The Essential Guide to Online Contest Marketing: What, Why, How + 10 Examples

This content provides a comprehensive guide on how to plan and execute successful contests as part of a marketing strategy.

By Jane Vance ・13 min read
Best Practices
Business & Marketing Strategy
Campaign & Contest Ideas

People love to participate in contests. The psychological reasons for the enjoyment people experience stem from a contest’s urgency and scarcity. The fact that a sweepstakes runs for a limited time or that an entrant could be an instant winner compels people to enter due to the urgency of the situation. Likewise, scarcity is equally powerful. Offering a limited number of prizes or exclusive discounts to winners and participants drives up the psychological value of participation.Given these strong psychological motivators, it’s clear contests should be part of your marketing strategy. An effective contest marketing strategy can reap a variety of benefits for your brand.

The most obvious benefit is that contests drive leads. When participants submit a form to enter, you collect valuable customer information that will grow your list of prospects. These prospects can then enter your sales funnel so you can guide them through the buying process. In addition to data, you can gather user-generated content (UGC) for your future marketing efforts.

Contests also give you an opportunity to engage with your customers and fans. You can use social media contests to encourage people to comment on posts or create posts of their own. Ask people for feedback, pose questions or run a poll to get your audience talking.

Brand awareness is another benefit of hosting a contest. It’s natural for folks to share contests with friends, which gets your brand in front of a new audience. This spreads awareness and increases your reach. Plus, since people find out about your brand from friends and not through some form of direct advertising, the promotion of your company seems more genuine.Due to the variety of benefits contests provide, they can reduce your marketing costs. Contests bring awareness to your brand and give you leads that you might not otherwise collect without spending money on more traditional (and usually more expensive) advertising.This guide will help you plan and develop a successful contest from start to finish. You can use it to run your first or 100th contest. From planning to promotion, rules to metrics, you’ll learn everything you need to know. Plus, for those who need a bit of inspiration, I’ve included several real examples of contests brands have successfully run. Let’s get started.

Outline your goals

Before you get started with your contest, you first need to outline your goals. The type of contest you decide to run will depend on the goals you have for the contest. Plus, these goals can help you choose the prizes you’ll give away and the key performance indicators (KPIs) you’ll use to measure your contest’s success.Typical marketing goals that contests work well to achieve are:

  • Attract new customers/leads: Grow your list of prospects;
  • Gain more social media followers: Increase the number of people who follow your brand on social media platforms;
  • Expand brand awareness: Make your brand recognizable and memorable for prospective buyers;
  • Improve customer engagement: Developer a relationship between your brand and your customers;
  • Drive sales: Move people along your sales funnel from discovering your brand to making a purchase;
  • Collect user-generated content (UGC): Gather UGC for use in future marketing efforts; and
  • Learn more about customers: Build more robust user profiles to help you better understand your customers.

Determine your audience

Choosing an audience for your contest goes hand in hand with your contest’s goals. Some examples of audiences you might consider:

  • Existing leads/customers: Individuals whose email addresses and other information you have already collected and who have already made purchases;
  • Social media followers: Followers of your business on a specific social media platform; and
  • New leads: People who you haven't collected any information about, who haven’t made any purchases and don’t follow your brand on social media.

Although you might have a target audience for your contest, it IS possible people from other audience groups might access your contest as well. If you only want existing customers or social media followers to be allowed to enter, you might consider these strategies:

  • Invite-only: Only allow people who receive an invitation to enter the contest. Distribute invitations via emails that include user-specific invitation URLs.
  • Secret code: Require a “secret” code to enter. Codes can be unique to a specific user or a single code shared with everyone. These are especially impactful when shared via email, a radio or TV broadcast, via in-store signage or on receipts.

