Upsides and Pitfalls of Social Media Promotions

One of the things I’m most excited about blogging about are answers to real life questions posed by readers.  Here’s the first of many Dear Sara posts:  if you’ve got a question, just ask!   Names will be changed to protect the innocent (and guilty) if requested, but the questions are from real people at real companies.

Dear Sara:

Something keeps coming up here:  contests.

People are always excited by the idea of social media contests or giveaways. Personally, I’ve entered maybe one, and never found them to be very compelling — more just a way to get people who want free stuff to pay attention for a short period of time.

Of course, FB has some pretty clear rules on this type of thing, too. When I point this out, I typically get the response that “Everyone else seems to be getting away with it.”

What are your thoughts on the much lauded / derided social media contest, its value, pitfalls and things to think about?

Not Sold on Social Promotions

Dear Not Sold:

I could write a short novel on my thoughts on social media promotions, but I’ll try to keep this to a digestible length.  The short version: your concerns are merited, and social promotions have their place, but they’re more complicated than most organizations realize.  Here’s the longer version.

Online Promotions are Complex, from a Legal & Regulatory Standpoint.
Promotions — in the form of contests and sweepstakes — operated via social media are subject to a long list of laws and regulations.  My law license went inactive a few days ago (Must.  Complete.  CLEs.) so I’m going to stop short of giving legal advice, but these folks are presumably properly licensed and happy to tell you most of what you need to know.  The short version:  there’s a difference between a contest and a sweepstakes (and it’s probably not what you think); a carefully drafted set of official rules is not optional; and, if the contest prize value exceeds $500 or $5000, then it’s necessary to register with certain states, and to post a bond with others.  Each state has its own scheme (here’s California’s, for example) so be sure to do your homework on the legal and regulatory issues involved, and if you don’t register with the states in situations where you’re required to, be sure to exclude residents of those states from entering your promotion.

Platform Rules Mean Business, and Must Be Followed.
You’re spot on to raise the concern about violation of Facebook’s Page Terms.  There are mentions in case studies observed by other commentators (here’s one) of business pages that have been deleted for violations of Facebook’s Page Terms.  It may not happen often (that we hear about) but the risk of deletion, and having to start from scratch on fan acquisition, should be enough of a deterrent to keep organizations on the Facebook Page Terms straight and narrow.

Read and know Facebook’s Page Terms.  Seriously.  Promotions can only be operated within Apps (not on your page’s Timeline); and, entering a contest can’t require Facebook actions other than Liking your Page, checking into a Place, or connecting to your App (but it’s more complicated than that — since entry can’t be exclusively based on those methods).

In other, simplest words, if you host a contest that asks users to “Like” or “Comment” on a post on your wall to enter, you’re in violation of Facebook’s Page Terms, and if reported, you may wake up the next morning to an error where your page used to reside.

That’s just a sneak peek — there are plenty of other ways to run afowl of the Page Terms — so I want you to go read and know the full rules, yourself.  For real.  I’ll still be here when you’re done.

Things are a little more lax on other platforms, but before you get all excited and launch a contest, do your homework.  Twitter has published Guidelines for Contests; other platforms have published Terms of Service (or Acceptable Use) that you should review and know before launching a promotion on those platforms.

Facebook Promotions Aren’t What They Used to Be.
It used to be that you could use a Like-gated Facebook App as your landing page — then BAM instant Page Likes just by virtue of people landing on your Facebook page and obediently doing what your landing page said.  When Facebook migrated businesses to Timeline, that functionality went away, and Apps moved to tabs.  In addition, the Facebook Page Guidelines prohibit calls to action in Cover Photos, so actually getting users to an app in order to enter a contest or sweepstakes presents new challenges. Most promotions rely on a mix of organic traffic driving and paid ads to get traffic to the app. This tactic can work — the lure of a prize may encourage more ad viewers to click and then go along with your like-gate than if there’s no lure of a prize.  A well-planned, compelling, seasonal campaign that incorporates (1) advertising; and (2) a tab-hosted app can lead to increases in fan count (at a price).  Just be sure that once you’ve got those new fans, you keep them happy.

I’ve seen brands spend a sizable budget on seasonal new fan acquisition using this approach, only to lose overall reach.  My theory?  Newly-acquired “fans” became fans in order to enter your promotion — they may or may not organically be actual FANS (in the old-fashioned sense, not the Facebook sense) of your brand.  Once they start receiving your updates, if they’re not interested, and indicate that to Facebook through negative feedback (either by hiding your updates or reporting them as spam), that can have a long-term negative impact on your Facebook EdgeRank.  If you’re going to go to all this trouble to acquire fans, plan to provide them high-quality, engaging content that they’re not likely to complain about in order to keep them.

Enter to Win!

So Why Do Social Promotions If They’re So Much Work?
Bottom line, social promotions can be an effective way to boost your social audience as part of a well-planned broader content and social strategy, and can get people talking about your brand.  Pure Facebook Advertising only goes so far:  a social promotion (if done well) can encourage viral sharing, mentions by bloggers, and other organic traffic-driving that you’re not writing a check to Facebook for.  Even with the prevalence of social promotions, they still succeed in getting engagement, and I’ve seen reasonable gains in audience size with even a pretty modest investment in a promotion.  Careful ad targeting helps increase the quality and relevance of your pool of entrants.

Best practices?  I’d say:

  1. Know and follow the rules.
  2. Plan short term promotions.  It’s a challenge to drive traffic (either organically, or with ads) to a promotion that’s grown stale.  You can only post so many “Enter to Win!” updates on your Facebook timeline without turning people off.  If you’ve just got to do a long-term promotion, try to break it into sub-sweepstakes (e.g. weekly giveaways for several weeks in a row) or plan other creative ways to drive traffic over the course of the contest period.
  3. Plan a comprehensive traffic driving strategy, with a mix of paid, earned and owned traffic sources, and now’s a time to call in favors:  ask your peers, vendors, ambassadors, and other people to help spread the word (and be prepared to do the same for them, when they ask you to reciprocate).
  4. Make the prize compelling so that as many people as possible are inclined to talk about how awesome your giveaway is.
  5. Make the method of entry stupid easy.  Expect a drop-off in entries and engagement with each level of complexity your entry method involves (e.g. video contests are rad, but get relatively few entries).  Match your requirements for entry to your goals.  If you’re looking for the next great American filmmaker, then by all means require a video to enter, but the prize had better be pretty darn compelling for someone to go to all that trouble.
  6. Promotions, in my experience, work best as part of a broader campaign.  Use email, blog posts, traditional PR, and even print materials to help spread the word about your promotion to drive the greatest possible engagement.
  7. And finally — don’t bite off more than you can chew.  Make a commitment you can keep in terms of prizes and fulfillment.  A worst case scenario is to host a promotion that flops because you can’t deliver on your commitments which then garners you negative social buzz instead of the opposite.

Any other thoughts?  What have been your organization’s experiences with social promotions?  Any best practices you can think of that I missed?  Chime in, in the comments!