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The Ultimate Guide to Running Online Competitions

Joseph 0

I’ve worked on a lot of different social media campaigns in the past and the first question that companies always ask me is, “How can we build our social media following from our target market?”

My response often involves looking at placing a big emphasis on mediums that fall outside of the social media platforms themselves.

A big problem that businesses often have is that they think about social media in a very linear way.

They assume that the only way to build their social media following is to get active on social media and post creative content on there. Yes, that helps but it isn’t the be-all and end-all.

When you consider that every post that goes onto your Facebook page is seen by around 16% of your followers, and even with Facebook’s promoted posts you will only be hitting around 80% (if you’re lucky!), then you can start to see why it can be tough to reach users on the social media sites themselves.

I often dedicate most of my client’s Facebook ad spend to promoting to their existing users, because it makes much more sense to target people already interested in the brand.

Reaching Outside of Social Media

Running competitions has been a hugely successful tactic that is employed both within social media and outside of it. I’ve worked on both sides of the coin and they tend to go hand-in-hand for the best results.

I worked with a client that owned a chain of restaurants in the UK to build weekly competitions within Facebook that were focused around encouraging interaction (here’s an example) – these were particularly useful, but rarely increased the social following by significant numbers.

When you are a relatively small business or one with a small social following, running contests on the likes of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/YouTube/etc. can be a real struggle.

This is where tapping into existing commnities within your niche can be incredibly successful.

Based on my past experience, I’m going to show you the steps I take to plan and execute an effective competition to build your social media following (and also get a few links in the process)…


1. Designing the competition structure.
1.1 Choosing a prize.
1.2 Scouting for possible competition partners.
1.3 Deciding the way that users can enter.
1.4 Choosing the competition platform to use.
1.5 Understanding the content requirements.
2. Selecting the advertising mediums.
2.1 Settling on where the competition will be held.
2.2 Creating a list of outreach targets.
2.3 Budgeting for paid traffic sources.
2.4 Reaching out to your targets.
2.5 Competition/Offer websites.
3. Executing the campaign.
3.1 Deciding on the length and start date of the contest.
3.2 Planning a content schedule.
3.3 Tracking results.
3.4 Announcing and following up with the winners.

1. Designing the Competition Structure

1.1 Choosing a Prize

The first stage of planning any competition is to decide on what you will be offering as an incentive.

This could be a product, service or simply exposure (by this I mean the winner could be featured on your blog or social media profile).

For the purposes of this post I’m going to talk about product/service orientated give-aways.

In general, it’s good to make sure that you’re offering something that will appeal to your target audience.

This doesn’t need to be a very high value item and, more often than not, items between the value of $60-150 work best.

Try not to give away something that would require the winner to make a lot of changes to their home, for example, a full home cinema system – within the A/V niche, things like headphones can be great because they don’t require any extra installation.

1.2 Scouting for Possible Competition Partners

A great way to bulk out your offering, increase the reach of your competition and save on costs is to partner up with someone else.

An example would be if you were a travel blog owner and were giving away a backpack, you could get in touch with some travel agents to see if they would give some discount vouchers for flights/hotels.

Using this tactic will often give you further in-roads to run some joint advertising ventures.

The partner company will like it because they will get some exposure/links/social followers and they won’t have to worry about the time consuming aspects of setting up a competition.

One thing to note here is that you need to be careful about what you offer the partner in return.

If you’re going to run a competition focused around building your social media following, the last thing you want is for the partner to steal all the users.

A great way to work around this is to offer them a link within the competition page and say that you will link to their page in any other mentions of the competition on other site – this is kind of like a ‘competition sponsor’.

An awesome example of how this has been put to great use was within a charity competition ran by Jacob Cass that was offering $11,000 worth of prizes.

Jacob contacted a load of different people to get them to sponsor the competition and ended up with a serious selection of prizes to give away, all at no expense to himself.

1.3 Deciding on the Way That Users Can Enter

This is a really important decision to make. You need to prioritise the different objectives of your competition before you even think about this.

