Can the Contest Craze Sustain Itself?


There have been several major contests designed to “benefit” nonprofits in the past couple of years as well as many minor ones (pumpkin contest image by gifted photographer). Some of these have been well designed, particularly the Foundation based contests. However, with the widespread influx of corporate social responsibility/cause marketing dollars, contests have suffered. It seems anyone with some extra dollars in their cause marketing budget wants to create a free-for-all contest to show their customers charitable goodness.

Now more than ever I’m questioning the sustainability of the contest craze. There are three reasons why:

1) For every winner like Atlas Service Corps, the contests tend to create a tremendous amount of losers these poorly designed efforts create. In actuality, there are many losers who expend a tremendous amount of effort that don’t walk away with a dollar, who have exhausted their donor base with solicitations for votes, and who have lost time that could have been spent on mission based activity or fundraising.

Strong contest designed contest (Zoetica CEO Beth Kanter’s mantra when it comes to contests) creates a win-win for all parties. When you look at the Case Foundation’s America’s Giving Challenge (note: Case is a Zoetica client), contest wins were matching grants given to 501c3s who had successfully galvanized their existing and potential donor base. If an AGC contestant did not win, they had at least successfully fundraised with their network.

2) While Americans love games and contests, we also seem to have a penchant to boomerang back on leading parties when things don’t work out well. Monday morning consequences aren’t necessarily fair, but it seems to me that the inevitable questions about actual effects on society will not be well met.

In reality a strong contest design also includes Theory of Change. Without a measurable benchmark to hold a contest accountable to, without some reason to invest these dollars into society, contest dollars are literally scattered to the four winds.

As a result, grants find themselves in the hands of organizations that compete well in dogfights for cash. That does not necessarily mean they are competent at their mission of change. Further, when we look back at the contest, it’s likely that there will be a wide swath of hits and misses.

3) Another end result is contest fatigue amongst donors, the general public, and nonprofits. It’s only a matter of time before people get tired of being asked to vote for a charity. Again.

It’s my belief after 15 years of professional marketing experience that every organization has an emotional bank account with a stakeholder. You can ask for things and withdraw equity from that account, or contribute value and build equity and loyalty. If it’s all get and no give, nonprofits find themselves with dead email lists and nonactive social media accounts. A vote for a charity — even though it may not cost the stakeholder money — is still a withdrawal from that emotional bank account.

Which gets to nonprofit fatigue. Some nonprofits are going to become much more selective or stop playing altogether. They will see such pagaentry as costly ventures that hurt and distract their organization from success. I foresee the larger more experienced 501c3s wizening up to this faster than the smaller ones. Unfortunately, the smaller ones suffer the most from contests.

Conclusion: In the end, I think the contest craze will drop off as a primary social media tactic. It’s not creating enough wins for it to be successful as a long term play, there’s not enough measurable change, and we’re starting to bore social media stakeholders.

So that’s my two cents on contests. What do you think?

17 thoughts on “Can the Contest Craze Sustain Itself?

  1. Hey Geoff, you make some interesting points about “contest fatigue” — and I certainly wonder if the shiny media love with “Go for the Prize” won’t oxidize with all the attention. That well may wane, decreasing their marketing appeal as you suggest.

    However, I think the value of contests and prizes, especially crowdsourced ones addressing complex engineering problems and/or social change, is just getting off the mark. Take a look at some of the Open Gov contests being run by Sunlight Labs . The main reason i think at least this form of contest and incentive-induced prize ( a la Netflix’ $1 Mn Prize or DARPA’s Red Balloon) has legs still is the inherent efficiences: pay only for results and control engineering costs. That’s something that business, non-profits, and government can’t ignore. Wrote more about this in , if interested…

  2. I think the piece I most agree with here is the Game Theory bit.

    You’re not so much rewarding the most-deserving, as you are rewarding those organizations who are best optimized to win the popularity contest.

    It all comes back to Strategy and Goal. What is it you want to achieve?

    – Recognition of good work?
    – Fundraising?
    – Engagement?
    – Replication and Inspiration?

    Often, the rules put in place to decide the winner have nothing to do with advancing the Goal. Another classic instance of Goal and Strategy not meshing. (Never mind Tactics…)

  3. Geoff,

    You’re right. Over time, the contest craze will drop as companies realize that contests work fine among engaged communities and not so much as introductions. Of course, they cannot be overdone either. Too many contests does cause community fatigue.

    But even more than that, you always have to appreciate what contests are. Overall, it puts you in the position where you have to ask your customer to do something for you first. Really, it’s supposed to be the other way around.


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  11. Geoff,

    This is such a timely post for me. When I started my own company last year, I decided to mark the “launch” it by donating my time to a nonprofit during December (this was before virtually everyone had created one of these contests!). Without going into too much detail, I created a contest to solicit nominations on my blog, narrowed it down to the top five that I felt I could impact in that short period of time, and took a vote for the final decision. In all, nearly 8,000 votes were collected, and it was successful. So much so, that I decided to make “Geben Gives” an annual event. But, after I read Beth’s post last week, and in thinking about how annoyed I get with this barrage of nonprofit contests, I’ve already decided that I need to revamp the program. You’re absolutely right — contest fatigue is real. And, from a social media standpoint, it goes against the very nature of what nonprofits ought to be doing online. The goal shouldn’t be to see which group can jump up and down and scream “Hey, look at me!” the loudest. :)


  12. Geoff,

    You raise good points here — and ones) — I’ve struggled with. Yet, when contests are structured to bring about innovation, they are extraordinarily powerful and effective — e.g., X Prize, Netflix, etc.

    Additionally, contests like the original Members Project that I helped launch in 2007 (the contest asked for project ideas — not organizations — to make a difference) provided unexpected benefits for even the “losers”; the contest provided national exposure for the project idea and its creator that they could not have achieved on their own without significant financial resources. And, that exposure helped generate supporters and donations to move their ideas forward.

    I don’t think contests are going away in the near future. The question is, how do we help corporations and organizations interested in these contests, develop a better contest?

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  14. Geoff, I think you hit the nail on the head with this comment: “There are many losers who expend a tremendous amount of effort that don’t walk away with a dollar, who have exhausted their donor base with solicitations for votes, and who have lost time that could have been spent on mission based activity or fundraising.”

    Contests, in my experience, are a huge time-suck, and though voting is a way for supporters to “give” without contributing monetarily to a cause, the issue of voter fatigue among supporters can’t be underestimated.

    I think one good thing that has come out of “contest fever,” though, is getting a lot of nonprofits engaged in social media who haven’t really been before. Contests are a good exercise in how to mobilize your base and cultivate new supporters. The question is whether the nonprofits who participate can translate the lessons learned into successful non-contest-related social media campaigns. Without one easy action (i.e. voting) to mobilize people around, how can you move your cause forward with a mere 140 characters?

  15. Pingback: Program Design – Matching Grants vs. Voting Platforms | Geoff Livingston's Blog

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