Online contests: What's in it for you?

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When Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (WIDHH) entered the online contest Vancouver's Next Top Charity they were self-proclaimed newbies, still learning about this novel opportunity to attain funds and PR that uses social media as its playground. But after conducting research on the event organizers and analyzing the pros and cons, they quickly jumped onboard, eager for a chance to secure some much-needed funding and publicity. A month later, the risk and effort paid off. As the newly crowned winner, the organization is feeling good.

And why not. Currently in a relocation phase, the organization is busy looking for an affordable office space, promoting their cause, meeting their charitable goals, all the while searching for funding to sustain it all. How could they not appreciate the value of added publicity and cash in their pockets? Besides, contestants weren't asked to jump through too many hoops, making executive assistant, Ruth Blackburn, pretty happy. They had to put together a short video stating who they were, what they were about which was then housed on the contest site. Supporters were then asked to vote for their chosen cause and the one with the greatest number after a month-long run won.

How it works

Pretty straightforward. Of course, contestants used tools like Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and newsletters to encourage fans to vote. But none of their activities required too much heavy lifting or running around, giving contestants the ability to keep up with their daily grind. "If I were to compare it to organizing a fundraising event, this was much easier, Blackburn says, adding, "Being able to sit at my desk, do my regular job and still be able to do this on the side was amazing."

For AboutFace, a charity that helps individuals with facial disfigurement experience personal enrichment and growth, simplicity was also a deciding factor in agreeing to take part in an online contest for the first time. Show Us Your Goodness was a social campaign that invited consumers to nominate and vote online for charities they supported. But the benefits of the contest helped in the decision, too. After doing her due diligence — learning more about the contest and its organizer — executive director Anna Pileggi submitted her interest and received a request for an in-house interview.

"The main driver for me was the interview they did with us and posted online," she explains.

"It was well done, professional and for us it was excellent exposure that we would otherwise not get." The interview provided the organization with an opportunity to talk about who they were and their key programs. And the video that resulted gave the charity the "hook" they needed to reach members by way of e-blasts, newsletters, an email tag line, and postings on their Facebook pages, requesting everyone to spread the word.

The marketing team at Snack Alliance Inc, the contest organizer, was helpful, too, adds Pileggi, sending out releases, logos to use, and providing ongoing support.

What's the attraction?

Winning the contest was a tremendous boon and hearing what the judges had to say about their choice gave the organization an added boost. "They were happy to support a smaller agency for which the money will have a tremendous impact," she says proudly. A week later, a shipment of the company's product arrived at their door along with a cheque, followed four weeks later by product samples for use at upcoming events and a formal cheque presentation. With no strings attached, the contest was a win-win for all, Pileggi says. "It is very rewarding when the companies deliver their promise to the organization."

But the rewards don't stop there. The recognition that stems from being a winner will certainly go far for the organization. The same can be said for WIDHH. What was most remarkable was that they — a small charity in competition with many larger ones — were able to secure 8,166 votes while the next best only got around 5,000. "It was awesome! We were impressed," gushed an elated Blackburn. "It showed us how supportive our community is," adding the response wasn't altogether surprising considering how many people they serve depend on the internet.

Social media is a daily event for deaf community members, with a great percentage of them Facebook aficionados. "They're so in-tune with being in touch visually and I think that's why we were able to surpass votes." And talking about the tool most of us love to hate, the organization's Facebook friend list jumped from 400 to 800, an especially impressive leap considering the community is small. "We did definitely promote awareness to the general public," concludes Blackburn.


Meanwhile, contest organizers, Spotted Doing — a company that uses social media to get consumers and businesses more engaged with social causes — played their role, too. Allowing contestants to vote a few times a day, they asked only that each voter share something on their social networks for the privilege. The company also secured sponsors who donated money and services to winning charities and allowed voters to bid on auction items.

It was Spotted Doing's first contest of the kind and proved a worthwhile venture. The overall tally looked something like this: 18,000 votes, 44,000 impressions, and 6,500 shares on social media. Not bad for a company just out of the gate. For extra exposure, the team at Spotted Doing reached out to local bloggers who provided content, with smaller ones following suit. "There was a virality going on and we didn't expect that," says . "We really let it run on its own course, we didn't expect that many people to jump on board."

Why not?

But jump they do onto the contest bandwagon, which is growing more popular by the day, raising the question: Is there a need to be wary of these online opportunities? "Definitely," says Jayne Cravens, an internationally renowned consultant and blogger on a variety of topics, many focused on the nonprofit sector. One of her concerns is the potentially deleterious effects of thinking about nonprofits as a competition. "Is a nonprofit theater 'better' than an animal shelter? Is a domestic violence shelter 'better' than a hospice?" she asks. Consultant John Di Costanzo may concur with that view. The popularity contests that these online competitions create can be distressing, he says, adding, it's no simple answer. "You have to weigh the pros and cons." Everyone needs money these days. "They have to keep themselves sustainable but again at what cost?" he asks.

"No one walks away from all the clicking with more knowledge about why people are homeless, why women die in childbirth in huge numbers in Afghanistan, why the arts are worth funding, etc."

As for Cravens, her worries don't end there. The return on investment can be a problem too since, she claims, there is very little of it for most participants. But her biggest concern is the fact that contests fail to educate anyone about issues or how nonprofits work. "No one walks away from all the clicking with more knowledge about why people are homeless, why women die in childbirth in huge numbers in Afghanistan, why the arts are worth funding, etc." she says. It's what she calls "slackervism". "It gives people and companies a false sense of 'I've done something tangible to help others when they really haven't; and nonprofits need to be mindful of the fact that if all they do is try to get money, they won't be sustainable. They need to build an emotional connection between their donors and the organization," she adds. "Nonprofits that don't cultivate that deeper connection with donors are doomed to financial failure. No organization can be the flavor-of-the-month forever."

Xu acknowledges the concerns but reminds the dubious that social media is about the hook. If you want to get your foot in the door, thirty-minute stories won't get you there, but thirty seconds can. "It's not really about describing an organization in detail, it's about getting them interested and getting people to your website," he says, explaining why video and links come in handy. That's also why his company suggested charities in his contest keep their video short. It's about piquing people's interest. "That's where the power of social media comes in."

So long as nonprofits keep their eyes open and feel comfortable with the organizers (Spotted Doing released their own video for added trustworthiness), the potential for benefit can be great, he adds, particularly for small- and medium-sized organizations who don't have the clout or leverage to get corporate and media attention.

For those interested in taking the competitive leap, Jason provides these added tips:

  1. Be open to social media. It's about attracting the younger generation. "If you want to keep your organization alive in the future, you have to be able to reach out to these populations, in their way, in their mediums."
  2. People are attracted to new ideas that grab attention. Be creative with your message.
  3. You want people on social media to champion your organization for you; that's what makes it so effective. So keep in mind it's a two-way dialogue and encourage supporters to converse with you.

Elisa Birnbaum is a freelance journalist, producer and communications consultant living in Toronto. She is also president of Elle Communications and can be reached at:

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