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 market.  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 PunchTab to get one of my clients the results you see above: massive email list signups, better social media engagement, accurate market research, AND extra sales for the handy cost of $0 and an hour of my time.  Here we go.

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 PunchTab?

punchtab*If you already know what it is, skip this section*

If there’s a frontrunner in the “online contest promotion app” marketplace, it’s got to be PunchTab.  While I have my gripes with these guys, they are far and away the most polished product out there for running a giveaway on your site quickly and easily…but that’s not the best part.  The best part is the automatic viral potential that they build into the app with their “Earn Extra Entries” feature.

Here’s how it works: Participants can sign up to your contest via Facebook login or email submission to earn one entry into the contest.  Immediately after they do that, 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.

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

What to Give Away

Wasabi Gumballs

Offer a prize that your market will want.

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.  Our item had a value of about $50, and it absolutely blew up in our market, because they tend to have a lower income and anything free is attractive to them.

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.

Contest Length

We found that two weeks is a solid minimum amount of time to run the contest.  If you want maximum exposure, going for a week will drastically lower the amount of entries that you get.  My client got an additional 100 entries per day after the first few days, and it started to tail off at the 12ish 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 starts to seem too far away in your audience’s mind, and they’re less incentivized to sign up in the first place.

Extra Entry Breakdown

Punchtab Extra Entries

A multitude of ways for your audience to earn extra entries

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.

Follow / Become a fan / Like / Google +1

Self explanatory.


Here’s the template I used: “I just entered the @[brand twitter] contest to win [items] and more!  Check it out:”

PunchTab will automatically append the link and their own Twitter handle (nice marketing, PunchTab) to the tweet.  You’ll probably notice that a lot of people customize the Tweet to entice their followers to enter the contest via their link to earn more entries, but this is a great base template to go with.  My personal favorite edit that one of our contest entrants made is below:

PunchTab Tweet

She should probably take some copywriting lessons :p


Your audience can earn an extra entry just by dropping a comment on the contest entry post…pretty simple.  There are a couple ways that you can use this:

  1. Ask your audience what type of content they like to see the most: “What would you like to know more about / read more about on our site?”
  2. Ask your audience to share their biggest frustration with something that relates to your market: “What do you think is the most annoying part about shopping for watches?”
  3. Ask your audience what type of products they want to see that you don’t currently offer


This is where we killed it with my client’s contest.  The question we asked was, “What new designs would you like to see come out of our store?” which is basically free market research.  We got over 600 answers and quickly organized them into categories.  The best part about this is that PunchTab 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 ESP of choice and mail out to them once you create the product.  We’re still waiting on our designs, but expect very high conversions when we inevitably email out to this list.


This feature is what made the contest cost nothing for us to run.  We gave our audience the opportunity to earn another entry simply for visiting a URL…the URL of my client’s online store.  There was a huge bump in sales that day that more than covered the cost of the giveaway, so the only costs incurred were about 2 hours of time – one hour for creating the contest, and one hour for promoting it online.


We didn’t use this feature, but you could have your audience download a whitepaper, case study, eBook, or any other kind of content that helps them engage more with your brand.


This one is fairly simple.  Create a graphic that has your logo, the items you’re giving away, and a CTA for anyone who views the image on Pinterest.  Link to the giveaway post and add this feature.  Your audience will pin that image and URL to their boards and more people will see and enter your contest via Pinterest!

Ordering Your Extra Entries

Contest Entry OrderYou get to choose the order that these extra entry methods show up in on your contest, and it’s important.  Here’s how we did it:

  1. Question
  2. Tweet
  3. Follow
  4. Like
  5. Become a fan
  6. Google +1
  7. Visit
  8. Comment

Question is first, because that’s the method that’s going to give us the most actionable feedback that has a direct impact on revenue growth. Then we go through the motions with some quick and easy social media tasks.

You might be wondering why visiting the store and commenting are last – we didn’t want to take their attention away from rifling through the extra entry methods until the very end.  Because we already got the juicy information in the Question section, the comment was less important.  Visiting the store takes them to an entirely different page, and we were unsure that visitors would remember to navigate back and complete the rest of the methods.

If I had to redo it, I would have users follow us first, and THEN tweet, and I would put visit at the very end, but this order worked pretty well for us.

Important: PunchTab has a TERRIBLE UI for this section.  You click a button to send an item to the top, so you have to reverse engineer the order that your entry methods should go in and click the last one first, then go up the line until you click on the last method (which will show up first).  No clue why they do it like this, but something to be aware of.

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 we did:

Mail Out To Your List

This should be the first thing that you do.  My client’s list was around 8,000 strong, so we got some really good initial traction on the contest here.  It helps that our target market is prone to share and spread things, but this should work fairly well with any market.

Aweber Results

Always split test, even if it’s a basic headline test!

Headline 1: “Name – Want Free SITE Merchandise? Look Inside” – 40% openrate, 21% clickthrough

Headline 2: “SITE Contest Starts Tonight!” – 36% openrate, 17% clickthrough

Body of Email:


We know we’re hitting you twice this week with updates, but you’re going to love this one.  As a SITE follower, you’re what’s made our site into the #1 destination for NICHEworldwide.

We love you for that, and to show our love we’re giving away two free items of your choice from the SITE merchandise store.

Sound too good to be true?  It’s not .  All you need to do is enter the contest by clicking this link:


P.S. – You can get even more entries by sharing with your friends, following us on Facebook, and more!

