How to Run a Wildly Successful Online Contest

Contests are a tried and true way of building brand exposure and gaining precious eyeballs in today's attention-scarce world. They've been around for ages, yet there are so many businesses that are simply doing them wrong.

When I say wrong, I mean that they're either:

  1. Leaving a LOT of exposure on the table
  2. Not using the information that they get effectively
  3. Making simple mistakes that prevent their contest from ever leaving the ground

The good news is that these are pretty simple mistakes to correct.

I'm going to outline how I used Gleam.io with a site that I run, Epic Gardening, to get the following results (for about 2-3 hours of my time and no money):

  • 2,963 entrants
  • 14,904 actions taken
  • 2,265 market research questions answered
  • 1,840 email signups
  • 2,223 likes to Epic Gardening's Facebook page
  • 984 Pinterest followers
  • 500 YouTube subscribers
  • 460 Instagram followers
  • 366 +1's on Google+
  • 285 Twitter followers

Note: This post is LONG. If you want to learn super-actionable tips on running a successful contest, check it out. If you're not going to put it into action soon, save it for later!

What is Gleam.io?

If there's a frontrunner in the "online contest promotion app" marketplace, it's got to be Gleam.io. It was built by a guy from Reddit named Stuart. Over the years he's built Gleam.io into a powerhouse of an app for running giveaways. It does more than just giveaways, but I've only messed with that feature so far.

Here's how it works: Participants signup via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or email to earn one entry to your contest.

Below the signup, they're prompted to earn extra entries by taking different social or goal-oriented actions. It's a great way to get people to really engage with your brand and give you some valuable feedback or social momentum.

How Long to Run Your Contest...and What to Give Away

Contest Length

I found that two weeks is the bare minimum amount of time to run a contest. If you want maximum exposure, going for a week will drastically lower the amount of entries that you get. I got hundreds of entries per day even after the initial promotion.  Entries started to tail off at the 12 day mark, before picking up again right before the end of the contest.

I'd like to experiment with a month long contest in the future, but for now I would recommend two weeks as a minimum. Anything more than a month is too long a time frame in your audience's minds, making them less incentivized o sign up in the first place.

What to Give Away

The general idea here is to give away something that is valuable enough for most people in your market to stand up and take notice.  For some markets this might be an item in the $150-$200 range, and for others it might be as small as $30.

For Epic Gardening, I partnered with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, one of the best seed companies in the USA to give away one of their Home Gardener's Collections.  It has a value of about $40, and it absolutely blew up in the gardening community, because it's a cherished brand that has values that most gardeners strongly believe in.

The second part of the equation is to give away something that a large percentage of your market will want. Don't make it something obscure.

For example, if you're giving away something for a dentist, don't give away 50% off a root canal. Give away something like a free cleaning or the ultimate dental hygiene product basket. Those are things that almost anyone interested in dental care will want.

You want the item to be inherently valuable and also broadly desired, to maximize the reach of your contest.​

Extra Entry Breakdown

When you're adding ways to earn extra entries, it's important to do it right. Here's what I've seen to be effective for each type of entry.


This is where I killed it with the Epic Gardening contest. The question I asked was, "What do you most want to learn about urban gardening and sustainability?" which is basically free market research.

I got over 2,200 answers and quickly organized them into categories. The best part about this is that Gleam.io adds the name and email of the people that answer the questions, so you can add each product request column to it's own list in your email service provider of choice and mail out to them once you create the content.

Social Media Entries

There are too many to write out individually, so here's a quick video breakdown of the entries I used for my contest and my thought process:​

Ordering Your Extra Entries

You get to choose the order that these extra entry methods show up in on your contest, and it's important. Here's how I did it:

  1. Newsletter signup
  2. Answer a Question
  3. Follow Epic Gardening on Instagram
  4. Submit a photo from Instagram
  5. Follow Baker Creek on Instagram
  6. Like photo on Instagram
  7. +1 Epic Gardening on Google+
  8. Pin image on Pinterest
  9. Pin giveaway image from Epic Gardening's board
  10. Follow Baker Creek on Pinterest
  11. Follow Epic Gardening on Twitter
  12. Follow Baker Creek on Twitter
  13. Send a Tweet
  14. Retweet Epic Gardening's Tweet
  15. Subscribe to Epic Gardening's YouTube Channel
  16. Watch a video on YouTube Channel
  17. Visit Epic Gardening on Facebook
  18. Refer Friends for Extra Entries
  19. Click for a Daily Bonus Entry

Put actions in order of their importance to you. I valued the newsletter signups and answers to my question highest because it directly builds my audience and helps me direct the future content I create for the brand.