If you want to primarily build your Facebook following then ‘Liking’ the Facebook page is going to be high on the list of entry methods; however, this doesn’t mean that you will only focus on this method.

I tend to always offer multiple entry methods to the competition, allowing single entrants to enter multiple times (with an entry limit).

I’ve found that offering either 3 or 4 entry methods works best for squeezing the most out of a competition. To decide this, make a list of your top priorities, for example:

  1. Grow our Facebook following
  2. Increase engagement on Twitter
  3. Build our e-mail database
  4. Increase our Instagram following

You will then have a solid starting point for developing your entry methods.

1.4 Choosing the Competition Platform to Use

The previous decisions that you made about how users can enter your competition will probably play a big part in deciding which platform to use. The reason for this is mainly functionality.

There is a load of different competition software out there which makes it very easy to get overwhelmed when making a choice. Here are a few that you can take a look at:

Personally, I’m a big fan of using PunchTab. I find their platform great for encouraging social actions within competitions and the widget is laid out really well, not to mention their great reporting options.

I’ve put together a quick video tutorial on how to use PunchTab, so give it a quick once-over…

1.5 Understanding the Content Requirements

Now that the competition structure has been designed, it’s time to scope out what content will be needed.

To increase the likelihood that your competition will be shared and linked to by others, it’s a good idea to create as much linkable/shareable content related to your competition as possible.

Here are some ideas for the content that you may require for your competition:

  • Competition rules/terms and conditions
  • Text content for your competition page
  • Themed graphics to use when mentioning the competition
  • Blog copy to be used for guest posting
  • Video content that explains the competition
  • A competition hashtag
  • A competition widget (to enable users to enter the competition)
  • Social media post copy (it’s good to prepare a few of these in advance)
  • A unique webpage design (maybe a cool parallax design that will encourage links)
  • Prize photography/video content
  • Themed display banners
  • Facebook advert graphics/themed cover photo
  • Press release copy
  • Outreach email templates
  • E-mailer design and content (you may need a few of these depending on how many mail shots you are going to send out)

2. Selecting the Advertising Mediums

2.1 Settling on Where the Competition will be Held

Once all of the structural aspects of the competition have been finalised, you will need to make a decision on where to host the competition. There are a couple of options here:

  • Host the competition on your website within a dedicated webpage.
  • Host the competition exclusively on someone else’s website.

There are advantages to going with both of these options but the choice you make should really be focused around what your end goal is.

The first option will work best if your objective is to build a number of links back to your website.

Having a dedicated page will mean that you have a piece of linkable content that other websites may link to (here’s a nice example from Pro Dunk Hoops).

Alongside this, you will not have to worry about exclusivity and will be able to have the competition mentioned on various other sites as well.

The downside to this option is that if you don’t have a huge level of traffic coming to your website then you may have to spend a lot more to promote it.

The second option can be great if you’re looking more to build your social media following, gather data and get as many entrants to your competition as possible.

Using this option, you can give a website with a large amount of relevant traffic an exclusive deal where the competition will be hosted on their site only.

The advantage for the website owner is that they get some free goods/services to give away to their community, and the advantage for you is that you get to tap into their community.

The advantage here is that promotional costs will be a LOT less, but if you’re looking for links back to your website then you will often yield a lot less using this option.

2.2 Creating a List of Outreach Targets

To gain as much exposure for your competition as possible, you will want to reach out to as many people as possible. When I say ‘to as many people as possible’, what I really mean is ‘as many relevant people as possible’.

If you’re looking to reach out to people in order for them to talk about your competition then make sure that you plan out your contact carefully.

More often than not, you only get one (or maybe two – if you’re lucky) attempts to catch someone’s attention, so don’t blow it!

Before you contact someone, ask yourself if they fit any of the following criteria:

  • Does the outreach target have the facility to link to you? (i.e. do they own a website or have access to a website)
  • Is the competition something that they would be interested in or that’s relevant to them?
  • Do they have a following that they can share your content to?
  • Is there an incentive that would persuade them to share your content?
  • Do they have a large social following full of people that would be interested in your competition?
  • If this person was perceived as affiliated to you, would it have no detrimental effects to your brand?

