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Risks & Rewards of Social Media Contests

June 9, 2010

By Greg Heinrich

Originally posted on the HandsOn Blog

Recently, AmeriCorps Alums competed in the May Pepsi Refresh Project, an online voting contest that grants funding to ideas who receive the top number of votes in their respective categories.

The top 10 vote getters in our category ($50K) during the month of May received a grant of $50,000.

In our category, AmeriCorps Alums finished with a final ranking of #43 of over 400, and ultimately out of the top ten.

As the AmeriCorps Alums staff member charged with conducting the campaign, I started the project with a great deal of enthusiasm, and ended it with a great deal of disappointment.

The proposition of mobilizing our constituents in support of AmeriCorps Alums was uplifting, and instilled a sort of “let’s show the world the power of alums” mentality in our staff, while at the same time opening the door to a potential funding stream that could be directly granted to several AmeriCorps Alums chapters across the country.

The reality of finishing out-of-the money, however, left a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m sure others on our team had a similar feeling.

The downside of competing for and not winning such a contest is, quite frankly, deflating.

Once the contest was finished, the reality began to set in.

Much staff time and energy was poured into the contest, and it yielded zero return on investment from a financial

perspective.  That’s a tough pill to swallow.

Compounding that was the fact that a tremendous amount of social capital was spent promoting this contest to ouralumni at a relentless pace.

For the foreseeable future, our alumni will probably not want to hear the term Pepsi Refresh Project, and some are likely to glaze over e-communications from AmeriCorps Alums.

So what went wrong?

After reflecting on the experience, I was able to identify some of the key reasons that the effort fell short of the mark.

  • The voting coalition we built included too few organizations.   First some background on this aspect –Pepsi Refresh voters are allowed 10 votes per day (any respective organization can only receive 1 vote per day per voter).  Many of the organizations who won formed coalitions that included 9 other partners, which when you consider , it is clear that I should’ve aimed for a larger number of coalition partners.  We had only three, including ourselves.
  • The open rate on e-mails sent to those who pledged to vote daily was lower than we expected, averaging around 20% – 23% of about 1,000 e-mailed per day.  On average, 200-230 of those who asked for a daily e-mail reminder opened it, leaving 770-800 unopened each day.
  • Resources were stretched thin enough as they were, and we were not able to effectively mobilize our chapter leaders as part of the effort.  Many of them already had responsibilities related to National AmeriCorps Week.
  • Incentives were not as a big of a draw as we thought.  Their impact was negligible.

On the other hand, we did take away some valuable lessons about tactics for this type of online campaign.

  • Providing as quick a path as possible to the voting link is crucial in this type of contest.  Our constituents don’t have all day, and we received a number of complaints about how long it took to vote.
  • Using social media was a given, but our Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, and YouTube networks definitely helped us to gain exposure and extra votes.
  • Even though the open % was not as high as we would have wished, without the daily e-mail reminders, our overall rank would have been inestimably lower.
  • A multi-pronged and proactive marketing approach is a must.  Forming a coalition, recruiting daily voters and sending daily reminders, and advertising on Facebook were all actions that could have been tweaked, but worked to some degree.

So would I risk competing in this type of contest again?

I think the answer would be no.

In my estimation, the reward is high, but the risk is even higher.

The gamble you are taking is really an all- or-nothing gamble.  Either we finish in the top 10 or else.

The reward for finishing in 400th place or 11th place is the same, you get nothing.

At the end of the day, I would say this type of contest exceeds my risk tolerance because the potential return is way too uncertain.

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