How Contests Can Create Long-Term Engagement with Users on Facebook

[Editor’s note: We’ve been covering a wide range of contests on Facebook Pages over the years, as brands, non-profits and many other organizations have used experimented more with ways of gaining fans, then growing the relationship with them. In the guest column below, Kevin Tate, cofounder and principal of social marketing company StepChange Group, details the types of contests he has seen work — or not work –s with Facebook users.]

Earning the attention and interest of thousands (or millions) of Facebook users is a key component of many brands’ social media strategy, and the first step in establishing a Facebook foothold is often fan acquisition. Contests and sweepstakes have emerged as a common means of getting users to click a Page’s “Like” button, but savvier brands know that social media success has less to do with the number of Likes they accumulate and more with what they do with them once they have them. So while contest apps and giveaways can help a brand get a jump on long-term engagement in Facebook, it’s more difficult than it sounds, and the lack of a solid game plan can turn a promising promotion into a wasted opportunity.

Every aspect of a Facebook contest reflects back on the brand administering it and affects the type of fans that it will attract as a result, starting with the prizes offered. Charitable contests can create a selfless incentive for participation, and the social aspect of Facebook amplifies the goodwill that the contest generates for the brand. Giving away a sample of a brand’s goods or services is an organic opportunity to talk about the brand’s wares without dominating the conversation. And highlighting dedicated fans, like Dunkin’ Donuts’ Fan of the Week, not only avoids Facebook’s media buy mandate for contests that offer a prize with a monetary value, it also reinforces the brand’s commitment to the community aspect of the Page.

However, there are three types of prizes that a brand should be wary of. The first is a prize that, while desirable, has no obvious connection to the brand. Are there plenty of Facebook users out there who would Like your Page for a month for the chance to win one of 100 iPads? Sure. But if you’re not Apple, and if your core business has little to do with developing apps for the iPad, are you creating a positive brand experience through your contest, or are you just attracting users who want an iPad and couldn’t care less about what your brand has to offer?

The other type of prize that can backfire on a brand is a large number of small-value prizes. In theory, it sounds like a great idea to give away thousands of coupons for a free sample of your product, but in practice, it can quickly turn into a fulfillment nightmare. Whether it’s a Facebook glitch, an obscure browser incompatibility or good old fashioned user error, some winners will wind up frustrated when they can’t claim their prize, and they will let you (and all of your other fans) know about it. A prize worth a dollar won’t generate tremendous amounts of goodwill, but it’s shocking how much ill will can result from users who feel that they’ve been cheated out of it.

Finally, the aforementioned charitable contests should be crafted with care. A sincere commitment to a relevant cause – especially one your brand has been supporting for some time – can earn a great deal of public goodwill. But hooking up with a random cause in a transparent stab to garner fans will likely come across as inauthentic, and may do more harm than good.

Brands also need to consider what they’re asking their fans to do in order to be eligible for the prize. A basic sweepstakes entry form lowers the barrier to entry and significantly increases participation, which can pay dividends if the brand is also hoping to get fans to, for example, opt into direct email marketing. It’s harder to achieve that level of participation with a contest that has a higher barrier to entry. But if a brand can give their fans a good reason to stick with it—a clever way to participate, fun gameplay, a worthwhile cause or a prize too good to not try and win—that level of investment creates an attachment to the brand that a simple “click to enter” button can’t.

Regardless of how fans enter the contest, it’s important to be clear about the entry conditions and be ready to support fans who have difficulties entering. If you can’t describe how to enter in three steps, you’re probably asking for trouble. And if you don’t jump on small problems when they first appear, they may quickly snowball into an avalanche of dissatisfaction.

Finally, and most importantly, no brand should begin a Facebook contest until there is a strategy in place for engaging and retaining the new fans that it acquires. Post-contest enthusiasm fades quickly, especially among the vast majority of fans that don’t win. Some drop-off is inevitable; there will be some users who are only interested in an opportunity to get something for nothing and may un-Like a Page or hide updates from it as soon as the contest is over. But good content and a solid engagement strategy will keep these opt-out numbers low.

A smart brand will fan gate the sweepstakes tab, making Liking the Page a requirement for entry, and will then use the term of the contest as an audition for fans’ attention. Entertaining, informative and interesting content is habit-forming. Brands should pay attention to their fans, interact with them, observe what inspires the most engagement and base their future content updates around that.

While no one company has completely figured out the perfect solution to engaging their fans on Facebook, those brands that are taking a thoughtful approach to building out their presence are clearly coming out on top. Contests are a relatively easy way to drive initial activity, but if that activity comes to a screeching halt at the end of the campaign, it won’t help a brand engage and retain fans in the long run.

Kevin Tate is cofounder and principal of the StepChange Group, a Powered company. It partners with brands and agencies on the design, development and management of social media applications and social marketing campaigns.