Contests are a common way to try to increase your traffic. With the correct strategy a contest can really put your blog on the map. Done incorrectly they can be difficult, lose money and lose credibility with your audience. This article looks at seven basic steps in creating contests that have a good return on investment for blog sites.
1. Decide how People will Enter.
This is the most important part. If you choose poorly, you will waste a lot of effort and a prize. If you choose wisely your site will benefit for years after the contest is done.
Entries need to help your blog grow in a way that aligns with the goals for your site. If you just ask people to email you, it probably isn’t going to help you grow your blog long term. You need to chose something that helps bring traffic back. Here are a few ideas for contests that benefit your site:
- Subscribe to RSS – This can be a little tricky because you can’t just randomly choose a name from the RSS subscribers. However you can tell people to watch the feed for a special message telling them how to claim the prize.
- Subscribe to an Email Newsletter – This is one of the easiest contests to implement because all you have to do is chose a random subscriber.
- Leave a Comment on the Contest Post – This is simple to run because you just have to select a random comment. It doesn’t have as much benefit as some of the other options because it doesn’t necessarily help your reader connect with the rest of your site.
- Leave a Thoughtful Comment Anywhere on the Blog – This may be a better option than just leaving a comment on the contest post. It requires the reader to help add content to your site. The more the reader interacts with your site the more likely they are to return.
- Review Your Blog on their Site – This requires more work for the person entering the contest, but it gives you the biggest benefit. Not only do you get a link, but you get some great feedback to help you tune your site. In addition the person writing the review is going to remember your site because it is now featured on their blog.
- Hunt Through Your Site to Find Something – For example, you could say that sometime in the next 30 days, you are going to put a secret codeword on your blog and the first person to send you the code word wins the prize. This is good for increasing your page views (assuming your prize is enough to encourage people to dig through your blog), but it might not have the best long term benefit.
- Content Projects – Asking people submit or post content on a particular topic and then rewarding the top submissions can be a great way to get new content as well as raising awareness of your blog. This can be as simple as asking them to add a tip to the comments or as substantial as asking for long essays to use as guest posts.
There are many other ways to run contests. A unique and creative approach is more likely to get noticed than something everyone has seen 100 times before. Just make sure that the contest will result in behavior that is good for your blog in the long term.
Make sure you stop and ask if you would enter the contest yourself. If it requires too much personal information or too much effort, many people will not enter. Before running the contest, it might be good to get a third party opinion by polling a few friends who are in your target market asking if they would enter the contest if they happened to find it on the web.
The ideal contest has some sense of urgency. You can achieve this by rewarding people who enter early. For example you could say that the first 25 people get 3 chances to win, the second 25 get 2 chances, and everyone else gets one. This helps encourage people to act now.
Be careful to structure your contest with the right amount of randomness and the right amount of effort based reward. If you have a contest for the best comment on your site, people won’t enter unless they think they are going to be the best. If they see another comment that they don’t feel they can top, they might just give up. On the other hand, if you just offer to give a prize away randomly you might not get thoughtful comments. A good option is to take the best 25 comments and randomly select from them. That way there is motivation to do a good job without making people feel like they aren’t good enough.
Take the time to learn from the contests others have done. If you find a past contest that is similar to what you are considering, email the person who sponsored it and ask how it went and if they have any advice. You can use Google Blog search to look for current contests to get ideas about what others are doing as well.
2. Choose a Captivating Prize.
Some prizes are cooler than what they cost you. For example, giving away an iPod Shuffle engraved with the name of your site ($79 USD) is probably worth more than giving away $79. Giving away a subscription to a related magazine is probably going to be seen as more valuable than the cash value of the subscription.
Giving away books related to your subject can be a great way to benefit readers and clear some space on your shelves. Don’t think you have to give away something new. Be creative and try to pick something that will attract the type of people who you want to enter your contest. Giving away tickets to a teen pop concert is probably not going to help you much on an antique silverware blog–unless you are somehow trying to market to that demographic.