Your targets don’t need to fulfil all of the above criteria, but there are a few in there that should be seen as essential.

When it comes to physically searching for outreach targets, I use a few different processes that I’ve perfected over time.

The first is my link prospecting process that can be used to find targets within my niche.

Using this technique I can find a whole host of relevant communities that can be tapped into to gain awareness for my competition.

Once I’ve gathered a good list of link targets, I then look at identifying some influential social media users that I can connect with to gain exposure for my competition.

YouTube Channel Owners

YouTube channel owners are perfect for getting word of your competition out. Partnering with channels that have a high number of subscribers and video views can dramatically increase your competition’s online reach. Here’s a few examples of how you can partner with ‘YouTubers’:

  • Gain a link to your competition page within the description of videos (can be great to drive through traffic).
  • Sponsor the YouTube channel page with a link to your competition.
  • Get the YouTube owner to post your competition video on their channel.
  • Have a custom video created by the YouTube channel owner and posted on their channel.
  • Mention the competition during one of their videos.

You will often find that some form of compensation is needed to achieve the above results; whether this is money, a gift or a free service, YouTubers will often ask for something.

When you reach out to them, make sure that you offer something that is relevant to them and that would be of a value that covers the work involved.

I recently read this great post from Peter Attia on the Cucumber Nebula blog that gave a short guide on how to find YouTube outreach targets.

Give it a read because it will come in particularly handy for this stage.

Influential Twitter Users

Like with YouTube channel owners, influential Twitter users can be ideal outreach targets for gaining exposure for your online competition.

I harness the power of Followerwonk and Sprout Social for this task and it often takes me under an hour to gather a substantial list of outreach targets.

Using Followerwonk, I can utilise the ‘Search Twitter Bios’ feature and search for a keyword related to my niche.

Followerwonk searches for keywords found within Twitter users’ descriptions, so if, for example, I was running a competition giving away sporting goods, then I could search for ‘sports journalist’ within Followerwonk.

The ultimed guide 01

You may notice from the above screenshot that I’ve sorted the users by ‘Social Authority’.

This is a metric used by Followerwonk to signify how influential the person is within Twitter – this is an awesome metric to use as a starting point.

I won’t go into too much detail on loads of different ways to gather Twitter outreach targets because that’s a long article in itself.

What I will give you is a quick process for finding and making contact with the users:

  1. Gather an extensive list of Twitter outreach targets.
  2. Vet through the list to ensure they fit your outreach criteria.
  3. Gather contact information for your targets using BuzzStream or by dropping them a tweet.
  4. Decide what you are going to ask from them (e.g. ask for a tweet about your competition, ask them to post on their blog, etc.).
  5. Establish an incentive to offer.
  6. Make initial contact through either email or phone (don’t underestimate the power of a phone call!).

2.3 Budgeting for Paid Traffic Sources

Paid traffic sources are often a key success factor for your competition and don’t always have to cost huge amounts of cash.

The first place to start here is to decide upon the type of traffic that you want to drive to your competition.

There’s no point in paying for a load of banner ads on a general news site if you only want to target an audience fitting a specific demographic, for example, students.

Start by identifying which websites your target audience are exposed to. I outlined an awesome process for finding out which sites some of your targets regularly visit within this post on Jon Cooper’s Point Blank SEO blog. Check it out because you might find it useful.

Aside from the more advanced research techniques, start using some common sense. Research your target market and get to understand the key players within that market who are able to really connect with them.

These sites would be first on my list to reach out to. Alongside this, take a deeper look into the outreach targets that you have researched from section 2.2 and see if they run advertising opportunities on their websites.

Here’s a breakdown of the types of paid traffic sources that I usually look at to start with:

It’s often the case that bloggers will be looking for some form of compensation for mentioning your competition.

This is where you really need to scour through your outreach targets and decide which blogs have a thriving community that would like what you are offering.

Forget judging these sites based on Domain Authority or PageRank – this is all about engagement. Take a look at their recent posts and see how many comments they get as well as social shares.

