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How to Use Contests and Giveaways to Get User-Generated Content

Given the continual rise of social media and Google’s ever-changing algorithm, quality content should play a central role in the activities of virtually any company looking to leverage the web as an effective marketing and communications channel.

However, it’s no secret that creating good content is time consuming and often expensive if you’re outsourcing its creation. Fortunately, contests that rely on user-generated content can help companies rapidly scale and promote original content in a fun way that benefits both you and your readers.

Why Content Contests?

Well-designed contests immediately answer the basic question: “What’s in it for me?” Through awards of cash, merchandise, free service and even recognition, you can encourage your readers to help you generate original content–content that will help you build your business and deliver value to your visitors.

For example, if your contest requires people to submit content, a large number of entrants will likely promote the content on their own private social media channels, especially if the contest involves the need for votes. When entrants share their content on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, it’s a tacit personal endorsement of your brand.

In addition to social channels, user-generated content (UGC) is “Google Food.” From Yelp to Quora, Google returns are full of UGC. And given recent updates like Panda, fresh content is becoming ever more important to Google. Fortunately, when users create content, they end up using keywords that other users are searching for, ultimately helping you to rank for long tail terms that often elude marketers.

There are numerous ways to run online contests. However, when you focus on content, you create a fun, engaging experience for your users. And better yet, you have the opportunity to build your brand, as well as long-term relationships with your audience and customers.

Contest Example

Shoeboxed – The Messy Desk Contest

messy desk contest

Last week, as I began writing this piece, my team and I had just wrapped up “The Messy Desk Contest.”

We asked entrants to send us a picture of their messy desk, which we then promoted on our Messy Desk Gallery and Pinterest Board. The entrant with the messiest desk would receive an iPad mini with the Shoeboxed app installed. Essentially, we tied our product to a “sexy” prize and then offered this prize in exchange for simple content promotion – in this case, repins on Pinterest.

First, we created a landing page on our blog to announce the contest. We kept the contest simple, with just three steps, in order to make it as easy as possible for readers to enter:

  1. Send a picture of your messy desk to
  2. We’ll post the messiest desks in our official Messy Desk Gallery and on our Pinterest Board.
  3. Get your friends, family and co-workers to repin your messy desk. The most repins wins!

To promote the contest, we purchased a week-long sponsored post and advertising campaign on Facebook. The contest was not only promoted to our 9,000 fans, but also to a larger targeted segment of thousands of small business owners. We also pushed our content out organically through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Google + to drive potential entrants to our contest page.

Further, we incorporated the contest as story into our newsletter, which allowed us to effectively seed the contest to our entire user base. Finally, we used PRWeb to share the details of our contest. While PR cloud services are often weak for promotion, we earned 155 links from our release.

The results? Within the first 48 hours we received over 200 photos of the most disorganized, messiest desks you can imagine! These images now permanently live on our blog and Pinterest account, providing evergreen content for future readers to find through search and social.

In addition, the entries received thousands of repins. However, many were for just a few photos, so we will have to make an allowance for the “natural” distribution of repins in future contests. Further, we now rank, as of the writing of this piece, on the first page of Google for the term, “Messy Desk”. And, since our product helps users organize paperwork, messy desk is a really relevant keyword for us.

At the end of the week, we decided to award the prize to two entrants, since each submitted a photo of an incredibly messy desk, and, cumulatively, had thousands of repins. And, to announce the winners, we wrote a blog post that showcased the winning entries. We are also in the process of setting up a video interview so that we can leverage YouTube and other video sites.

Here’s what you need to know to create a UGC contest and get free content for your site:

Step 1: Determine the Goals of Your Contest

There are a variety of goals that you can set for your contest. However, it’s best to use something that’s measurable so you can clearly determine which contests worked and which didn’t.

Items that can be measured include:

  • Email addresses captured
  • Facebook Likes
  • Retweets
  • Photo submissions
  • Essay submissions
  • Video submissions
  • Links
  • Visitors
  • Unique visitors
  • Time on site
  • Sales

You might be tempted to use sales as a goal. But, generally speaking, entrants are interested in winning the prize and not making a purchase. Therefore, it’s better to focus on the long term. Look at your contest as a way to create relationships with users who can–down the road–become paying customers.