If you can help it, don’t buy the prize until someone wins it. If you are going to give something away that you know you can get your hands on, don’t tie up your cash right away. If someone wins from a country where you can’t ship you may have to use an alternative or cash prize.
Try to come up with a benefit for everyone who enters. If you are targeting other bloggers and asking for a review of your site, consider giving everyone a link back from your page. This will send them some additional traffic and help them with their Page Rank. For someone who is trying to get traffic to their personal blog, this might be just what it takes to get them to go ahead and enter. You could also give away a free e-book or partner with a web-service to give away trial accounts.
3. Decide How Many Entries You Need.
If you are giving away a used book, it may not matter how many people enter. If you are giving away something big, you may want to specify how many entries are necessary before it triggers a winner. For example, lets say you are giving away a $700 NordicTrack ski machine on an exercise and health blog and your contest requires people to write a review. Think in terms of how many people need to enter for the contest to be worth while. If you decide that the reviews are worth $2 each, then you probably want to make sure you have at least 350 entries.
Make sure you can reasonably expect to get that many entries given what you know about your traffic and their demographics. If your blog gets 10 visitors per day, it is unlikely you’ll be able to get 1,000 entries in a month unless you get featured on another very high traffic site. If it seems unreasonable, consider a smaller prize as a starting point. Starting out with a few smaller test contests can help you gauge participation and help you learn what you need to know for a larger contest.
The first contest I ran was giving away a paperback book. The contest generated a total of 2 entries and one was my sister. This was fine and the winner (who wasn’t my sister) enjoyed their free book, but it taught me that prizes had to be aligned with the number of people entering.
The second contest I ran was for an iPod Shuffle, I specified that we needed to get 250 entries before we’d give it away. We had to extend the contest to meet the goal, but eventually we gave away the prize. Some people won’t like the idea of tying a contest to a certain number of entries, but for a small blog this may be the only way to offer attractive prizes without going broke.
If you are putting up a serious amount of money (and for a small blog $50 may be pretty serious), you need to think in terms of your return on investment. If you don’t think you can offer an interesting prize on your own, consider teaming up with other bloggers to do a contest across several blogs with a bigger prize that you all chip in on.
If you don’t know what type of turn out to expect, you might consider a tiered prize structure based on the number of people who enter. Lets say you run a site about toenail clippers and you want to run a contest where people will blog a review (on their own site) of their favorite brand of clippers and link back to your page about the contest. You will randomly select a winner from the best 25% of the entries. Your prizes could be tied to the number of entries and look something like this:
- 25 Entries – Generic Toenail Clippers ($.97)
- 100 Entries – Luxury Toenail Clippers ($4.95)
- 1000 Entries – Gold Electroplated Toenail Clippers ($64.75)
- 5,000 Entries – Toenail Clippers used by John Howard ($400.00)
- 10,000 Entries – Gold Clippers with 1 Carat Diamond ($1,500)
- 100,000 Entries – Gold Clippers with 10 Carat Diamonds Used by Napoleon ($356,000)
This type of setup can help your site gain tremendous exposure, but you only have to pay for the expensive prize if you get a huge amount of entries. Just make sure you can actually obtain the prizes you have listed (Has the person who owns Napoleon’s toenail clippers agreed to sell them for $356,000?).
In 1996 Pepsi ran into trouble when they ran a television add jokingly offering a Harrier Fighter for 7,000,000 “Pepsi Points”. Someone figured out how to get 7 million Pepsi points and demanded their fighter jet. There was a lawsuit and eventually the court said that Pepsi didn’t have to give away a jet, but it was a nasty mess that you definitely don’t want to put your blog through. So be careful about making promises based on assumptions of a low turnout. If your contest really takes off it could go well beyond anything you could imagine.
