure to thank everyone for participating, and don’t be shy about recapping some of the highlights of the effort. 

As the dust settles, now is the time to review everything that just happened:

  • Did you accomplish the goals you laid out in step one?
  • Was the contest properly set up to accomplish that goal?
  • Were you on budget? Will you need to spend more on future contests, or was this more cost-effective than anticipated?
  • Did you run into any issues while collecting entries? What was the cause, and how can it be avoided in the future?

With this information in mind, you’ll be in a much better place to confidently replicate and/or build upon the success of this contest in future marketing efforts.

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