This is going to be the key. Viral potential should be your criteria here and that is what’s going to give you ROI. The different types of opportunities that you could look at here are:

  • Sponsored Posts
  • Advertorials
  • Banner Advertising
  • Dual Promotions

Paying to be featured in a relevant e-mail newsletter is a great way to drive traffic to your blog.

Try to look out for websites that have a large community within them and get your competition featured within a mail shot that goes out to a large number of relevant users.

Lots of websites offer this feature, even major companies – you don’t always need to pay huge amounts either. Just remember to find out a few of these stats before you agree a deal with someone:

  • The average open rate of their emails.
  • The number of active subscribers on their mailing list.
  • The demographics of the subscribers.
  • What the average click-through rate of sponsored links are.

StumbleUpon Paid Discovery is one of the unsung heroes of traffic generation. I use this for a whole host of different purposes to drive through traffic to my content.

The main reasons for using this service is that you get some awesome options when it comes to targeting, and it’s incredibly cheap.

You can set how much you want to pay for every impression that your webpage gets and I have run some really successful campaigns on as little as $0.10 per visit! Not only this, but you also get free visits via StumbleUpon on top of this – result! If I had to recommend one thing for you to check out when it comes to paid traffic, this would be it.

When I say Facebook promotion, I don’t just mean posting about your competition to your Facebook fans a load of times to try and get a response.

The first part of Facebook promotion is to look at using Facebook ads to drill down and target the specific demographic that you’re looking to target. When creating an ad, make sure that you do the following:

  • Don’t target a really broad group of people – try to be as specific as possible.
  • Use sponsored stories where the post is an image (this gets much higher click-throughs than just a link).
  • Target the friends of your fans as well to get higher engagement levels.

Another tactic that I also employ is to spend a fair amount on promoting your posts to your existing followers.

As I mentioned before, only around 16% of your Facebook fans see the posts that you share. Use Facebook’s promoted posts to increase this reach dramatically.

Aside from Facebook ads themselves, you can pay businesses or individuals with large followings/engagement on Facebook to share the news of your competition to their followers.

This can be a fantastic tactic to take and it often won’t cost a lot (you may be able to get this done for free if you ask nicely). Also, try Facebook dark posts to promote your content tactically.

My advice is to create a list of Facebook outreach targets and drill down on those that have high levels of engagement on the posts they send out (follower count isn’t everything) – just make sure they are relevant to what you’re promoting!

Twitter’s Promoted Tweets  can be an option that you may want to look at for increasing the reach of your competition. I’m personally not a huge fan of this service, but that’s just my opinion.

One tactic that I have used is paying influential Twitter users to tweet about my promotion. Again, the best starting point here is to reach out to some of your outreach targets to see if they would be interested in working with you.

You can often get a good price for this as well. There are also a few websites that allow you to pay for Twitter users to tweet your promotion – check out http://sponsoredtweets.com/ or http://buysellads.com/buy/allsites/by/tweets.

Creating a video about your competition can be an effective technique for increasing your online reach.

To further promote the video, you can use YouTube advertising via PPC – this can be good for targeting specific demographics and driving good levels of traffic to your website.

Like with the Facebook/Twitter advertising ideas, you can also look at paying popular (and relevant) YouTube channel owners to promote your competition on their channel, within their videos or even to create a video for you that mentions your giveaway.

Although Adwords PPC campaigns can pan out to be fairly expensive, using them for gaining extra traffic to your competition page can be a fairly effective traffic generation method.

One tactic that I use is to target keywords focused around the prize that you are giving away.

For example, if you were giving away a coffee machine to your followers then you could target keywords related to coffee machines and run ads themed around ‘Win a BRANDNAME coffee machine!’ etc.

I wouldn’t focus a huge amount of your budget on Adwords PPC because you can be less targeted about the type of visitor that you are getting to your site. But more like to go with it with the help of an experienced Google ads agency.

Banner ads can work out fairly expensive, however they can be fantastic for bringing through really relevant and targeted traffic.

