The Secret Ingredients for Creating Viral Contests

Discover the key ingredients to create a viral contest and increase your chances of collecting thousands of leads at a low cost.

By Will Blunt ・6 min read
Campaign & Contest Ideas

For most of us, viral contests are a mythical creature…You hear about social media contests spreading like wildfire and the brands that run them collecting thousands of leads at a low cost.But when you give it a go yourself, the results are underwhelming.Why is that? Is there something wrong with you or your business?I don’t think so...

In reality, viral contests are the culmination of a series of perfectly combined ingredients all working in harmony.

Some people prefer to write a contest’s virality off to ‘luck’ or ‘good timing.’ And, yes, while these two things contribute, for the most part, the likelihood of your contest catching fire is within your control.You just need to know which ingredients to throw in the mixing bowl.

So, what is a viral contest?

Each individual’s definition of a ‘viral contest’ will differ depending on their unique situation. It comes down to your expectations. For some, capturing 1,000 leads might equate to a beyond imaginable outcome, for others, this figure may be tens or hundreds of thousands.For me, virality refers to the level of control you have over a contest’s journey. If everyone that enters a contest is clicking on a link from one of your ads or email campaigns, regardless of how many leads you acquire, this is unlikely to be considered viral since you control each and every action in this scenario.If, however, you pause your marketing spend - such as your ad campaigns - and droves of people are still entering your contest, you start to enter viral territory. Instead of you controlling (and paying for) clicks and entries, the audience now owns the contest.

People are sharing the contest landing page with their friends, families, and colleagues. It’s beyond your realm of influence who, what, or where the contest ends up.This scenario is attractive to marketers. After all, you don’t need to pay for leads anymore. Once the campaign is set up and the audience takes over its promotion the upside is significant.Sound interesting? Here are five ingredients that you control which will greatly influence the chance of your contest going viral.

#1. Hyper-targeted audience

It seems to go against conventional thinking, but the narrower your target audience, the greater chance you have of sending a contest viral.Too often marketers fall into the trap of spreading their net wide.

They think, “I don’t want to limit myself, there are lots of people who could benefit from our product or service.”Yes, that could be true. But what’s going to make all of those people resonate with your campaign if it’s too general?Let me illustrate this point with a hypothetical example. Imagine a gym wants to pique interest in one of their new locations so they decide to run a contest. The gym offers a range of equipment, classes, and training regimes which suit people of almost any fitness level. However, there is a lot of competition in the area for one-size-fits-all gyms. In this scenario, which of the following contests do you think has a greater chance of going viral?

  • The Ultimate Gym Experience Giveaway - Win a year's gym membership, 12 personal training sessions, and a $500 voucher for the local sports store.
  • The Ultimate Crossfit Experience Giveaway - Win a year’s gym membership, 12 Crossfit training sessions, and entry into the annual Crossfit games (valued at $500).

The second scenario, which targets people who are specifically interested in Crossfit, is far more targeted than the first. Just about everyone “could” be interested in the first giveaway, but it doesn’t grab attention like the second contest would for someone interested in Crossfit.The subtle undertone of this style of contest is that Crossfit is somewhat of a fitness movement. People are crazy about it at the moment and it’s trending. Those that are interested in Crossfit see it as a community - they immediately connect with other people who have the same interest and want to share their association with this community with the world. Naturally, this makes contest entrants far more likely to share this contest.Every industry has its version of Crossfit - a trending interest which has a group of hardcore and passionate contributors. Your challenge is to find your industry’s Crossfit.Below is an example of a contest from Southeast Health where they have used detailed and specific quiz questions to qualify contest entrants - this approach will only attract the type of person who has this knowledge.