Personally, I like to focus on content submission. Good content allows me to leverage search and social to deliver “evergreen” value to the marketplace. Instead of just making a few quick sales, you are better served with an investment in growing your digital footprint and building a fan base.

Step 2: Outline the Contest Parameters


The first parameter of content-based contests is to promote original content creation and submission as a requirement to entry.

To begin, try to relate the content to your business. That way, all submissions cater to the interests of potential customers.

Further, determine the type of content you want to collect. UGC content comes in three basic forms: Text, Images and Video. For example, with text you might ask users to submit 400 words on an experience they had with your product.

Alternatively, if you decide to go with video, keep it simple for participants. Ask them to talk about your product, or an experience related to your product, on camera. Or, if you want images, request that entrants submit either a picture of your product in use or an activity related to your product.

Keep in mind that Images and Video might get “preferential” treatment with Google given Google’s emphasis, over the past few years, on showing multimedia in its returns. In addition, you can post your video on YouTube, Vimeo, and other video sites to help drive traffic to your contest. Similarly, you can push images to sites like Pinterest for promotion.

User Data

You also need to outline the personal information that users need to submit to enter the contest. Common requirements range from name and email to address and demographic data. A good practice is to, at a bare minimum, ask for an email address in order to build your marketing list.

Time Frame

Set the start and end dates for your contest. There’s no solid rule in terms of contest length, but, on a meta-level, longer contests can promote procrastination, resulting in fewer entries and loss of excitement. Conversely, shorter contests can result in lower quality entries as participants have less time to prepare.

I’ve personally found one to two weeks to be a successful time frame. It’s long enough to allow for solid content creation, yet short enough keep people’s attention.


Your prize, other than recognition, is the primary incentive for participation. So you need to offer something that your user base will value. In addition, try to find ways to relate it to your product or service so that when you promote your contest you also, by extension, promote your product.

Contest Guidelines

Very few people, with the possible exception of technocrats and lawyers, are fond of rules. As a result, marketers often overlook contest guidelines. However, to avoid legal issues, make sure you familiarize yourself with applicable state contest laws. Consult an attorney if necessary.

In addition, if you plan to run your contest on a social network, follow the relevant platform rules. Otherwise, you might jeopardize not only your contest, but also your social media presence.

Here are the rules for, respectively, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube:

Step 3: Optimize Your Content for Search

If a KPI of your contest is traffic, you should ensure that your contest is “search engine friendly.”

Since, on a meta-level, Google looks for fresh content and links, you want to host your contest on your main site rather than on a third-party domain or mini-site. That way, the content and links that your contest generates will help build your site’s authority and search engine rankings.

In addition, as with any content that you produce, include keywords that you want to rank for on your contest page using your favorite keyword tool (I always start with the free Google Keyword Tool). Further, try to include your keyword(s) in your Meta data in a natural fashion, particularly in your title and description tags.

Also, look to give users a way to share your contest through on-site social buttons, such as Add This. You will not only get “free” promotion through the relevant social ecosystems, but also pick up new links as people discover your content.

There are many other tactics you can use to leverage search, from internal link structures to the method in which you code your page. SEO takes years of testing and study to really grasp (and when you do “understand” it, Google changes its algorithm and you have to start all over). So don’t get too hung up on search. Rather, focus on holding a great contest and you’ll most likely see a natural bump in your search traffic.

Step 4: Promote Your Contest

Contests are great fun for marketers because they lend themselves to multiple forms of promotion, from email to search.

As with any marketing event, you need a go-to-market plan to effectively push your contest. Below is a list of channels and opportunities you could consider:

