Sweepstakes: Designing a contest to win media attention

Sweepstakes always attract the public, but the press is often a tougher crowd. David Ward offers tips on getting jaded reporters to write about your contest

Sweepstakes always attract the public, but the press is often a tougher crowd. David Ward offers tips on getting jaded reporters to write about your contest

Everyone loves to be a winner. That's why contests and sweepstakes have long proved so appealing to the public. But branded promotional contests often draw yawns from reporters, even when huge prizes are offered.

"Our first task is to make sure the client understands that sweepstakes and contests can be tremendous direct-to-consumer programs," explains Lisa Eggerton, Euro RSCG Magnet's consumer practice leader.

"However, you don't want to run them with the sole goal of generating media," adds Eggerton, who has helped run five sweepstakes and contests in the past six months alone.

That's probably wise, since reporters are often leery about covering contests and sweepstakes in the first place.

"The hardest thing is to convince the media that your contest or sweepstakes is going to deliver real informational interest as opposed to pure commercialism," notes Julie Hall, a Schneider & Associates VP who has worked on contests and sweepstakes for Crock-Pot, Dunkin' Donuts, and Crayola.

What does it take to overcome that media resistance? Sal Cataldi, president of New York-based Cataldi PR, says one thing that will never work is focusing on the number of entrants or even the size of the prize.

"What reporters really like are off-beat, clever ideas," Cataldi notes. "When it comes to the prize, they're not nearly as impressed by cash as they are by weird, experiential things."

To provide an example, Cataldi cites his work with cable network American Movie Classics on a House of Horrors sweepstakes. For that contest, the winner had their house made over by veteran Hollywood set designers and had The Exorcist star Linda Blair on hand to host a Halloween party and greet trick-or-treaters.

"What really helped drive that with the media was great b-roll," he says. "We in PR tend to be very word-centric, but even with contests the media are very visual-centric."

Even with a clever idea, Ketchum senior media relations specialist Suzanne Lyons cautions that reporters often won't show interest in a contest or sweepstakes unless a well-known name is also involved.

"It really comes down to having the right spokesperson, especially for a contest involving a consumer product or service," she says. "Whether it's a celebrity or an author, it gives you so much media-centric value."

Eggerton also recommends augmenting your contest or sweepstakes with a survey of other hard-news items, noting, "It gives the reporters and producers something to talk about above and beyond the sweepstakes."

Eggerton recently helped French's GourMayo Flavored Light Mayonnaise brand stage a contest where first prize was a brown-bag lunch with Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson. "The contest information was released at the same time as a survey on people's lunch habits," she says. "And one of the bigger findings was that many would bring their lunch to work if it were easier, which gave the pitch something about consumer habits to anchor it."

Hall adds that surveys linked to contests can be tweaked if not market-by-market, then certainly regionally.

"Media love the regionalism of these things," she says. "People in the West wanted this, but people in the East prefer something else."

The one thing that Cataldi stresses for every contest or sweepstakes is to take the time to plan and execute. "You have to think way ahead because there are legal documents and requirements that vary from state to state," he says.

Perhaps the most important tip is that no PR firm should ever advise a client to handle a contest or sweepstakes without outside help. Chris Donnelly, president of Foxboro, MA-based GeigerDonnelly Marketing, says negotiating the complex set of federal, state, and local regulations involving contests and sweepstakes is only one of the reasons you should bring in experts.

"You also need to understand how to structure a sweepstakes or contest, including deciding the judging criteria," he says. "All those have to be placed before you can begin your media outreach, if for no other reason than just to be in legal compliance."

Donnelly says the biggest mistakes are when PR pros underestimate not just the planning, but also the execution of a sweepstakes or contest.

"You know the PR agency wants to get the results back to the press quickly, but if you suddenly have to read 10,000 essays, that's going to take some time," he says. "People don't really grasp that if there are a lot of entries, it will take time to do proper judging."

One of the biggest advantages of contests is that they can provide you with several opportunities to pitch reporters. "If the promotion is built properly, you should be able to get publicity when you kick it off, as well as when you announce the results," says Hall.

The other ready-made media opportunity tied to sweepstakes and promotions is when you get down to the semifinalists, finalists, and contest winners. "That's really where your grassroots efforts kick in and you can reach out to the local markets," says Lyons. "It's a bit harder to work these stories on a national level, unless the winner has done something incredibly impactful or has some sort of story to tell."

Though it's debatable whether you need an actual physical event, such as a launch party or a dinner honoring the winner, Hall says you should figure out a way for reporters to talk with those in the contest.

"You know the media probably doesn't want to interview the brand manager," she says. "They want to talk to the contest winners or the judges as to why they made their choices. But even if reporters are only able or willing to talk to them, you can still get your brand messages in there somewhere."

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Technique tips

Do get your planning done early. There are a lot of regulations and details that need to be in place for any contest or sweepstakes before you can pitch the press

Do get some well-known names involved in some capacity. Celebrities go far in establishing credibility and interest with the media

Do pitch locally, especially when you get down to finalists and winners. Most outlets love stories on locals who do well

Don't go it alone. Bring in experts to help you run any contest or sweepstakes

Don't worry about the size of the prize. Million-dollar giveaways don't attract media attention now; it's the off-beat and clever

Don't go to the media too often, unless you're in a promotional partnership. The same outlet will not write about the launch, the finalists, and the winner. Spread these around to various outlets

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