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BusinessColumnistsJamie Herzlich

Small Business: Creating online contests

Creating online contests can be a great marketing

Creating online contests can be a great marketing tool. Be sure to follow the guidelines set down by different social media, including Facebook. Credit: AP, 2010

Companies have long used contests as a way to engage customers and build their brands.

Thanks to social media, it's become relatively easy to launch a contest online and reach a greater audience via the various social networking channels.

Still, creating an online contest, just like any other promotion, requires careful planning. You'll need to familiarize yourself with the various rules and restrictions of the different social networking sites and understand your core demographics.

"You want to ensure that the promotion you're running is in line with your audience and brand values and complies with the website's terms of service," says Lindsey Myers, social media officer at WordHampton Public Relations in East Hampton, which implements social media promotions for clients.

Online promotions can take different forms, including a simple sweepstakes, where applicants enter their names and email addresses and a winner is drawn randomly, or a contest that involves some element of skill where applicants submit photos, recipes, etc., she notes.

The ones with the largest response rate are usually the sweepstakes because of ease of entry, says Myers.

Be in compliance. Whether you choose sweepstakes or a contest, make sure you're in compliance with state statutes regarding promotions as well as individual site guidelines.

"Companies tend to forget there are laws involved that regulate what you can and cannot do," says Gonzalo E. Mon, a partner in the advertising law practice at Kelley Drye & Warren Llp in Washington, D.C.

State laws vary, and it pays to consult with an advertising or promotions attorney. But a general rule for promotions is that you can't combine three elements: a prize, chance (i.e., winning is outside of a person's control) and a requirement that people pay money or make a purchase to enter, he notes.

That's why removing the purchase requirement is generally wise, as is providing entrants with guidelines of what they can and cannot submit (i.e., nothing defamatory, etc.) as an added layer of protection, says Mon.

Beyond that, you need to check the terms of service of each site. For instance, you can't let people enter a contest simply by having them "like" your Facebook page, says Mon. Instead, brands must run their promotions via an app, he notes. See for more Facebook guidelines, and Twitter guidelines.

Know your audience. Once you understand the guidelines, you can start designing your promotion, says Myers.

Know your audience and come up with a promotion idea that will work specifically for it, notes Ben Pickering, chief executive of Vancouver-based, an online platform for social media promotions.

For example, if your audience isn't a group that would likely film a video, then a video contest isn't the best choice, he explains.

Try keeping it simple to avoid barriers to entry, Pickering says.

When crafting a contest, consider the three P's: the premise, the prize and the promotion, he says. It should be something fun and relevant to your audience.

Lessing's in Great River tried to incorporate those elements in a recent Facebook contest for four of its eight eateries that included the Library Cafe in Farmingdale and the Post Office Café in Babylon. The contest asked applicants to create a name for a new burger and beer promotion. The winner received a $100 Lessing's gift card.

"It created a lot of excitement," says executive vice president Mark Lessing, who worked with WordHampton on the promotion. It was Lessing's first social media contest but won't be its last. "We'll definitely do another," says Lessing, noting they had more than 100 entries before selecting the winner: "Burger & Hops."

Social media guidelines

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