Choose the type of contest

Contests generally fall into the following categories. Choose the contest type that best fits your goals:

GiveawaysEntrants complete a simple task, like filling out a form, to enter (e.g. sweepstakes and instant win contests).Possible goals: Attract new customers/leads, drive sales, learn more about your customers, expand brand awareness

Social media contestsParticipants submit their entry via social media (e.g. comment-to-enter contests, hashtag contests and Retweet contests).Possible goals: Gain more social media followers, customer engagement, expand brand awareness, collect UGC

UGC contests with/without votingParticipants must include UGC in their submission (e.g. photo, video or story contest). Voting may or may not be used to choose a winner.Possible goals: Collect UGC, attract new customers/leads, customer engagement

QuizzesEntrants submit their information to a contest in order to receive a quiz outcome.Possible goals: Expand brand awareness, learn more about your customersTIP: Want to drive sales? Try sending an autoresponder that includes a discount code after contest entry.

Select prizes

Nobody is going to enter your contest if you have a lame prize. Contest prizes need to be exciting and *worth* the amount of effort people are expelling to enter. No matter how much you might want to keep your prize small, a $5 gift card as a grand prize is just not going to cut it (though it might be nice as a small incentive).When choosing your prize, think about your target marketing. What type of prize also aligns with your brand. Perhaps you give away a prize pack of your most-loved products, a substantial gift card for your services, a free product or a gift card that somehow relates to your brand. Giving away your own products and services ensures that the people entering your contest are at least interested in your brand.Also, consider how many prizes you’ll give away. Will you have just one grand prize or will you have many different prizes?Read our blog posts How to Use Prizes and Rewards in Successful Promotions [GUIDE], How to Pick a Giveaway Prize That Produces More Qualified Leads and 106 Creative Prize Ideas for Your Next Contest, to learn more about choosing contest prizes.

Decide where the contest will “live”

There are three locations where most online contests take place: on social media, on a website or on a standalone landing page.On social mediaSocial media contests – comment-to-enter, hashtag and Retweet contests – can’t really be hosted elsewhere. It doesn’t take much to decide where these contests will be held.On a websiteHosting your contest on your website has a number of advantages. The biggest advantage? Leveraging your brand’s domain. This leads to increased traffic to your website so more people will discover your products and services.On a standalone landing page Using a standalone landing page is also an option when running a contest. This can help you avoid any possible issues you might encounter when embedding content on your website (or working through your IT team if you don’t have access to your site). Standalone landing pages also allow for design freedom and avoid social media policies and limitationsTIP: Customize your standalone landing page’s URL to reflect your brand using your own domain in order to increase visitors’ trust in your contest. 

Create a contest schedule

Your contest consists of much more than just a start and end date. Developing a schedule or execution calendar will help you meet internal deadlines and make sure everything is getting done according to plan. Your schedule might include:

  • Start and end dates;
  • Key deadlines and milestones for both planning and execution purposes, e.g. when will content be ready for your team to start building the digital of your contest and what’s the final day for changes before going live;
  • Your internal approval process;
  • Content scheduling considerations, e.g. email and ad initiatives; and
  • Coordination with other marketing initiatives, e.g. does this contest coincide with an event or a larger traditional marketing push.

Not sure what your schedule should look like? Try basing it on the following example timeline, which is based on a contest that would run from July 1st through July 10th:

Set key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics

KPIs help you learn if your contest was successful. Choosing KPIs for your contest before you launch your contest is essential. You will need to implement the appropriate methods for tracking your KPIs before the contest launches.Your KPIs might include:

  • Pageviews and unique views;
  • Landing page conversion rates;
  • Traffic-to-lead ratio;
  • Cost per lead;
  • Sales revenue; and
  • Email marketing list growth.

After establishing your KPIs, determine how you will track the information. Some possible sources include:

  • The analytics tracking included with the contest builder you’re using;
  • Google Analytics tracking pixels;
  • Facebook Analytics tracking pixels;
  • or other tracking links; and
  • Email marketing tracking.

Build your contest

It’s time to actually set up your contest! My number one piece of advice: Start early. You want to give yourself time to create your contest, test it, have your team review it, make any necessary changes and drink a beer in celebration when it goes live. Always assume creating your contest will take more time than you think it will, so you aren’t under any last-minute pressure.My second best piece of advice: Use a contest builder. We have one in particular in mind *wink wink* but many of the other contest builders will also make your life easier.TIP: Using ShortStack to run your contest? Check out both our Getting Started Video and our Getting Started Guide. Both are fantastic resources that will introduce you to the platform and answer many of the questions beginners have. Even long-time ShortStack users can check out the Getting Started guides to “refresh” their skills, or learn about new features they may have missed.