Detailed and Specific Quiz of Hyper Targeted Audience for Viral Contests

An example of a quiz for refining a target audience.View and Create Your Own

#2. Referrals incentivized with technology

The second ingredient, which is a critical part of creating a viral contest, is the way you incentivize referrals.Referral-based marketing, or word-of-mouth, has and always will be the lowest cost and highest converting form of marketing there is. At the end of the day, people trust the opinion and advice of their friends and family more than they do a brand. I’m sure you behave in a very similar way when you are looking to buy something.This concept can be applied to contest marketing with great effect. If you can encourage entrants to share your contest with their friends and family by offering incentives, it taps into a viral loop. For example, if one participant shares the contest with five people and then each of those five people shares the contest with five other people, and so on, the loop begins.

Before long the contest is out of your control and on track for virality.

But how do you get entrants to share your contest?The simplest way to tap into this viral (and high-trust) marketing source is to gamify the way you select winners for your contest. Give every contest entrant a unique referral URL which tracks how many other people they entice to sign up for the contest. Reward the person who refers the most qualified entries with the major prize. Easy! Of course, you may need some help from technology to make this happen.

#3. Timebound period

If entry into a contest isn’t limited by a strict time period, people won’t feel a need to take action and enter immediately. If they don’t enter immediately, they may never opt-in.Time pressure is the greatest driver of urgency in any marketing campaign. It also adds fuel to the viral loop you are looking to create with your contest. If potential entrants know that they only have two, three, or four days to enter and then share your contest landing page for a chance to win, it spurs them into action.So what is the perfect length of a contest to send it viral? Well, again, it depends on your expectations for what viral looks like. But you need to assign a time period which gives your contest adequate time to gain momentum, build social proof, and tap into the viral loop of incentivized referrals. On the flip side, if the time period is too long it won’t achieve the effect of urgency you’re looking for. So it’s a balance.As a general rule, I would aim for a contest length of between one to two weeks, with a bulk of your investment in the promotion being spent in the first few days to generate momentum.This contest from Yosemite Moments clearly states the deadline and time period of the contest at the top of the landing page:

Contest from Yosemite Moments Clearly States The Deadline for Viral Contests

Highlighting a contest's deadline on a landing page.

#4. Use of interactivity and gamification

The best contest campaigns tap into interactivity. By creating a technology-powered two-way dialogue with participants you improve engagement, make your contest more memorable, and increase the likelihood of your campaign being shared.One type of interactivity that is a brand favorite at the moment is gamification. Gamification uses elements of games, such as points scoring and progression, to engage prospects and keep their attention for long enough so that they take action.If you adopt the referral-based winner selection model discussed above, you are gamifying the whole contest experience. But you can also add smaller, more discreet forms of interactivity which will aid in your efforts of sending your contest viral. For example, having participants select their prize, spinning a wheel for the chance to win, or having them solve a riddle, are just some examples of contest gamification in play.Here is one simple example of using gamification in a contest. Home Office Makeover has utilized a visual and easy-to-complete quiz as a way of entering:

Using Gamification in a Contest from Home Office Makeover for Viral Contests

Gamification and interactivity example.View and Create Your Own

#5. Deliberate participation

The final ingredient for sending a contest viral is to hand-select some of your contest participants.“That sounds like a lot of work, why would I go to the effort of individually choosing contest participants?”The thing is, these individuals aren’t just your everyday contest entrants - they’re influencers. Your hand-selected contest participants have a BIG and highly engaged social following in the exact niche of prospects you are looking to connect with.Work with a select group of influencers to “enter” your contest, share their unique referral URL to their audience, and spark momentum for your contest hashtag. For best results, try to coordinate the publication of each influencers’ post at the very beginning of your campaign.


Viral contests come down to far more than ‘luck’ and ‘good timing.’If you meticulously plan your contest using the ingredients in this article, the chance of your campaign catching fire is significantly improved.

So… Find your Crossfitters, reward referrals, create urgency, gamify the experience, and generate momentum with influencers. Then let the rest fall into place.

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About the author

By Will Blunt ・6 min read

Will Blunt is the founder of Sidekick Digital by Will Blunt - B2B Marketing Expert - Sidekick Digital, a publishing business that launches, manages, and grows brands with content marketing.

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