SocialMedia_Body.jpgby Robert Lerose.


Who doesn't love to win something? Well, the two-way or interactive nature of social media sites makes them ideal for hosting contests that can help your customers achieve that winning feeling while boosting your business.


Where do you start? It's a good idea to structure your contests so that customers can win one of two kinds of rewards. The first of these is the tangible, advertised gift that probably drove a client to participate in the first place; for example, an office supply company might stage a scavenger hunt with $500 worth of merchandise as the grand prize.


The other kind of reward is the more subtle but equally alluring gift of customer recognition, of being part of something bigger than themselves. Instead of giving away cash or an equivalent prize, the winner of a contest sponsored by a fashionable restaurant might get a tour of the kitchen and a one-of-a-kind dish prepared by the head chef just for them. 


SocialMedia_PQ.jpgWhile the terms contest and sweepstakes are often used interchangeably, there are legal distinctions between the two. In a sweepstakes, the winner is selected at random or by chance, where everyone has an equal shot by virtue of having entered. To win a contest, though, requires some kind of skill that is judged; for example, a neighborhood photography store might sponsor a contest where entrants have to submit a photo that would be judged by whatever criteria the contest called for.


Before you decide which type of promotion to run, experts insist that you have a clear idea of your goals, and ensure that the promotion fits in with the unique objectives of your business.


Make the promotion relevant

"Even if I run an online contest to give away a trip to Disney World, it better align with one of those objectives," says Sandra Fathi, president of Affect, a New York-based public relations and marketing agency. "The outcome of the promotion is not to find a winner. The outcome is the result you want from that win."


Examples of those results include generating leads, pushing revenue, boosting website traffic, or increasing brand awareness. Deciding on your goal will help you figure out where to host your promotion, as each social media platform has its own limitations.


"If I choose a sweepstakes where it's random to win, I could do it on Twitter because all I want is their Twitter handle," Fathi says. "But if I'm trying to generate content for my website, Pinterest or Flickr may be better."


Hiring a legal advisor to make sense of the cumbersome terms and conditions for running social media contests could be too costly for some small businesses. A more affordable alternative is to run the promotion through a third party provider or a certified application. For example:


Every year for the last three years, Fathi has designed her own contest called The New York Intern Project that awards an internship at her agency with do-it-yourself software from Strutta. "If we had to program everything from scratch, we'd probably be looking at $60,000. With the Strutta platform, it costs us probably $300 to $400 for three months."


In the first year, Fathi reports, they got 96 entries and 15,000 votes—but they also generated a 60-percent increase in traffic to their website, a 45-percent increase in traffic to their blog, a 36-percent increase to their Twitter feed, and a 500-percent increase in followers on their Facebook page.


"We wanted an intern, but we really wanted exposure and increased brand awareness, and to use [the contest] as a public relations vehicle for the firm," Fathi admits. "We saw how this type of contest can get us great exposure."


Let your customers be the judges

The more involved your customers and prospects are in your contests, the more interest you can generate for your business. For example, building a contest around photos or videos of your customers using your product or service, or even just describing why they like it, is often more emotionally engaging than simply writing or Tweeting about the same thing. So is ramping up the level of interest in the judging process.


"You can do one of two ways to select a winner. You can select it yourself or—much more interesting—let users vote on the winners," says Seth Lieberman, founder and CEO of SnapApp, a Massachusetts-based marketing platform for interactive content. "You're getting people to engage and participate—but even those who aren't going to enter can still participate and see content and get driven around your brand."


Contests and sweepstakes may look fun and lighthearted to a degree, but Lieberman points out that they are ultimately sales promotional vehicles. "It's about reaching prospects and retaining some of those you're building that relationship with," he says. "We're very big on getting people to sign up for your newsletter or into your database. Even a simple 'Like' on Facebook or 'Follow' on Twitter gives you some way to interact [over and over again] with them."


For example: a quiz that SnapApp designed for Squishable, an online retailer of stuffed animals, resulted in an 11 percent click-through rate from their Facebook page to their website. And 66 percent of those who entered a SnapApp sweepstakes for Niche Modern, a modern lighting retailer, "Liked" the store's Facebook page for the first time.


Lieberman reminds small business owners that they also need to be aware of the regulations governing social media activities, such as checking out Facebook's guidelines for running any type of promotion. The IRS also has rules governing the reporting of sweepstakes prizes, such as whether you're a for-profit or non-profit entity.


Work with what's around you

Napa Valley Vintners, a non-profit trade association that represents 435 wineries in California, was always looking for innovative ways to use technology to spread the word about the exciting things happening in this famed wine-growing region.


During harvest time, the winery workers don't shave because they work really long shifts, so they hold a contest for best harvest beard. So it seemed like a logical next step to try SnapApp software for a social media contest for the first time that capitalized on this local tradition by holding a "Who's Got the Best Harvest Beard?" competition.


"We decided we would capture some of that and have it be a fun way to talk about Napa Valley in a playful way and get people excited about the wines," says Terry Hall, the association's communications director. "[But we also wanted] more folks to follow us on our Facebook page."


The contest ran for 15 days in late October, and generated 40 photos of workers with newly-grown beards. The 2012 winner alone received 7,942 votes, according to Hall, and the total number of votes for all the candidates helped the association grow their fan base between 5 percent and 8 percent. The owner of the winning beard received a $250 gift certificate to an area restaurant of their choice that had a significant selection of Napa Valley wines—bringing the contest full circle by supporting the community at large.


"There was this buzz about it that was surprising and nice to see," Hall admits. "Social media contests are a great way in this day and age to create more conversation that's positive about your business."