4. When to Run a Contest.
The best time to run a contest is when you are getting the most traffic. Contests can help generate traffic, but you must have enough exposure to get things started. If your contest is very creative, you might get a lot of traffic just for being unique, but people have to discover your site before word can spread.
I would recommend having a contest ready to go and saved as a draft. That way you can run it if you ever get featured on Digg or another high profile site. If your contest is designed to convert one-time visitors into regular readers, this will help you retain some of the traffic. Also if you run a contest when you are getting 15,000 visitors in a single day, you are much more likely to get the necessary entries to make it worthwhile.
I had a post about academic lecture podcasts that was featured on Digg in November. I quickly put together a contest for people to subscribe to my feeds by email with a prize of an iPod Shuffle. I was a little late at getting the contest running, but I was able to eventually get 250 people signed up as part of that contest. Without the contest most of the visitors wouldn’t have come back, with the contest I was able to retain a higher percentage of them. After the contest was over, some unsubscribed, but a high percentage stayed on the list.
5. Write the Contest Post.
Make the post clear and fairly short. Spell out exactly what people have to do to enter and how the contest ends. For example, you might say that the contest ends in one month or when you get 100 entrants–which ever happens last. Give yourself a way out if no-one enters. For example, you can say that if they prize isn’t won in 2 months you reserve the right to modify the contest. This could be giving away a smaller prize, extending the time limit, making another way to enter, etc.
Make sure you specify what you’ll do if you can’t ship the prize to someone. Usually just offering to substitute a cash prize through PayPal is sufficient.
If you talk to a lawyer, they will probably give you 10 pages of legal stuff to put into the the contest post. I prefer to put something up that says “Hey we are doing this for fun and we reserve the right to change anything if we have to–but we really really want to give away this prize!” This gives you the ability to change things as you go, if you discover you’ve overlooked something important.
Once you get the post written, let it sit and come back and read it later to make sure you didn’t miss anything obvious. Better yet, let someone else read over it and see if they have any questions about it. Your response rate is going to be determined by this post, so keep it fun, easy to read, and to-the-point.
6. Communicate Communicate.
If possible send a personal email out to each person who enters your contest to thank them. This helps put a real person behind your site and helps you stand out from the hundreds of other blogs they visit. You can also take the opportunity to gently ask them to tell their friends about your contest. If the prize isn’t won until a certain number of entries have been reached, you can point out that the more people enter the sooner someone will win.
Occasionally add some info about the contest to your blog. Don’t lose focus on the topic of your blog, but you don’t want people to think you’ve forgotten about the contest. A simple post saying “We are halfway there!” can remind people about the contest and hopefully encourage them to spread the word.
7. Marketing your Contest.
Once your contest is live, you have to get the word out. If you started the contest to take advantage of a huge boost in traffic, this might not be a problem. If you are trying to drum up traffic from scratch you might have to do some work.
You should leverage your existing traffic to promote your contest. Putting a short header at the beginning of each post reminding people about the contest can help make sure no one misses it. You might also consider temporarily replacing some of your other ads with banners for your contest.
There are a number of contest sites on the internet. These can send you a bunch of traffic, but make sure that it is the type of traffic you want. Thousands of teenagers signing up for a contest on your blog about assisted living options may give you a spike on your traffic graph, but probably won’t help you in the long run.
Sending out a short note to your friends letting them know about the contest and asking them to refer their friends can be a valuable strategy. Advertising through AdWords might be successful in certain situations, but it has never worked well for me. If you are targeting college age student in a particular area, I have had moderate success with Facebook Flyers.
Think of the idea person for your contest and then think of where they hang out on the web. If you can get your contest featured there, you have the best chance of drawing them in.
Contests can be a great way to help raise awareness of your blog, but you have to approach them with care and an eye on the end result. Usually you are limited more by your creativity than your budget, so if contests seem too expensive, you probably aren’t thinking along the right path. Good luck!
Read more of Mark’s work at Productivity501.