Look at the list of outreach targets and see what kind of advertising opportunities they offer on their site – if you are doing other work with them then you might be able to negotiate a better rate.

2.4 Reaching Out to Your Targets

The process of reaching out to your targets can vary depending on what type of competition you’re running. Having said this, the basic outreach principles remain the same.

The first thing that you need to decide upon is what you want from your target. Try to keep this as simple as possible – don’t overcomplicate things and try to get straight to the point.

On top of this, it’s important to give your outreach targets as little to do as possible – if they have to go out of their way to do things that you could have prepared then this could be a turn off.

Here are a few ideas for things you can ask from your targets:

  • Mention the competition in their next article.
  • Blog about the competition.
  • Share via their social media accounts.
  • Promote the competition within their newsletter.
  • Share your competition video on their YouTube channel.
  • Add your competition widget to their sidebar.

After you have established what you want from your targets, it’s time to decide on what incentive(s) you will offer.

I tend to offer a few different incentives that I can use on different targets – usually the top targets will get the biggest incentives. Here are a few ideas for incentives that you can offer:

  • Extra entries to the competition (so they have a good chance of winning themselves).
  • Extra prizes that are exclusive to their readers.
  • Some free products/services.
  • Cash payment.
  • A feature in your next e-mailer (if you have a good list of subscribers).

The above list contains just a few ideas, but you will often find other opportunities once you go through your list of targets.

The next step is to get in touch with your targets. One tip that I always give in this situation is, if possible, pick up the phone! A personal phone call can go a long way and it will give you a chance to play to your target’s ego a lot easier.

If a phone call isn’t possible then drop them an email – here’s a recent template that I used:

Hi [First Name],I’m just getting in touch regarding an opportunity that you might be interested in. I work with COMPANY NAME who manufacture PRODUCT NAME.

Next month we’re going to be giving away one of our PRODUCT/SERVICE that’s worth over $$$$ in a sweepstake competition (URL OF PRODUCT/SERVICE).

As you can imagine, we’re looking to build a lot of awareness for the competition.

This is why I’ve contacted you – I’m looking to partner up with some top NICHE-related blogs and wondered if you would consider mentioning the competition within a post on your blog.

In return, we will give you 15 entries into the competition for yourself (so you could have a good chance of winning the prize) and we can also offer you the cost of a sponsored post on your blog.

All we’re looking for is for you to mention the competition within one of your next posts (we can provide the competition widget and some unique text to go with it).

This would be once the competition goes live at START DATE (I can give you more details on that).

Let me know what you think and how much you charge for a sponsored post. Looking forward to hearing from you!

This is just one example, but it should give you an idea of the kind of structure that I use.

Also, if you’re running the competition for one of your clients, make sure that they set you up with an email address from their domain name – this dramatically increases the response rate.

2.5 Competition/Offer Websites

There are loads of websites out there that are focused around displaying the latest offers, promotions and giveaways.

Although a lot of them are pretty low quality, there are some that can be really effective for traffic generation. You can also get a dofollow link from some of the sites as well, which is a bonus.

Here’s a list of a few great websites that I use to submit my competitions to:

http://www.contesthound.com – Contest Hound have a few different options for promoting your competition. You can have a free listing as long as you give them a reciprocal link within your competition page or you can go with one of their paid listing options, ranging between $59 and $225.

I usually go with the $59 option to get within the featured competitions area for one week, plus a dofollow link.

http://www.giveawayscoop.com/ – Giveaway Scoop is another site that offers free listings with a dofollow link to your competition page.

I often go with the $25 option that includes your listing, a tweet from their Twitter account, a share on their Facebook page and a banner at the top of their site featuring your competition (for one week).

http://www.myfabfitforties.com/ – My Fab Forties isn’t necessarily a competition website, but they do feature competitions that are running online (for free) each week.

All you have to do is get in touch with them about your competition and they will feature your competition within their latest blog post.

http://powersweepstakes.com/ – Power Sweepstakes will promote your competition for free on their site. They give a nofollow link to your competition page but can generate some good interest for your competition.