  • Email – Email out your existing user base with the prize in the subject line, i.e., “Your Chance to Win an iPad Mini.” Including the prize will help your open rate.
  • Newsletter – If you have a newsletter, time your launch to coincide with your newsletter schedule. If your newsletter uses HTML, you can use it to push out pictures of your prize. The visuals may help drive engagement.
  • Banner Ads – While click-through rates on banners tend to be low, you can often get cheap, remnant but targeted inventory with which to publicize your contest. In addition, you could place banners on your site that drive users to the contest entry page.
  • Blog Post – If you have a blog (and if you don’t, you should), write a post to announce your contest.
  • Press Release – Press releases are underrated, probably due to the excess of poorly written releases. However, if you have a well-constructed contest, you can capitalize on cloud-based PR services like PRWeb to get others to write about and promote your offering.
  • Forums – Forums are a great platform to generate hype for your contest. Of course, you never want to spam a forum. But if you’ve built a following on an industry-related platform, forums can provide robust referral traffic.
  • Contest Directories – There are a variety of directories, such as, that will promote your contest.
  • PPC – If you have the budget, PPC is an efficient way to get the word out about your contest. However, PPC is generally expensive, so unless you are prepared to invest, look toward more organic (meaning the cost is time, not cash) ways to promote.
  • Social Media – If your company has a robust following on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, social media can serve as an extremely efficient way to push your contest. Further, if you have a unique, interesting value proposition, your readers will promote your offering to their friends. You should also tailor the channels you use to the type of content your contest will generate. Images are perfect for Pinterest, while text (such as a fill-in-the blank or trivia based contest) can work well on Twitter.
  • Blogger Outreach – Create a list of bloggers that are either in your niche or might be interested in your contest and reach out to them through email and/or phone.
  • Organic Search – Search is more of a long-term promotion. Given the time it takes to rank in the search engines, don’t rely on search for contest entries. However, if your contest results in content and links, the search engines can provide you with a steady flow of visitors months after your contest ends.

A final note here: Use these promotion sources judiciously. You are trying to build your brand. Never spam or excessively abuse a channel. A meta-goal of your contest is to build long-term relationships with consumers.

Step 5: Choose the Winner

There are a variety of methods that you can use to determine your winner. The “safest” method is to have someone on your staff choose, usually based on the perceived quality of the entry. That way, your company will have control over the process.

However, if you’re willing to adopt more risk, you can use the winner selection to help promote your company. For example, tie the winning selection to a specific social activity, i.e. Likes (Facebook) Retweets (Twitter), Repins (Pinterest). Essentially, you incentivize entrants to share their entry with their social graph.

Further leveraging social channels, you could open the contest to popular vote with a voting widget on your site. Again, entrants are incentivized to recruit friends to interact with your brand, this time through the voting process.

Another strategy is to involve “celebrity” judges. Invite people with authority in your space to determine the winner. Using this method, you associate your company with the clout of the judge. Many such judges will help promote your contest through their blog and social following as well.

Step 6: Notify and Promote the Winner

Look at winner notification as way to create more buzz around your brand, as well as additional content. Rather than just emailing the winner, consider writing a blog post about him or her and/or doing a video interview with the winner and placing it on your blog and on YouTube. In the interview, you can talk with the winner about their entry and how they plan to use their prize, if appropriate. In addition, use your social channels to push out the news. Tweet about it and place a snippet on your Facebook page that links back to your site.


The web is a content medium. From search to social, quality content is a necessity for any company looking to effectively manage its business online. However, good content is difficult and time-consuming to create. Fortunately, content-driven contests allow for a scalable and fun way to build your content. And not only will such contests help you create a library of content, but they will also help you to engage and develop long-term relationships with your readers and customers.

About the Author: Corey Post is the VP of Marketing at, the industry leader in receipt scanning and organization. He specializes in content marketing with a focus on social media and SEO. Check out the Shoeboxed blog for more marketing and small business tips.

  1. Excellent piece. Just missing a vey key step: how to generate value from the data, ie analyze or monetize it. –Doug Laney, VP Research, Gartner.

    • Thanks Doug. I’m glad you liked the piece. Absolutely agree with you about data analysis. Might be a good topic for a follow up post relative to contests and marketing campaigns in general.

  2. Awesome post. I never liked the idea of contest as a way to promote my brand but your break-up and more importantly your reasoning converted me.

    Since people like it and it will help my website and quest…..why not. Thanks for the steps.

  3. Hi Corey! Never thought organizing a contest could bring you a lot of benefits. Aside from driving more traffic to your site, it could also boost up your social signal.

    • Thanks for your comment April! Yes…I think it’s definitely a great strategy to boost your social signal. Given the way search is heading – Google’s move into social – social signals will most likely play an increasingly large part in online marketing.

