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BACK TO BASICS: Lessons Learned from Our Internet Marketing Contest

by Virginia Nussey, July 15, 2010

Small Business Marketing Articles

Everyone likes free stuff. In fact, people will do a lot for a prize. Though sometimes, a lot has to be done to give away prizes, too. That's what we found over the last few months during our Small Biz Discovery Contest.

In May we began accepting entries to the contest that we hoped would provide increased visibility, positive sentiment, and quality content for our brand and contests can be an excellent form of link building. While the contest format and expectations were an improvement upon contests we had run in the past, we've recognized in hindsight that there is still room for growth.

In recognizing mistakes, we can hone in on ways to do better next time. We're documenting these lessons in order to learn from them. If you've ever considered planning a contest now or in the future, this contest confession may help you avoid our missteps and learn something, too.

Contest Timeline

We built the contest timeline around the grand prize: a pass to SES San Francisco in August. To allow the grand prize winner time to make travel arrangements and hotel reservations, we wanted to announce the results a month before the conference, in July. To encourage contest engagement, we decided a public vote would help determine the winners. Thus, voting would take place in June. Finally, to allow ample time for article writing and submission, we accepted entries throughout month of May.

Looking back, it's possible that we made the entry period too long. Rather than four weeks, we may have seen a better response with a two-week entry period. Other than one submission we received before the contest had even officially begun, we received all the articles in the last week or so of the entry period. We should have recognized that people work on deadlines. If the deadline's not pressing, it's not going to get done. By giving people a month to submit articles, we were giving them plenty of time to forget about it altogether. Next time the entry period will be shorter.

Voting Process

We gave people a month to vote for their favorite entries to the contest. We had a strong showing of voters, however we did the contestants a disservice with our timing. When we first looked at a calendar to choose important dates such as entry period, voting period and day to announce the winners, we were shortsighted. Because while the dates look good together, we didn't look past our final date - and to the three-day holiday weekend directly proceeding it. That's right. We chose to announce the winners on a Friday. Before a holiday. When the final day came, it's no surprise that no one was around to hear the exciting news.

Entry Comments

Our grand prize winner, Brent Rangen, was an asset for our brand throughout the month-long voting period. He directed people to read the articles and vote, and kept up on the conversations around his entry. Brent regularly checked the comments on his post, replying to comments as they came in. He kept the conversation going, which was good for him to get votes and personal brand visibility, and good for us because we had the benefit of flowing traffic and on-site engagement. In order to better leverage this effect, we could have written the contestants and encouraged them to reply to comments appearing on their post or alerted them as new comments came in.

Furthermore, Brent commented on every other contest entry, sharing his thoughts on the topic and pointing out where he agreed or disagreed. His interaction with other posts added credibility to the contest entries and expanded the discussions. If we could do it again, we might have suggested contestants engage on other contest entry posts. We could have invited all the contest participants to review one another's entries and chime in.


We may be biased, but we think our prizes are the cat's pajamas. The grand prize alone is worth $3,240 dollars and priceless hours of networking and education. Plus each category has a runner-up prize, a seat in our SEO training course. And this time around we added a prize for voters, which we hoped would attract participation in the voting process. On this front, I can't think of a juicier prize with this much value for the contest audience.

Finding It

Locating information about the contest was an area where we were lacking. If you came to to read about the contest rules, prizes and deadlines, there was nothing on the home page that would direct you to the contest area of the site. The contest was highlighted in the blog, but once those posts got pushed from the blog's front page, readers would be left to dig through the archives. The contest was promoted in several of our last newsletters, but those are often deleted by recipients after first reading and thus can't be referred to down the line. So basically, unless you consulted a search engine or knew the URL you needed on the site, you probably weren't going to be reading about the contest. Next time we plan feature contests and links to the contest rules more prominently throughout the site, including on the home page, with graphics and calls to action.

Finding Out About It

This is probably the area where we stand to grow the most. We obviously need to talk about the contest on our own site more, but it's a network of supporters that really spreads the word. Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media reached out after hearing about the contest so she could share it with readers at Small Biz Trends. We should have been doing the reaching out, asking others who we've supported in the past if they couldn't share the contest with their networks.

Following the contest, one participant wrote to say that being published on the Bruce Clay, Inc. blog was a perk unto itself. We could have leveraged our brand better and actively invited individuals to participate. Since we saw that we were lacking in the PPC category, we could have asked our colleagues in the PPC space to enter the contest or share word of the contest with their networks.

Final Takeaways

From timing to publicity, to findability and interaction, we recognize areas for improvement next time around. However we couldn't have asked for more in terms of the quality of entries, the honor of hosting great content on our site, the ability to give deserving community members great prizes, and the relationships built along the way. We certainly hope to grow and progress next time around, but there are some things we hope will never change.

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