After those, all of the social media entries are next. It's important to notice that I added the social media accounts of Baker Creek, the company that was providing the product. This is another way to thank your partner for generously giving away some of their product to your audience.

Promoting Your Contest

Now your contest is all set up and you're ready to send it out to your market...

Where do you start?

Here's what I did:

Mail Out To Your List

This should be the first thing that you do. My client's list was around 1,300 strong, so I got some initial traction on the contest here. It helps that my target market is prone to share and spread things, but this should work fairly well with any market.

Headline 1: "Rare, Heirloom Seeds Giveaway Inside" - 32.4% openrate, 13.8% clickthrough

Body of Email:

Howdy NAME,

If you're in a hurry, LINK

There's a seed company that I LOVE called Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. I've been growing with their rare seeds for a few years now and have not only had amazing harvests, but some of the most beautiful produce that I’ve ever grown in my life.

Because of this, I decided to reach out to them and see if they would be willing to connect with the Epic Gardening community and give away one of their Home Gardener Collections – and they said yes!

The Home Gardener's Collection includes 20 full-size packets of rare, heirloom seeds and a planting guide packaged in an awesome burlap bag. It's perfect for starting your garden for the season, so enter the contest here: LINK

The contest ends March 15, 2015 so there’s plenty of time to enter: LINK

Keep Growing,


Post on Your Website

The link in your email should be to a blog post that you've written and embedded the Gleam contest on. Have some pre-sell copy on the post, but it doesn't really need much more than that...the contest embed will do the rest of the work here. This is "home base" for your contest.

*Note: You can also use Gleam's hosted giveaway pages that are perfectly responsive for mobile. I would recommend this if a large chunk of your traffic is coming from mobile.*

Fire Off To Your Social Networks

Pretty self explanatory - fire this off to all of the social networks that you've got going as soon as the contest is live and ready to roll. It may be worth actually customizing the copy based on the social network instead of blasting it out through HootSuite. Here's what I did:

  • Facebook: Highlighted the post with a link to the blog post and a great image of what they could win if they took a few minutes to sign up. I also used Gleam's Facebook tab to add it to the top of the FB page just to have another spot for conversion
  • Twitter: Tweet link and pin to top of feed
  • Instagram: Post photo of contest, directing followers to click link in profile description (which you have changed to Gleam link)
  • Pinterest: Pin contest image to board

Add the Widget

Gleam.io has a great widget that can help you convert people who for some odd reason haven't been sucked in by all of your other promotional efforts already. If you've got a site that's getting decent traffic, you can toss the widget on the sidebar really quickly and start to scoop up extra entries and virality from all of the visitors that are not hitting the contest page directly.

Before Your Contest Ends

Do a quick push out to your social media networks and a mailout to your list (only if you have more value to offer than a simple reminder). By doing this you get another little viral loop before the contest ends. It's nothing like the first day or two of your contest, but it's good for some more entries and overall engagement across the board.

After the Contest Ends

Choose a winner: Gleam makes it very easy to choose a random winner to the contest and fire off an email to them congratulating them on their win.

We gave our lucky winner instructions on how to redeem their prize and asked them for their address so we could ship it out to them as soon as possible.

On top of that, we made sure to have them send us photographs of them with their prize so we could use it for future contests.

Add Emails to Your List: Gleam takes care of this for you.

Export Answers to Question: This is very important. If you used the question method correctly you should have a wealth of market research to sort through and organize.

I exported my 2,200+ answers and send it off to an outsourcer to categorize them all.  The most popular requests went out to my editorial calendar on Trello to produce down the road.

Send a Summary to Your Giveaway Partner: I was very thankful Baker Creek partnered with me, so I sent them a quick summary of the exposure that the contest created for their brand - they were really appreciative and open to giveaways down the road.

Go Forth And Give Things Away

I hope this post helped illustrate how to run a successful online giveaway, as well as what it actually means for a contest to be successful.

Followers on social media websites are awesome, but there's more to inbound marketing. You should be able to use the contest to get a better understanding of your market, or help you develop new products, or even sell more products. With a little bit of creativity, the possibilities are endless!


I personally love Gleam.io - give it a shot if you want to run a giveaway for your brand.

Many thanks to Nick Eubanks of SEONick (who recently wrote a badass keyword research post), Justin Mares of Traction Book, Adam Steele of LeanMarketing, and Mitchell Wright for editing.

If you found this post helpful and know someone who you think would also benefit from it, please share it with them!

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Kevin Espiritu

Kevin Espiritu runs marketing at Book in a Box, a startup turning book writing and publishing upside down. He writes about marketing and business at Supreme Strategies, and life and other oddities at his personal blog. Gardener, skateboarder, rock climber, musician.

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