It only takes a couple of minutes to add your competition on their site so it’s well worth it.

http://giveawaycube.com/ – Giveaway Cube is another site that I came across that gives free listings with a dofollow link. They get fairly good traffic levels through to the site and I’ve seen some good referral traffic as a result.

http://justsweep.com/ – Just Sweep offer both free and paid listing options. Their free listing includes your listing on their site (with a nofollow link back to your competition page) and a tweet from their Twitter account.

If you pay just $10 (which I’d recommend) then you get your competition featured at the top of the homepage for a whole week.

http://www.giveawaypromote.com/ – If you’re running a competition on behalf of a blog rather than a business, GiveAwayPromote will let you list your competition for free on their site (with a dofollow link).

If you’re a business you’ll have to fork out a bank-breaking $5.99 to list your comp. You can also pay an extra $8 and they will tweet your competition page, share it on Facebook, feature you within their newsletter and include within their RSS feed – it’s a no-brainer if you ask me.

Bonus: If you want some extra exposure for your competition from a load of competition websites, but you don’t have the time to go through and manually enter the details to each site, you can pay $80 for someone to go through and submit it to a list of sites. Go to http://www.cuckooforcoupondeals.com/advertise-your-giveaway/ for more info.

3. Executing the Campaign

3.1 Deciding on the Length and Start Date of the Contest

One factor that can attribute to a lack of interest around your competition is its length. Dragging the competition out too long can cause people to lose interest because it can seem too distant, whereas running it for a very short time can mean that you risk missing out on more entries.

There are a lot of factors to take into account but in general, if you’re having to rely on a lot of external traffic sources (i.e. you don’t have an existing large community to promote to) then you are going to need to run the competition for a little longer – I tend to go between one and three weeks maximum (depending on the value of the prize).

If you have a large engaging community that you’re promoting to then you can get away with doing short competition lengths – this is where 24/48 hour flash competitions can yield great results.

One thing to remember here though is that you need to give yourself enough planning time before you go live. If you’re getting other bloggers to talk about your promotion then ensure that you factor this time into your schedule.

3.2 Planning a Content Schedule

Things can start to get out of hand pretty quickly when you’re planning a promotion like this – trust me.

With all the content that is going to be prepared in the run-up to and during the competition, it’s vital that a structured content plan is in place.

I like to be as prepared as possible, as this way I won’t miss out on opportunities to increase the performance of the competition.

With this in mind, a structured content schedule is an ideal solution, especially if there is a team of people that will be working on the campaign.

The first thing to do is itemise out all of the content needed (you might want to refer back to the initial list that I outlined in section 1.5).

Once you have your list, create an Excel spreadsheet/Google spreadsheet (whichever you prefer) and start mapping out the different pieces of content to individual times/dates – you can even have a column that says who is responsible for each task as well.

If you don’t want to make a content schedule spreadsheet from scratch then you can download my template using the button below:

3.3 Tracking Results

Like with any marketing activity, it’s vital that you are tracking results. Luckily, most of the competition widgets, Punchtab in particular, have great conversion reporting options and you’re able to get a full overview of the different conversions that have taken place.

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I always make sure that I compile reports from each of the different traffic sources that I have used to see what kind of return I had.

The best way to do this is through downloading all of the analytics reports from the likes of Facebook, StumbleUpon, etc. (i.e. from sources that you paid for traffic) and then pull in your traffic data from Google Analytics.

It can also be a good idea to set up conversion tracking on your competition page to get an even better idea of what users are doing on your site.

3.4 Announcing and Following Up With the Winners

The final stage of the campaign is to choose a winner for the competition – you can often do this at random using your competition software.

Once you’ve announced the winner, make sure that you make a big deal about it because this can generate some great social activity and get people interested in what else you have to offer.

The ultimed guide 03

One tactic that I always use is to call up the winner(s) and ask them to take a photo of themselves with their prize and send it to me.

I can then post this across Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, etc. and also post it up on the blog.

It’s a great opportunity to also send out an email to your subscriber list to show them a photo of the lucky winner(s) and let them know that there will be more coming soon.


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