I Ran a Viral Contest. The Results? Not So Viral

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You’ve probably heard the success stories of people rapidly growing their email list by running contests.

Taylor Pearson got 700 new subscribers giving away his favorite books.

Simon added 1134 subscribers in 14 days.

Bryan Harris got 2,239 subscribers in 10 days.

And this guy added 200,000 subscribers in 11 days.

Pretty crazy, right? If I even had a tiny fraction of that success, that would be awesome!

So of course I had to give it a shot.

How it Works

The basic idea is to hold a drawing for something your target audience would find valuable.

Books, software licenses, and gadgets are all popular choices, but I’d caution against giving away something with TOO broad an appeal — you may end up attracting people who have zero interest in your business.

And I’ve been there as a contest entrant. Free dream vacation? Free iPad? Free ski trip? Sure, I’ll throw my name in the bucket for that stuff. Who was giving it away? No idea.

But where these contests take off and “go viral” is by encouraging participants to share with their networks to earn more entries. For instance, your email might earn you one entry, but for each friend who signs up through your link, you could earn an additional 4 entries.

(Otherwise there would be a dis-incentive to share — why go out of my way to reduce my odds of winning?)

My Contest

So when 99designs approached me a couple months ago, I thought a contest would be a cool experiment to run. They agreed to give away a free book cover design contest to Side Hustle Nation, and I thought that was a pretty sweet prize.

99designs book cover

It’s got a $299 sticker price and has a pretty broad appeal. I mean if 81% of America says they want to write a book someday, that’s a lot of people who’d find value in a free cover design, right?

Plus, we talk about self-publishing quite a bit on the site so it was a fit there as well. It stood to reason that current and aspiring authors might be interested in other side hustle-related content as well.

It was on me to figure out how to run the contest and determine the winner. I was originally just going to ask people to leave a comment on this podcast episode, but realized that it would be much smarter to require an email opt-in to enter. And hopefully build some virality into the contest as well.

Giving something away to your listeners and subscribers is nice, but what I really wanted to do was use this opportunity to get exposure to NEW people.

Contest Software

There’s a whole host of software solutions to help you do this, including KingSumo Giveaways, Contest Domination, and Heyo.

I ended up using a free plugin I found called Contest Hopper. It had all the functionality I needed — and the price was right.

book cover contest recap

To encourage sharing, I set it up so that everyone who joined through your referral link earned you an extra 4 entries.

My Contest Results

As you can see from the image above, the contest generated nearly 200 entries. Not bad, right?

But of those entries, only 31 were new to my email list. Ouch!

And of those, only 23 are still subscribed today.

So while my NoiseTrade experiment was a big win, this one not so much. Gotta show the good with the bad, right?

Marketing the Contest

In hindsight, this is where I did a poor job.

I plugged the contest on the podcast and in my email newsletter, but didn’t give it its own “solo message.”

I didn’t do much manual outreach, share in relevant Facebook groups, or submit to giveaway sites like my buddy Dave from Ninja outreach suggested in this post. (His contest also had lackluster results, though he did better than me!)

I also could have incentivized the sharing element more heavily. Four extra entries? Meh. 10 extra? 20 extra? 50 extra? Now we’re talking!

Or maybe the prize just wasn’t as compelling as I thought. It’s kind of intangible and unless you have an immediate need, cover design may not be a top priority.

Your Turn

Have you ever run a viral contest to grow your email list?

What did you give away? What kind of results did you see?

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Nick Loper

About the Author

Nick Loper is a side hustle expert who loves helping people earn more money and start businesses they care about. He hosts the award-winning Side Hustle Show, where he's interviewed over 500 successful entrepreneurs, and is the bestselling author of Buy Buttons, The Side Hustle, and $1,000 100 Ways.

His work has been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur, Forbes, TIME, Newsweek, Business Insider, MSN, Yahoo Finance, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Hubspot, Ahrefs, Shopify, Investopedia, VICE, Vox, Mashable, ChooseFI, The Penny Hoarder, GoBankingRates, and more.

9 thoughts on “I Ran a Viral Contest. The Results? Not So Viral”

  1. Interesting results. I’ve never ran a viral contest but I keep hearing great results from a few other bloggers. Maybe the prize that is given away has a lot to do with it?

  2. First thank you for sharing your results and challenges. There’s a lot of self promo noise and its really helpful to see what happened on the other end of the run. It looks like In the previous experiment you reached out to a new channel and paid for advertising, and in this test you relied on your existing network. (I’ll be honest, I’m on your list and didn’t remember seeing the contest, I had to look back for it twice – admitting to be a skimmer, don’t hate me!) I think that is a very cool prize as I do see so many people in fb groups wanting to publish and have at least one person in my accountability group who wants to soon. I’m not sure the share to earn a free entry strategy is good for growth, even though I get more entries it’s a pretty personal way for me to sell to my network. Anecdotally I don’t often share my purchased groupons to try to get a free deal. When I think of a viral contest, I immediately think of Barkbox, who asks their followers to post on Instagram using contest hashtags. Your entry to the contest is the network share. I know that’s a much different business model but I wonder if it would be applicable for your next test. Good luck and thanks again for pulling back the curtain!

  3. As usual, great post Nick! I’m just getting ready to run my first contest using Contest Domination’s app and it’s taking me a lot longer to get it ready to go than I’d anticipated. I’m going to be running it to my summit list with solo email sequence and on social organically but not paid – just to get it under my belt and test. It definitely doesn’t seem to be as simple as many marketers would have us believe.

  4. Thanks for this post! Marketing strategies sometimes feel like a lottery. I tried many things which didn’t work – like Google Adwords or Facebook Ads. They may work for others. They didn’t work for me. I think what you missed with this viral contest is that you marketed it to your audience. Your podcast is so good that whoever listens to it most probably is on your list already. I went through something like this when I enrolled my second book on NoiseTrade https://books.noisetrade.com/ancaiovita/the-aging-gap-between-species and I decided to market it on social media only, especially in dedicated communities. I didn’t create a blog post or newsletter for this because that is a different marketing channel and my subscribers receive special sales announcements already.

  5. I just ran my first contest – although I thought it would go viral, I still got some pretty good results! (We just published our case study – blog.socialfusion.com/viral-contest-generate-leads )

    Question for you, is it normal for your subscriber list to drop like that? Makes you wonder if a contest is even worth it (creating a positive ROI). Thanks for sharing the Ninja Outreach post! Lots of insight on how I can improve for my next contest.


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