We do this out of love for the people that have made SITE the #1 site for NICHE on PLANET EARTH.

Here’s that link one more time:


Good luck,


Post on Your Blog

The link in your email should be to a blog post that you’ve written and embedded the PunchTab 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.

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 we 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.  We also used PunchTab’s Facebook box to add it to the top of the FB page just to have another spot for conversion
  • Twitter: Tweet it out, make the copy compelling!

Add the Widget

PunchTab 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.  My client saw some great results from this, with about ~30 entries per day coming in through the sidebar widget long after the initial promotional burst happened.

Embed the Contest in Future Posts

Don’t do this every single time you  post, but as the days go on the initial post is probably is either going to fall off the homepage.  You could stick it to the top of your blog, but you might want to keep up with your regular content schedule as you run your contest, so it’s best to just drop the contest link in the footnotes of new posts.  You’ll capture new eyeballs each time you do this, which turn into more entries and a bit more of a viral boost.

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: PunchTab 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: You can export a .csv of the names and emails of those who entered your contest via email.  Depending on your ESP, you may have to have these people opt-in again to your list, but it’s no big deal – you should see a decent percentage of these people opt in.

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 client’s list of 458 answers and sorted them into related groups, then sent it off to the client so they can develop specific products based on the groups with the most requests.  Later on, they’ll be emailing out to these groups with highly targeted copy that sells the products they asked for no more than a few weeks before.

Go Create Awesome Contests!

I hope this post helped illustrate how to run a successful online contest, 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 give your client or business a better understanding of their market, or help them develop new products, or even sell more products.  With a little bit of creativity, the possibilities are endless!

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


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 enjoyed this article, share!
Kevin Espiritu

Kevin is the owner of Supreme Strategies, an inbound marketing company based in San Diego, California. He works with small businesses in the San Diego area, as well as with serpIQ, a research tool for SEOs. Past clients include best-selling author Mel Bartholomew of Square Foot Gardening fame. When he's not working, Kevin likes surfing, gardening, and playing music. You can connect with him on Twitter, Google+.

  • http://twitter.com/willquick Will Quick

    Great post, Kevin. I wish I’d read this last week as we’ve just run a competition for a client. Definitely going to look into using PunchTab though, it looks great. Hopefully we can use it even after the competition’s launched…

    Thought I’d mention, I just tweeted this article but your twitter handle is coming up as @[twitter], rather than your username.


    • http://www.supremestrategies.com Kevin Espiritu

      Hey Will,

      Thanks for the kind words. PunchTab is really solid, and I think there are a few other apps out there than can do roughly the same thing. Let me know if I can help you out in any way :)

      P.S. Thanks for the heads up on the Twitter thing – I’ll get it sorted out!

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com/ Kevin Espiritu

      Thanks for the heads up on that Will, really appreciate it.

  • Robbie Bourne

    Very informative walk through, thanks. It’s actually prompted me to look into using this application for an upcoming campaign I’ll be running, but there’s a range of available options between their “medium” and “high” price ranges. Which plan do you recommend for including all of the options that you listed above?

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com Kevin Espiritu

      Thanks Robbie. To be honest, I haven’t looked at their paid options too much. They have 2 other products besides contests: loyalty programs and achievement programs. I didn’t want to mess with those, and running a contest is free with PunchTab. You can get everything I outlined in the post with a free account :)

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com/ Kevin Espiritu

      No problem Robbie. I actually went with the free plan when I did this, but it was also a while back, so their plans and options may have changed.

  • Abdallah

    Great post and I appreciate the point-by-point details. We regularly run challenges on our Influitive VIP AdvocateHub with the goal of engaging with advocates in fun and informative manner. Your tips for these contests provide some interesting ideas that we might try with our advocates.

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com Kevin Espiritu

      Thanks Abdallah – How have your contests been in the past? Would love to chat about it sometime, feel free to shoot me an email.

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  • http://Hasslerseo.com Brandon

    Great post! Excited to try this out with some of my clients!

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com Kevin Espiritu

      Let me know how it goes Brandon!

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com/ Kevin Espiritu

      Let me know how it goes, Brandon!

  • http://www.sturbanclothing.com Sturban

    Great post we have just ran/running a test on Punchtab and must say it’s going well but it was very quite at first so I’m gonna have to agree with running a comp for at least 2 weeks in fact it was only after 2 weeks that ours got picked up and as been running nicely since we did set it for 30 day (appox).

    Found you post very interesting as we are now looking at ways to build on this first trail

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com Kevin Espiritu

      Thanks for the kind words – Let me know how the second one goes :)

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com/ Kevin Espiritu

      Thanks Sturban. Let me know how it builds up!

  • http://www.hijos-del-atomo.com Christian Orellana

    Thanks for this excellent article! I’ve ran a couple of PunchTab giveaways in the past, but I always ignored the question option. Now I see I’ve been doing wrong!

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com Kevin Espiritu

      No problem Christian – let me know how it goes ;)

    • http://www.supremestrategies.com/ Kevin Espiritu

      The questions are the key my friend :)

  • BB

    GREAT article! I’m in a quandry though – would love this viral aspect, however in Aust game of skill is needed – therefore, the question aspect is great but it discounts every other extra entry as it is a “sweepstake” – would love to know an ap that gets me out of this problem :(

  • Myn

    very nice article telling how the contests useful in your digital and social marketing campaign and how to organise such effective contest. However there are contest softwares like icompet.com which provides the functionalities of creating , managing, promoting and analysing the contest. this really works for us.