How and Why to Write Rules For a Contest

Peter Roesler, President - Web Marketing Pros

By Peter Roesler

President, Web Marketing Pros

web-contentAs was mentioned in a previous blog post, promotions are an excellent way to build brand awareness, but too often, the prize is the only thing that a company gives serious thought. A common mistake that marketers make when running a promotion is that they don’t think through the rules. While many think it’s okay to ignore this step, this advice isn’t just an issue of our overly litigious society (though that is a part of it). Clearly defining how a contest will run is beneficial to the employees who will be answering questions from the public, it helps avoid logistical problems with running the promotion, and there are benefits for people who wish to enter the contest. While the prize is often what matters the most to the contestant, taking the time to think through the rules of a contest is important for a problem-free promotion that builds a brand.

Writing the rules for a promotion isn’t just putting some legalese onto a document and calling it the rules. When done properly, the contest rules will provide beneficial information to the contestants, ensure compliance with applicable laws and regulations, and help the contest run more smoothly. In fact much of the legalese that may be required is simple in nature and there are many templates where people can put the information about their contest into a rules format. The true issue is much less about what words to use as it is about what questions to ask.

The first thing to consider are a few of the basics. There are a lot of issues that many may not think about immediately that eventually become questions that customers ask. For example, “How many times can a person enter?”; “Must the contestant live in a specific area?”; and “Can minors enter?” are three common questions that marketers don’t commonly think about. By putting themselves in the position of the target audience, marketers can answer most questions before they are ever posed by a member of the public. The answers to the these questions should be included in a rules template.

How winners will be selected needs to be given extensive thought and this information should be explicitly stated in the rules. Generally speaking, it’s best to have random selections choose the winners, because this can be accomplished by an app and it’s next to impossible for someone to say that they were supposed to have won a random drawing. If the contest doesn’t involve a drawing, make sure that whatever selection process is used to choose winners is transparent. For example, a photo contest is about selecting the best photo, by choosing the photo that receives the most votes, everyone can see the objective measure by which the winner was selected. Even if the organization itself will choose a winner, the judging criteria should be clear.

Besides helping the contest run smoothly, focusing on the finer details of a promotion is also important for the image of the brand. Even if customers never look at the written rules, they expect the organization running a contest to have answers to reasonable questions. Not being able to handle the logistical issues of running a contest doesn’t inspire confidence in people. Since a promotional campaign may be a person’s first real exposure to a brand (especially if it’s a small business), it would be counterproductive if the promotion makes the business look inept. Similarly, if a person feels they were cheated out a prize they should have one, it’s unlikely they will be calling that company any time soon or recommending it to friends.

Clearly defining the rules of a promotion also helps to identify problem areas before they arise. For example, each state in the U.S. has it’s own rules regarding contests and sweepstakes. In Florida, companies offering more than $5,000 in sweepstakes prizes must be registered and bonded by the state. In the process of drafting the contest rules, this sort of information would eventually come to light. Even if not immediately, it would still be faster than learning by getting a citation from the state for non-compliance. The same thing is true for various social media platforms. A lot of business owners want to have a contest where all of their Facebook fans are automatically entered into the contest or where people who click on a post are entered, but that would be a violation of the Facebook promotion guidelines (Facebook recently revised its promotion guidelines; More on that in another post). Companies risk losing all of their Facebook fans by having their account terminated if they don’t take the time to clearly think out how the contest will be run. In 2011, Facebook took down the pages for Cadbury, the clothing retailer FCUK, and Pizza Hut in India for violating the contest rules.

As was mentioned in the opening, there are legal reasons why marketers should have their rules clearly defined and spelled out. When the prize is something small, like a free meal or small electronics, people don’t make a big deal about not winning. But when they missed out on a chance for a free car, home makeover, large amounts of cash, etc., people are inclined to look more closely at the rules. For those who think this is just hyperbole, a recent example should suffice. Back in July, a fisherman in Arkansas sued the International Game Fish Association because they denied him a $1 million prize for a fish he caught. It is highly likely that a jury’s decision on the matter will be based on what the written rules were.

Promotions are a great way to increase brand awareness among a target audience, but marketers have to remember that the tactic can backfire if done improperly. Taking the time to think through the rules of a contest can help organizations in various ways. By writing rules, contest planners may find potential problems early on. A written account of all of the ins and outs of the promotion keeps all members of the staff  prepared to answer any questions. Clearly defined rules protect the company from liability issues. And most importantly, it ensures that people who are first exposed to the brand through the promotion get a positive impression of the organization.


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