"Enter for a chance to win..."

I see that call to action—or something similar—all over.

You do, too. Social media is certainly no exception. Contests, competitions, and sweepstakes are raging hot across the major networks as a go-to strategy for so many content marketers.


The answer is that we humans are wired to get involved in contests. We want to play, compete, and, of course, win.

As a copywriter and marketing strategist, I've been probing what makes people tick for decades. I know a fair share about what engages people, but I'm no psychologist.

So I did some research because I wanted to know why "contest marketing" is so compelling.

I picked up these insights from Sander van der Linder PhD on Psychology Today:

  • For most people, there is something inexplicably compelling about the nature of competition.
  • "Competitiveness" is a biological trait that co-evolved with the basic need for survival.

After allowing a shrink to have his say, I wanted insights from someone in the business of helping marketers create and execute contests.

The CEO of ShortStack, Jim Belosic, laid it out simply: "There's no need to overthink it. Entering a contest is simply a fun thing to do. When social media enthusiasts are on Facebook or Instagram or any other channel they enjoy, they're bound to click through to some form of competition that features a prize, game, or an activity that strikes them as entertaining."

From a business point of view, we'll bring in Wendy Keller, a VIP contributor to Entrepreneur, who offers some insights in her post, How a Contest or Giveaway Can Attract Business Prospects: "The main reason businesses do contests...is because it attracts a flood of new customers. The more people who know about your contest, the more people who know about your business."

Wendy continues, "The net effect of these kinds of big, splashy things is that it makes you more memorable, as someone who does interesting, refreshing things in your industry."

Four Reasons Your Marketing Should Include Contests

A post from the American Express OPENForum details four ideas on why contests are bound to be an effective part of your marketing strategy. The post explains that contests…

  • Build your fan base. Contests offer a proven way to increase fans and followers on social media. A basic sweepstakes with a low barrier to entry is an effective option for brands just starting out with social media contests or those with a small fan base.
  • Engage your audience. Contests provide ameans to deepen connections. A user-generated content (UGC) promotion—such as a photo or video contest—taps into the human drive to compete and provides an opportunity for everyone to experience their 15 minutes of fame. When participants upload their own content to your promotion, they become more invested in your brand.
  • Provide rich data. The lure of a prize often gives contestants all the motivation they need to submit their contact information—and maybe more. In addition to collecting data in the entry process, if you're "listening" you can also learn from the interactions that take place around your contest.
  • Empower customers to do your marketing for you. Contests, sweepstakes, and other online promotions often motivate your audience to spread the word and amplify your marketing message—especially if you give them a reason to.

This contest from STAR Fine Foods offered multiple ways for its customers to interact with its olive brand, including voting for favorite recipes, uploading photos (UGC), and taking a quiz. After drawing more than 20,000 entries, the company chose to run the contest for three consecutive years.

Free, Urgent, and Scarce

And now back to psychology...

Why Contests Work, a post on KickoffLabs, does a stellar job of identifying three irresistible elements of contests:

  • Free. "'FREE!' gives us such an emotional charge that we perceive what is being offered as immensely more valuable than it really is," writes economist Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational. Successful contests play to your emotions: joy, fear, competitiveness, etc. Contestants envision themselves using or experiencing the prize. To help increase engagement and build your community, select a prize that resonates with your audience and aligns with your brand.
  • Urgent. Another powerful motivator, urgency springs people into action. Contestants crave near-instant gratification. The use of rapidly approaching deadlines creates rabid engagement. A countdown clock makes contests even more powerful.
  • Scarce. Less supply creates more demand. The author at KickoffLabs explains that scarcity is why scholarship-type contests work so well. Create a contest where you give away one free spot for an exclusive course (or the like), and entries flood in.

Look closely at the contest from the HPB textbook scholarship sweepstakes (Click to view a larger image.) In addition to seeing the scarcity tactic in play, you can see how contests help marketers collect valuable data about potential customers.

To Pull Prize-Seekers… or to Pull Prospects?

A great prize is generally what gets people excited about participating in contests. However, the big, single, grand prize approach is certainly not the only way to go. And pulling power isn't the only thing to consider.

We looked earlier at the power of scarcity. In a SmartBlogger post about building subscriber lists with contests, author Rob Young concurs: "Humans are hardwired to react to scarcity. Limited time offers and money-can't-buy prizes trigger something in our brains that says we must have it."

However, Rob makes an even more important point: "For a contest to be successful, the prize must be relevant to your niche."

Rob offers the example of a contest for a dog-grooming business that opts to give away an iPad (as so many contests do). What's the connection? The prospect of winning an iPad, though it may have great pulling power, is likely to attract subscribers that don't own a dog. So you have a program that's all bark and no bite (sorry).

ShortStack checks in with some ideas regarding how to use prizes in a post by contest expert Dana Kilroy. She states, "A prize is a vital component of a successful sweepstakes, but there's not a one-size-fits-all approach."

Tips from the post include best-practices for integrating prizes into a marketing strategy based on four years of tracked results:

  • Pick a prize relevant to your brand. Prioritize quality over quantity when inspiring entries. The goal is to attract people who may actually buy your products or services.
  • Diversify the prizes. Offer more than one prize, and offer a variety. When you offer various prizes at differing levels, contestants feel they have a higher chance of winning.
  • Make everyone a winner. Traditional giveaways that promote having one grand prize (the scarcity principle) often discourage would-be entrants. Rewarding everyone, win or lose, with a discount, coupon code, or some form of small consolation prize may inspire more people to enter—and make a purchase.

Contests, such as this one from Pet Valu, can include a "win your wishlist" or "pick your prize" element. That approach adds another layer of engagement for participants and also provides insights about user preferences.

How to Run a Successful Contest

The images in this article are courtesy of ShortStack.

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image of Barry Feldman

Barry Feldman is the author of SEO Simplified for Short Attention Spans. Barry operates Feldman Creative and provides content marketing consulting, copywriting, and creative direction services. He contributes to top marketing sites and was named one of 25 Social Media Marketing Experts You Need to Know by LinkedIn. To get a piece of his mind, visit his blog, The Point.

Twitter: @FeldmanCreative

LinkedIn: Barry Feldman