6 Essential Elements for Every Online Contest

This content provides a list of six essential elements to have in place before running an online contest.

By Jane Vance ・4 min read
Campaign & Contest Ideas
ShortStack Tips & Tricks

Whether you’re a “lists” person or someone who goes with the flow, it’s always much easier to have a basic outline when trying something new. Having a roadmap for a project saves a lot of time. This is especially true when running an online contest.I’ve compiled a list of six elements you absolutely need to have in place before you run a contest. This list will not only save you time, but it will also help your contest run smoothly. Here’s what you need:

1) A goal

Think of this as the reason why you want to run a contest. Your goal doesn’t need to be something grand; instead, choose an attainable goal. Some common goals for online contests are to:

  • Increase brand awareness;
  • Grow your email marketing list;
  • Collect quality leads; and
  • Gather user-generated content.

Your goal can also help you to determine the type of contest you wish to run. For example, you wouldn’t run an Instagram comment to enter contest if your goal is to increase email marketing subscribers. Instead, you could host a photo or story contest where participants must provide their email address to enter.

A story contest is a great way to collect email addresses

2) A prize

Every contest needs a prize! You might be thinking that a bigger prize is better, but this isn’t always the case. Instead, choose a prize that is relevant to your brand.What does this mean? Giving away a diamond ring is probably not what fans of your pet products are looking for. If it is, perhaps you are targeting the wrong audience. Instead, you might consider giving away your own product. Similarly, a gift card to your store (if you have a lot of different products) or even providing a discount off a purchase could be considered as the prize. When you give away your own product, you know the leads you are collecting are from people truly interested in your business.

Chemical Guys are giving away their product as a prizeWant to shake things up and give away something that isn’t your own product? Think of a complementary prize. For example, if you sell really awesome car wax and you wanted to go big with your contest, you could give away a car.Wait a minute, a car? Okay, you also want to consider your ROI with the prize you are awarding relative to your goal. If you only expect to collect 100 new email subscribers, and you expect about 30% of those new subscribers to become customers, then maybe a car is too much. However, if you think you’ll be getting 100,000 new subscribers, then maybe a car isn’t such a big deal.

TIP: Check out our guide “How to Use Prizes and Rewards in Successful Promotions” to learn more about choosing a prize for your contest.

3) A mode of entry

How will folks enter to win your prize? Once again, let’s go back to your goal. If you are looking to increase your brand awareness, you might consider running a contest on Instagram. In that case, instead of asking people to fill out a form to enter, you could ask them to comment on a post on your Instagram account, which would draw new people to your profile to enter. Alternatively, you could ask them to post to Instagram using your branded hashtag, which gets these posts and your brand in front of the entrants’ followers.

Hashtags can be a form of contest entryLikewise, if you want to grow your email list, you need to collect what? Yes, email addresses. This is best done via a form. That means you should require contest participants to fill out a form to enter the contest.

4) A deadline to enter

Choosing a deadline for your contest might seem simple, but it does take some thought. Different contest types might require different lengths of time for entry. For example, if you want people to comment on a post on Instagram to enter, then you might run a one day contest, giving people 24 hours to enter. However, if you’re asking people to submit a video to enter. This takes more time and energy, so you might collect entries for several weeks or even months. Reminding your entrants of the deadline also helps create a sense of urgency so they will act now.

5) A way to choose the winner

How a winner will be chosen is something contest administrators often overlook. Some common options for choosing a winner include:

  • Random entry selection: a random winner is chosen from all entries;
  • Voting: the total number of votes an entry receives determines the winner;
  • A panel of judges plus voting: where a panel of judges chooses the top entries, then voters determine the winner from those entries;
  • Voting plus a panel of judges: where judges determine the winner from the entries with the most votes; or
  • Voting plus random entry selection: voting helps determine the top entries, and a random winner is chosen from there.Different types of winner selection methods work for different contests. For example, sweepstakes tend to award winners using random entry selection, whereas something like a photo or video contest tends to include voting.

ShortStack's Random Entry Picker makes selecting winners easy

6) A set of rules

Rules are crucial for every contest. They can help guard your company from any potential questions regarding the legitimacy of entries that were submitted, disqualify any entries that receive questionable votes, justify why and how a winner was chosen, etc. Without rules, participants may try to cheat the system, then make a stink if you disqualify them.Plus, having rules in place also helps you to sort through other aspects of your contest. For example, to write your rules, you need to know your prize, the date contest entry ends, how the winner will be selected, and so on.

TIP: Our rules template is a great place to get started with your contest rules. Check it out.

Want an example of why these elements make your life easier? Check out our Giveaway template. If you have determined all of the above in advance, then you just need to plug this information into the template. After that, all you need to do is add an image or two that reflect your prize and/or brand, add a link to your website (if you want), change the theme to suit your contest and publish. Boom -- done.Do you have questions on how to get started for your next contest? Just shoot us an email at, and our team will help you hit the ground running.

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About the author

By Jane Vance ・4 min read

Jane has over a decade of martech experience, with an emphasis in content marketing, UX, and customer success. Her combined skillset and years of hands-on experience make her a valuable player in the industry. In her free time, Jane loves quiet family dinners at home and a good book.

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