  4. Awesome post with an in depth guidance especially for new bloggers like me.
    Thanks again for all the wonderful tips and hope to follow some of them on my upcoming blog.

  5. Bastian Lotze Dec 27, 2012 at 1:26 am

    Amazing article! Really enjoyed reading it! But whilst doing so a question popped into my head: In Step 5 you write about: “For example, tie the winning selection to a specific social activity, i.e. Likes (Facebook)”. Isn’t that forbidden due to facebook’s promotion guidelines? Just want to be sure…But really a huge thumbs up for that article!

  6. We’ve been implementing Contests similar to this for a few weeks now and I’ll admit that the content we’ve gotten from the Contests have helped my Clients a lot as well as speed up the content creation process once we’ve gotten the ball rolling on the data we collect from the Contests.
    Great article! We too were skeptical at first about creating Contests, after testing it a few times till we got the right mix going, it started improving a lot! Definitely worth a try to anyone looking to get great content, that even the readers enjoy participating in.

  7. Great write-up, guys! One thing: “tie the winning selection to a specific social activity, i.e. Likes (Facebook) Retweets (Twitter), Repins (Pinterest).” – you should be careful with Facebook because using likes and shares as a voting mechanism is against their promotional guidelines if your contest is hosted on their platform.

  8. Hello Corey, thank you for a great post.

    I have read the facebook guidelines but it states

    “v. You must not use Facebook features or functionality, such as the Like button, as a voting mechanism for a promotion.”

    that means you CANNOT use facebook likes as a voting mechanism, and in turn this makes it impossible to use the contest as a way to gather “likes” on user generated content. is that true?

    • Ruggero,

      Facebook’s stance on this raises a really interesting topic.

      Social networks, search engines and other digital aggregators, when they start out, are often loose with their requirements for content submission and participation in order to build their base.

      However, once they reach a tipping point, they’ll often place limits on their constituents. This is, partly, to create a better user experience. Look at the affiliate space and Google for example. Thin affiliates, over time, have had more and more difficulty ranking pages in G’s SERPs.

      The other reason for increased restrictions is that platforms want you to pay them for promotion. Facebook would rather I pay to promote my post or run an ad to achieve a Like rather than use a contest to do so.

      You have to read the terms of each social network carefully – and often – as they are in a constant state of change depending upon where the company is in its growth cycle.

      To answer your question, though, if you are working on FB and have a low tolerance for risk (i.e. you want to protect an established brand), look for ways to indirectly get Likes – ads on FB, social share buttons, etc.

  9. Good example of creating content on a case-based success (and you did it very humbly might I add). Curious as to how you feel about follow-up or reoccurring contests, for example might you do a messy desk of 2013 based on the success you saw this year? What is the bench mark you might set for the campaign (example 4000 entrants or a number of pins) that would encourage you to establish a follow-up contest?

    Sorry for the plethora of questions, your post just got me thinking!

  10. Thanks for you comment Lauren.

    I would definitely do follow-up contests. As a marketer, you have to run through a lot of tests – and lots of data – to find something that works for you and your organization.

    And when you do find success, repeat it if possible in order to increase your success to test ratio.

    Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to give you specific benchmarks with which to judge success. Each company is different.

    However, one way to approach this is to create an excel document to assess value and ROI. If you are spending $1,000 on a contest, for example, try to figure out how many {insert goal here} you’d need to at least break even on your effort.

    Of course the value of a repin or piece of content is often subjective. But if you usually spend $50 to have an article written and your contest nets you 100 articles, that could be worth, generally speaking, $5,000 to you.

  11. Great article! I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this question (base on your article), but I’ll ask on the off-chance there’s a workaround. I want to have a contest in which students who take my free online course are encouraged to post their truthful review (good or bad) on any related forum and then send me the link to that post. Everyone who submits a link to their post is entered to win a prize ($300 value). I WAS going to make it a random draw, but I believe this would make it an illegal lottery. To keep it in the realm of “contests,” can I just award the prize to the best entry?

  12. Great article! Would you know if we can ask people (by means of direct mail) to enter the sweepstakes by posting a photo or video of the customized branded (their brand) product that they bought from us, on their FB page? As well as offer an alternate method of entry so that we would not be guilty of consideration?

    Or would they have to post onto our FB page?


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