Write the rules

When building a contest or giveaway for your brand, you’ll need to create a set of rules that abide by the regulations in your state/country.You should consider the rules of the social media platforms you plan on using to run your contest or you plan to promote your contest on:

Elements to consider including in your rules:

  • Terms and conditions
  • Eligibility requirements
  • Contest start and stop dates
  • Details about prizes, e.g. value and number of prizes awarded
  • Odds of winning
  • Winner selection and notification
  • Rights management
  • Limitations of liability
  • Privacy policy

TIP: Not sure how to get started with your rules? Here’s a template you can use as a guide for writing your contest rules.

Develop a promotion plan

Promoting your contest is essential to its success. Before you publish your contest, you should have a promotion plan in place. You’ll need to create some copy and images to promote your contest effectively. Some ideas include:Online/Digital:

  • Online advertising
  • Display ads on websites
  • A blog post to promote your contest
  • A video for your website with a CTA to visit your contest
  • Content marketing
  • An infographic with a CTA to visit your contest in the footer
  • Email automation
  • A scheduled email for your subscribers with a link to your contest
  • A link to your contest in the header or footer images of other emails you send out to your list

Social media:

  • Google AdWords
  • Facebook ads
  • Promoted Tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook posts
  • YouTube video ads
  • Pinterest images
  • Hashtags related to your contest
  • A post with a link to your contest and include popular and relevant hashtags in the post
  • Require the use of a hashtag in a post on Twitter or Instagram in order to enter
  • A post with a link to your contest in a status update on your Facebook Page
  • A link to your contest in your Instagram bio
  • An updated Facebook cover photo and/or profile photo
  • An updated Twitter header image
  • Tweet a link to your contest
  • A link to your contest in the description of a YouTube video
  • An updated Twitter bio with a link to your contest
  • Encourage folks to share your contest to their social media profiles though the use of the Share Widget


  • Traditional advertising
  • Print ads (flyers, handouts, magazine or newspaper)
  • Billboard ads
  • Television ads
  • Radio ads
  • Brand sponsorships

TIP: Looking for more ideas? Check out our resource 40 Ways to Get the Word Out About Your Campaign.

Test and publish your contest

Once you’re finished building the contest, you absolutely need to test it. Think of the contest creation phase as your rough draft. After the rough draft is finished, you need to edit. That’s what testing is.Testing allows you to make sure your contest functions as you expect it to. It gives you time to address unexpected issues or revise content that just doesn’t hit the mark when you see it on your final product.Once the testing phase is over and you’ve made any necessary updates, then it’s time to publish.

Monitor and track the results

If you added tracking mechanisms (or the contest platform you use provides them) to your contest, you’ll collect valuable data.Check out your data while the contest is active to learn if there is something you can adjust to make the contest more successful. Perhaps one of your promotion techniques was much more successful than the others. If you have enough time, try it again. Likewise, ditch anything that isn’t working.After the contest, analyze the data you collected to see if the contest met the KPIs you had in place. This will help you measure the success of the contest and give you an idea of what you could do differently (or not) in the future. Some questions to ask:

  • What were your KPIs and did your contest meet expectations? (e.g. if you wanted to collect over 1,000 leads or increase website traffic by 5% during the contest time period, did you?)
  • Were some promotion methods better than others?
  • What can you improve upon for future online marketing efforts?

TIP: Not sure how to analyze the data you collected? Check out these resources: 3 Keys to Using Data-Driven Marketing for Effective Holiday Promotions (this can be used outside of the holidays) and How to Measure Your Instagram Marketing Performance (this can be applied to non-Instagram contests)

Get inspired

Are you ready to start your first contest but not sure what it should look like? Below are 10 examples of real contests you might consider emulating.


