Best Practices for Consumer-Generated Contests

When H.J. Heinz Co. unveils its $57,000 ketchup commercial contest winner on Sunday, the food producer wants to keep egg — and ketchup — off its face. Entries from 15 semifinalists show the company’s predisposition to favor folksy, goofy, and polished videos.

That wasn’t necessarily the case earlier this year after some strange or unsavory contest entry videos popped up on YouTube. One video, “57 Uses for Heinz Ketchup,” suggests product uses, including shampoo, shaving cream, thirst quencher, and paint. The gross-out factor notwithstanding, Heinz says it received more than 4,000 qualified entries.

Despite the potential risk for embarrassment, Heinz and other companies still embrace these consumer-generated contests and media. Heinz is planning a second contest next month, offering another $57,000 prize and an opportunity for the ad to air on national TV.

The marketers working with GM’s Chevy Tahoe brand made a brave return to the contest arena after suffering last year at the hands of SUV critics. In this year’s contest, Chevy and TransWorld Media, an extreme sports magazine and Web site, teamed up to solicit one-minute video clips showing the best snowboarding trick. Of 45 entries, no one took a dig at Chevy, says Nadia Nascimento, project manager at Memelabs, a Vancouver, BC, Canada, company that administered and hosted the contest.

Tahoe contest critics suggest the initiative’s scope was too broad and lacked structured. In contrast, this year’s snowboarding contest played up the SUV’s appeal to sports enthusiasts.

Toyota offers another example of a focused contest with its Scion, which seeks to build awareness among urban youth. Earlier this year, Scion rolled out a microsite to promote its XB model. Scion worked with Brickfish, a San Diego, CA, based marketing firm, to run a design competition for Boxedhead, a character to appear on the microsite.

“It was not a huge project for us. It was more about brand awareness internally within the [Brickfish] group,” says Adrian Si, Scion interactive marketing manager, adding that Brickfish is known for its young, creative, and expressive audience. While he couldn’t reveal the campaign’s cost, he says it ran under $100,000, a modest amount compared to other six-figure campaigns.

Some entries were edgy, but none were banished from the site. “That would not be very genuine,” Si says. As a small brand, that’s a risk Scion can afford.

While it’s difficult — some would say impossible — to control what customers say about a brand, some best practices have emerged to guide consumer-generated contests. Brickfish CEO Shahi Ghanem, whose company has run 120 contests since August 2006, and Ben McConnell, consultant and coauthor of “Citizen Marketers” offer the following tips.

Understand What Motivates Participation

Participants typically fall into three categories: they want to win something, they want to be recognized for their behavior or efforts, or they truly care about something. “The more you can tap into those three things, the more effective any online effort will be,” Ghanem says.

Recognize People’s Passions

People tend to be more passionate about politics, sports, and fashions than consumer brands and goods. “If I were to run a campaign to get user-generated content about the war, lots of people would enter that even if there wasn’t a prize,” Ghanem says. It’s far more difficult to get people excited about consumer brands, such as dishwashing detergent. That’s where prizes become an incentive for participation.

Pick the Best Format for the Demographic

Video is better suited for a campaign targeting Gen Y skateboarding men. When the History Channel targets baby boomer men, a contest that uses text makes more sense, says Ghanem. A young man is more likely to pick up a video camera and shoot a friend skateboarding, and a middle-aged history buff is more likely watching television, reading books, or writing a blog.

Ensure Transparency

Follow YouTube’s lead, and show how many people clicked on a video or image or downloaded a song, include the number of inbound links, and enable visitor comments, says McConnell. “Make this data transparent. These are key indicators that tell people this is a fun or popular contest. Subtle clues remove the opaque nature of wonderment,” he says.

Maintain Realistic Expectations

Most likely, only a small portion of people who see a contest will participate. In research for “Citizen Marketers,” McConnell and his coauthor, Jackie Huba, found the portion of people who contribute content to sites such as Wikipedia totals only about 1 percent. Assuming that estimate holds true for consumer-generated contests, a business must aggressively promote a contest across multiple channels, such as e-mail newsletters, Web sites, and other media.

Offer Unique Prizes

Keep in mind, not everyone plays to win money. In instances where there’s high brand loyalty, consider offering the opportunity to meet the company CEO. For the Scion contest, two grand prize winners were eligible to win either an all-expenses-paid, two-night trip to Los Angeles that included meeting with the Scion Team or an all-expenses-paid trip to any Scion art, music, or auto event on’s culture calendar.

Don’t Be a Bore

User-generated contests have become ubiquitous. To inspire creative types, a contest and its theme must get participants excited. “If every site has a contest, it begins to have less meaning,” warns Michael Inouye, research analyst at In-Stat. “It’s like rewarding someone for doing the same thing over and over again. Not only does the act lose value but so does the reward.”

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