Online Contests as a Digital Marketing Strategy – Ensuring Contest Success and Recognising Potential Problems

Despite the fact that sweepstakes and contests have been around for many years, the latter has seen substantial growth on the social web as a Digital Marketing tool and, as a result, its use is now far more prominent in the Online Marketing Sector. Online contests have become extremely attractive, due to peoples desire to socialise, interact and form social relationships with others who share similar interests, and thereby establish a sense of community (Hutter et al 2011).

Running online contests can be extremely beneficial to businesses, as they allow them to build and engage with their fanbase and empower their consumers to market for them. Through the entry process, businesses can learn a lot about their consumers; A favourite product of theirs, how they learnt about the promotion. This provides the business with a rich source of data.

Ensuring Online Contests are successful

Prize and Incentive

The first stage of planning a contest is deciding on what to offer as an incentive. This could be a product, service or just exposure. The incentive should be creative and excite the target audience. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive thing in the world, it just has to make entering worthwhile for participants.

One of the main reasons behind the success of Citizen Eco-Drive’s online competition during the 2011 U.S Open was the industry related prize on offer.

Type of Competition

There are a variety of different online contests businesses can implement in order to increase engagement, reach and followers:

Vote Contest

Putting on a vote contest is a great way for a business to listen and interact with those who have an interest. They can be easily set up on a Facebook or Web page and have a low barrier to entry. The What’s the NAME? campaign, created by Chaguaramas Water and Amusement Park  is an example of a vote contest.

Photo Contest

Photos are some of the most viral content on social media platforms. Almost everyone wants to pick up a camera, take a photo and share it. With the introduction of smart phones, this is easier than ever. Shoeboxed’s, ‘The messy desk contest’ was very successful for the business and is a great example of a photo contest.

Photo Caption Contest

These kind of contests receive a lot of online interest. This is not surprising, as they can be a lot of fun for those entering, and for the business that is running it. They involve little to no effort to set up, with low barriers to entry.

In 2016, National Geographic ran weekly photo caption contests, with the winner receiving a free annual subscription.

Essay Contest

Essay contests ask a lot more out of those that are entering. Entrants are asked to express their thoughts and opinions on something. The benefit of this kind of contest is that it gives those entering a chance to have their voice heard. Interac created an essay contest, asking people to explain how their business makes shopping easier.

Video Contest

Video contests, much like essay contests allow entrants to show how passionate they are about the particular topic. It gives them a chance to show off their ability with a camera, or their ability to edit a video to make it look attractive. VerveGirl’s video contest allowed participants to demonstrate their makeup abilities to a huge audience.

Contest Length

Before publishing an online competition, businesses need to settle on the contest length. Getting the right time frame will bring out the best results. If a contest is ended too early, then businesses will miss out on extra sign ups. End the contest too late and they fun the risk of there audience losing interest.


Businesses need to be proactive in promoting their contest before and during it. Contest success largely depends on a businesses marketing efforts. They cannot rely on a well designed webpage or highly desired prize to bring in traffic. Businesses can promote the contest through email, blogs, social media, forums, internal links and, if the money is available, ads.

Tracking Results

Monitoring the contest will be crucial in obtaining accurate results. It is incredibly important for businesses to track how popular there online contest is so that they can measure its success. This helps them decide whether to do more or not. Luckily for businesses there are so many analytical sites, like Google Analytics, that offer this.

Post Contest

Once the contest is over, the prize needs to be awarded to the winner. Businesses need to make a big deal about this as it will generate a lot of online social activity. One way to do this would be to host an event where the winner is invited to receive their prize. This allows them to share their experience online, which should bring more traffic to the business.

Yang et al (2009), found that contests with a higher award, longer duration, lower time costs and higher popularity attract the most people.

These three articles had some excellent information on how to successfully run an online contest. They are worth checking out:




Problems with Online Contests

Online Trolling

Due to the low barriers of entry for the majority of online contests, almost anyone can enter and share their opinion. A large issue with this is online trolling. Trolls can quickly turn photo and video contests in to a negative environment just by the comments they leave on the entry. In addition to this, contests that require participants to email in are also vulnerable as the trolls can create fake accounts and spam the contests email address. When organising an online contest, businesses need to recognise the potential of trolling and look for ways to mitigate it.

Time Consuming

Some online contest types require judging. Photo, video and essay contests are examples of these. It can be very time consuming for those running the contest to select a winner from all the entrants. What businesses need to understand, is that the longer they run their contest, the more entrants they will have and so it will take longer for those judging to decide a winner.


Hutter, K, Hautz, J, Füller, J, Mueller, J. and Matzler, K, 2011. Communitition: The tension between competition and collaboration in community‐based design contests. Creativity and Innovation Management, 20(1), p.6.

Yang, Y, Chen, P.Y. and Pavlou, P, 2009. Open innovation: An empirical study of online contests. ICIS 2009 Proceedings, p.1.

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