Sweepstakes – Kinder Bueno Movie Night Gets Bueno Sweepstakes


Kinder Bueno hosted a sweepstakes where entrants could win an ultimate movie experience grand prize worth over $4,000 and 160 other prizes. To enter, people simply filled out a form. Twenty prizes were given away during eight different entry periods, with the grand prize winner drawn at the conclusion of the sweepstakes.Instant Win – Merry Maids Scratch & Clean Giveaway 


To celebrate customer appreciation month, Merry Maids ran an instant win contest with over $150,000 in prizes. To enter, participants filled out a form, then a digital scratch card was revealed. Entrants scratched the digital card to see if they won. Winners learned the prize they received, while losers were given a discount.

Social Media Contests

Retweet Contest – Pepsi Take Home Halftime Sweepstakes


During Super Bowl 2022, Pepsi gave people the opportunity to win items used during the halftime show. They posted various objects to Twitter and allowed fans to enter by either using a hashtag, or in this case, Retweeting. Entrants simply Retweeted the post from Pepsi to be entered to win the barber chair used on stage.Hashtag contest – Budlight #SpotAZero #Sweepstakes


Bud Light ran a hashtag contest to promote their new product Bud Light Next, their first beer with 0 carbs. To enter, fans posted images to Twitter with a 0 in them and included the hashtags #SpotAZero and #Sweepstakes for a chance to win $10,000.Comment-to-Enter Contest – Whole Foods Carefree Cart Sweepstakes


Whole Foods is committed to providing high-quality products at their stores. They banned high-fructose corn syrup and over 150 other ingredients from the items they sell in order to make shopping for healthy food less stressful for their customers. In their Carefree Cart sweepstakes, they gave away 40 $50 Whole Foods gift cards to people who commented on their Instagram post about a joyful food experience they shared with their kids.

UGC contests with/without voting

Photo and Video with Voting Contest – Cadbury USA Bunny Tryouts


You’ve seen the Cadbury Bunny commercials aired around Easter, right? Cadbury hosted a contest to choose a pet to be featured in a Cadbury commercial. To participate, people submitted photos of their pets. From those photo submissions, the judges chose 20 semi-finalists. The semi-finalists submitted videos of their pets for the next round. Of the 20 semi-finalists, judges chose 10 to go onto the public voting phase. Voting accounted for 40% of the criteria for the winner selection.Video Contest (no voting) – black-ish Ultimate Fan Farewell Contest


To celebrate the final season of the hit comedy black-ish, fans of the show were given the opportunity to win a trip to Washington D.C. and attend a private party celebrating the finale of the show. To enter, they had to submit a video showing why they are they ultimate black-ish fan. The 10 winners were chosen by a panel of judges.Recipe Contest (no voting) – Williams Chili “Williams” Bowl Recipe ContestFor Super Bowl 2022, Williams Chili hosted a recipe contest. To enter, participants submitted an original recipe using Williams seasonings. The winner walked away with a grand prize worth over $2K and Williams Chili collected a ton of valuable UGC in the form of original recipes they could share with their fans.


Personality Quiz with Sweepstakes – Grimaldi’s Pizzeria Margherita or Margarita Matchup Personality Quiz


Grimaldi’s Pizzeria is known for their tasty pizzas. To celebrate the launch of their new Margherita Margarita menu, they created a fun quiz where entrants could find out what kind of margherita (the pizza) or margarita (the drink) they are. When entering, quiz-takers were also entered to win a Grimaldi’s Pizzeria gift card to use on those delicious pizzas and drinks.Knowledge Quiz with Sweepstakes — Florida Keys Eco Adventure Giveaway


The Florida Keys are an island chain loved by tourists and home to important ecosystems that support a wide variety of animals. To help educate people interested in making a trip to the Florida Keys, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council (where the Florida Keys are located) created a knowledge quiz sweepstakes. To enter, people had to take the knowledge quiz where they learned fun facts about the ecosystem and eco-friendly initiatives in the Florida Keys. The winner walked away with an eco-adventure trip.

Time to get started!

If you’ve been thinking about running a contest, now’s the perfect time to just dive in and do it! Follow the steps in this guide, and you’ll have it ready to rock and roll in no time. Questions? Feel free to set up a call with our sales team. We’re happy to help you figure out how to meet your goals with contests.

About the author

By Jane Vance ・13 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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