in Marketing

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 economy. They’ve been around for ages — before the internet, certainly — yet most businesses are approaching them the wrong way.

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 mistakes that prevent their contest from taking off in the first place.

I’m going to outline how I used to run a contest on Epic Gardening, a site that I own, to get the following results:

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

Two Things, Before We Begin:

  1. I wrote the original version of this post in 2015, but have since updated it as contests are a constant part of my growth strategy for my websites as well as clients.
  2. This is a long, in-depth post, but it will take you from 0->100 when it comes to learning how to conceive of, structure, and promote a contest.

Table of ContentsWhat is Long to Run Your Contest…and What to Give AwayContest LengthWhat to Give AwayExtra Entry BreakdownQuestionSocial Media EntriesOrdering Your Extra EntriesPromoting Your ContestMail Out To Your ListPost on Your WebsiteFire Off To Your Social NetworksAdd the WidgetBefore Your Contest EndsAfter the Contest EndsGo Forth And Give Things Away

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.

In a nutshell, it’s an app that allows you to create contests with built-in viral growth loops.

It does this by allowing extra entries below the initial contest signup, prompting people 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.

Here’s what it looks like if you go wild with extra entry methods:

Contest Setup Basics

How Long to Run Your Contest

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 my initial promotion push.  Entries started to taper off at the 12 day mark, then picked up again a day 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 motivated to sign up in the first place.

What to Give Away

The general idea here is to give away something that:

  1. Has enough perceived value to get a high percentage of your audience to enter
  2. Is something that a lot of your audience actually wants

#1 is important, because you can give away things that don’t cost much, but have exceptionally high perceived value:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

One of my most popular giveaways on Epic Gardening

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.

#2 is equally important. Don’t make your prize something irrelevant or obscure.

For example, if you’re 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.

In short, you want your item to have a high perceived value and also broadly desired, to maximize the reach of your contest.

Incentivize Growth With 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.


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

The entry options for social media platforms have changed since I first wrote this piece, so some of the ones you’ll see below are out of date.

However, the general guidelines are as follows:

  1. Your first entry option for each social media platform should be designed to spread the contest (share on Twitter, Facebook, etc.).
  2. If possible, your second entry option should build your following.

Ordering and Weighting Your Entry Options

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

In other words, order actions according to how much you value them. 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 site.

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,



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

TRY GLEAM.IOlorem ipsum dolor

Many thanks to Nick Eubanks of I’m From The Future, Justin Mares, Adam Steele, and Mitchell Wright for reading early versions of this piece and providing invaluable feedback.

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