Archive for February 25, 2011

4 Vital Rules For Running an Online Contest

Last month, I submitted content for two contests. The first one was the one seen here on this blog, a video for as a way of raising awareness for the National Debt. It was goofy, fun, a bit of a departure from my previous work. After being selected as one of the top 5 (and therefore eligible for the $5,000 prize) there was a internet vote to determine the ultimate winner.

The second contest was one for what I jokingly call “my real job” (I’m a software designer and developer working mostly in Microsoft technologies), in Microsoft they have many employees that work remotely, so they use a employees monitoring software so they can be sure the work is being done the right way. That contest was for MIX, Microsoft’s yearly web and design conference. Every year they make an attempt to get speakers “from the community” by having people submit a talk proposal and then having “the community” vote on them.

I lost both contests, which doesn’t really bother me that much. But as I was trying to figure out how to get more votes for my contest, I realized that there isn’t actually a lot out there on how to run an effective online contest. And I’d like to put out my thoughts for whatever poor schmuck decides they want to run an online contest.

1) Have a Clear Objective (Even If It’s Only Internal)

What do you want from your contest? Do you want a low cost alternative to hiring people to make a video or give a talk or build a piece of software? (Ain’t no shame in that.) Are you trying to spread an idea? Are you trying to raise awareness for your organization or are you trying to draw more people to your conference? Are you trying to promote accuracy? Or design?

Write out what you’re aiming at so that you can judge the contestants against it. Which, of course leads us to…

2) Align The Contest So The Winner Hits Your Objective

Let’s say you’re running a video contest and your goal is to spread an idea? Then encourage your entrants to spread their video around. The person with the most views wins.

Or is your contest directed at people who have been to your conference? Restrict voting to people who were at last year’s conference.

Are you trying to raise awareness of your organization? Require that entrants must put up a blog post explaining their entry. Even if they don’t have a blog, setting one up isn’t exactly rocket surgery. And the preponderance of posts will help your search ranking.

3) Avoid Online Votes At All Cost

Online voting sucks. No one likes it. People apologize to their friends when they ask them to vote in an online contest.

I’ve seen people win online contests because they promised to give the money to charity. I went to a conference session that was voted in by online vote and there were fewer than 30 people in a room that could hold 400 (average session attendance for that conference was over 150).

Online votes reward multiple voting, publicity mongering, rude behavior and vote-chasing. They take the focus away from what you’re trying to do and turn it into a numbers game. Your goals become background noise compared to getting my buddy whatever prize he’s trying to win.

If you insist on doing a vote, find a way to restrict voting to match your objectives. If you’re doing a video contest, restrict the number of votes to the number of views the video has.

I confess that part of my frustration on this count stems from the Know-Y contest mentioned above. My video was kicking in at 4200 views, but I couldn’t even break 500 votes. The winner ended up with over 1500 votes, but his video has, at this writing, under 250 views. When you’re running a video contest and the winning video has a 6-1 vote-view ratio, people are probably ignoring the video.

4) Your Contest Will Exist Within a Community. Treat That Community With Respect.

No matter what, your contest will rely upon a community to contribute or participate in the contest or to spread the word about the results and about your organization (or whatever you are trying to promote). If the community isn’t treated with respect, that will be bad news for your goals. Team up with bloggers who share your goals and make them judges in your contest. Ask them to promote it. Get a Twitter account and make sure you connect with the contestants through that account.

Try to get a pulse on your community. In the Microsoft contest I was in, the results of the vote were so out of line with the community that there was a mini-revolt, culminating (happily) in an attempt to explicitly include members of the community who felt like they had been shafted by the contest. You don’t want that to happen to your competition.

Final Thought

I’m going to relate the following story not as a “woe is me” tale, but as an object lesson in how one can alienate people with an online contest.

My community is on YouTube, Twitter and via this blog. I pimped the hell out of the Know-Y contest for the first 4 days of voting. I made explicit requests to people to promote my video. Then I learned that promoting my video wasn’t getting me the votes I needed, so I started promoting just voting part, ignoring the video. Then I went on to Facebook, a place I normally reserve as my “politics free zone” and started pimping it there. I put up a video on my YouTube account to explicitly request that people vote for me (that video, hilariously, got more views than all the other contestants combined).

Then I put up a new visualization video with an annotation explicitly asking people to vote for me. That video took off, currently at over 100K views. I got a call from ABC News about replicating a video of mine for the evening news. No bump in votes. I was a damn pest on Twitter, bugging people throughout the day to get them to vote for me.

After 4 days of this rude behavior, I realized that I was disgusted with how I had been acting. These people aren’t just another mouse click with a distinct IP address. They are my friends. I was harassing my friends over $5,000. What was worse was that I wasn’t even promoting my video anymore. I was just telling people to vote for my name.

I spent time and money on my video. That was the thing I was excited about… the idea and the video, not the vote. But promoting the video was not the best way to get votes. Yelling “Vote For Me!” 50 times a day from every outlet I could think of and coercing my friends to do the same thing was far more effective. Disrespecting my online community was the best way to get votes.

After that, I took down my promotions, deleted the annotations, stopped bothering my Facebook and Twitter friends. I was burning through the respect I had earned over years so I could have some money. That is no way to promote an idea.

Congrats to Know-Y Winner Stephen Byrd

In January, I entered the Y-Care video contest initiated by, creating a video meant to raise awareness of the National Debt. My video was chosen as one of the five finalists. The final winner, Stephen Byrd, was announced today.

Congrats to Stephen on his win! Here is his video:

And, because I really liked my video, here it is again:

Thanks to everyone who voted!

Vote For “Matthias” Y-Care Video

After months of not putting anything up, I finally made a new video. Created for the Y-Care National Debt video contest, it’s a fairly radical departure from my previous fare, but I think it’s entertaining. Please vote for me (Matthias Shapiro) at the Y-Care video vote and help me win the $5,000 prize. (I have a very large scale visualization of the national debt that I’m working on, but I really need some capital to pull it off. This would be an awesome way to help me with that.)

Let me field a couple of questions about the production:

  • Do I really owe $45,000 of the National Debt? – No, you do not. I rounded down. Based on the latest estimate, there are 312 million people in the country and the US National Debt stands at $14.1 trillion, so you owe a shade under $45,200 at the time of writing. But it’s probably more than that by the time you read this.
  • Is that really $45,000 dollars in that bag? – No, it is not. I am not insane enough to carry around $45K in a bag and show it to people. Instead, that is $2,250 worth of one dollar bills with $20 bills on the top and bottom for a total of about $2700. For me, that is still a vast amount of capital. I ended up just taking it out of my savings, shooting the video and then quickly putting it back in.
  • Did you catch the guy who tried to steal the money? – Yes. We had sentries surrounding the area.
  • Wait a second… how can a baby owe $45,000 in debt? – The $45,000 number is a per-person estimate. If we were to do a “pre-household” estimate in which the mother and baby are counted together, it would be almost $123,000 per household. I went with the “per-person” estimate because I don’t have enough free cash to fake $123,000 in cash. If I used $20 bills to fake it, that would require $6,100 in ones and 122 $20 bills on the top and bottom, for a total of $8,540.

Think about that last bit for a second.

Most people don’t even have enough cash to fake the amount of money the federal government owes on their behalf.

The scope of the problem is truly staggering. I hope that my video has communicated it well. If you think that is the case, please vote for me (Matthias Shapiro) at the Y-Care video contest.