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 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

If there's a frontrunner in the "online contest promotion app" marketplace, it's got to be It was built by a guy from Reddit named Stuart. Over the years he's built 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 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 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 - 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!

  • 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.


    • 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!

    • 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?

    • 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 🙂

    • 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.

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

  • 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

    • Thanks for the kind words – Let me know how the second one goes 🙂

    • Thanks Sturban. Let me know how it builds up!

  • 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!

  • 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 which provides the functionalities of creating , managing, promoting and analysing the contest. this really works for us.

    • @disqus_eM1xXR9q3x:disqus Thanks very much for your comment.

  • I automatically mark every giveaway host who adds my email to a list as spam. It’s illegal and simply bad manners. Unless you have a specific option for signing up to an email list, you’re going to want to think very carefully about that practice.

    With that said, I do like using your giveaway for research!

    • If you look at the first image in the post (or watched the video), you’ll see that the very first item is “Sign up for the newsletter”.

  • Great post Kevin!

    I tried running a contest for my sisters site last year… Sadly I failed…

    Wish you posted this ealier!

    • Thanks @BrentSkillHD:disqus – what was the contest you ran? Failures only move us closer to successes (provided we learn and iterate on them) 😉

      • She has a art site: during Christmas we ran a contest for a free art commission. We had people enter the content, but it wasn’t enough to justify the work done.

        May have to try it again, after reading this post!

  • Brenda

    I like to post to giveaway groups in reddit and Google+ you can see traffic going in live via Google Analytics. Here’s one

    • Awesome Brenda, I haven’t done the groups yet – thanks for the idea!

  • Simon Cave

    Interesting post Kevin! Gleam is a great plugin, I used it a couple of time and got pretty good results with it. I’d add other promotion strategies. I listed them here

  • Finneus Egan

    Launching my campaign/contest in about an hour! It’s a new business for an amazing artist and we are giving away a painting valued at $800! I referred back to this article several times to aid in setting everything up. THANK YOU! I’m wondering if you feel I should share my contest on those free give away sites? Also, if you have any last minute advice, I will take it!

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  • David

    Kevin, How do you get the data from contest into a CRM such as Ontraport o continue email marketing through sequence, etc?

    • I use the pro version of Gleam, so I can download all of the data and import it straight into the CRM of my choosing (I use GetResponse).

  • andrew

    From all the research I have done. This sounds like a lottery which is illegal. You are receiving a consideration(anything of value the contestant must give up to participate) and in return they are entered into a contest to be RANDOMLY selected to win a prize. Just curious to know if there is something I’m missing here that makes it legal. A contest would require some kind of “skill” and judge to decide the winner. This sounds more like a sweepstakes but you are still receiving a consideration from the contestant which would consider it a lottery. I would appreciate a response.


    • I thought so too, but they don’t need to give me anything aside from name and email, which isn’t consideration since if they win, there must be some way of notifying them. It’s possible to opt out of being on the newsletter as well.

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  • Hey Kevin,
    Very useful post, thank you!
    I saw quite a lot of Gleam giveaways lately, and I think it’s a great tool for maximizing giveaway exposure.
    I do have one question about the “Social Media Entries” section. Your video is no longer working. Would it be possible to check out the video somewhere else?
    Appreciate it.

    • Thanks for the kind words! I’m sorry about the video – I must have deleted that YouTube channel when I was doing a big shift. I don’t have a copy of it, but am happy to answer any questions that you have!

  • Stonewall

    If you’re still monitoring this: I’m curious about sending a contest to your email list (i.e.) those who have already subscribed. If the intent is to get new subscribers, how does the contest benefit them? Do you allow them to enter the contest? If so, how? I use a CRM that tags subscribers rather than put them in separate lists so as to avoid duplication. If the those already subscribed enter the contest, how does Gleam account for them? (Note: I’m all for it, i just don’t understand the mechanics.) Thanks.

    • Well, they could win – so that’s a benefit ;). Although if you run them regularly, you might start to annoy your list with frequent giveaways. Just have to mix in a lot of value emails as well.

    • Hey Stonewall,

      Most giveaway software will give additional entries for those who share your giveaway and get their friends to sign up. So, sending the giveaway to your newsletter is an excellent way to get your subscribers to start promoting it for you. Your subscribers will boost their chances of winning and your giveaway will spread to a larger audience.