How much social media can $200 buy?14 tips for Twitter contests that build followers and brand visibility

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Twitscoop on Threadless

Today, we're launching Social Signal's first Twitter contest, inspired by another great contest that ran today on Twitter.

Twitscoop is a service that tracks the hottest topics on Twitter. This morning, one topic jumped out as the super-hot discussion of the morning: 200k.  It turns out that hipster T-shirt company threadless had made the following offer:

@threadless In celebration of passing 200k followers, we're giving away $200 in GC today! RT this to be eligible to win 1 of 8 $25 GCs

Let me translate:

@threadless [the Threadless company's Twitter account] now has 200,000 "followers" on Twitter (people who get their Twitter updates). To celebrate, they are offering $200 in gift cards. To enter a contest to win one of eight $25 gift cards, you must "retweet" the offer. That means you copy & paste the threadless message into your Twitter update field, and click "update" (or more likely, hit the "retweet" button in a Twitter client like TweetDeck).

When I first pulled up the collection of ensuing tweets, it had been an hour since threadless posted this offer; in that hour, about 950 people had retweeted the message. In the time it's taken me to write this blog post and eat breakfast (roughly two hours) another 500 people have twittered it. When did YOU last get 1500 of your customers all shilling for you on a single morning, at a cost of $200?

Threadless has some particular strengths that positioned it to do this kind of marketing. But those strengths are within your reach, and so are the benefits of this kind of promotion. Here's how you can learn from Threadless' example.

  1. Participatory brand/site + Twitter contest = Tweet-o-rama. Part of the reason that threadless was able to get this kind of uptake -- and get 200,000 followers in the first place -- is that it is an intrinsically participatory brand. Threadless is a t-shirt company that invites user-submitted designs, and then sells the most popular designs online. It invites high-intensity, expressive participation with tangible rewards (submitting t-shirt designs in return for exposure and the prospect of winning $2,500) and low-intensity, still expressive participation (scoring and optionally commenting on designs). That participatory edge makes it a darling of the Twitterati, and gives it real credibility when it invites customers to engage in another form of participation (like retweeting).
  2. Chicken/egg? Big contests << >> more followers. Part of the reason this got so big, so fast is that threadless is building on a base of 200,000 Twitter followers. That's a lot of people receiving their offer. It's a great example of why it pays to build your Twitter audience: many follower >> big impact from online promotions >> more followers.
  3. For Twitter juice, frequent $100 prizes beats one $500 prize. Unlike a blog post, a tweet is evanescent. If I happen to be on Twitter when you post your update, I'll see it; otherwise it's unlikely I'll hear about your contest. Threadless is able to get around that because its high volume of followers translates into a high enough surge of tweets that it shows up in Twitscoop; but the best way to build up to that base of followers is by offering contests, discounts or limited-time-only stock on a regular (even daily) basis. That said, $25 is a bit low --  you'll probably get more action in the $50-100 zone.
  4. Great contest + short deadline = Twitscoop love. The threadless contest unfolded over just a few hours. That encourages a high density of participation in a short time, which is what pushed it to the top of Twitscoop, making the threadless account visible to far more people.
  5. Unique phrase + retweeting contest = Twitscoop visibility. Make sure there's a unique phrase you're asking people to retweet, so that it can emerge as a Twitscoop trend.
  6. Intriguing context + retweeting contest = mentions = visibility. The key metric you're after is Twitter "mentions": people posting updates on their account that reference your account name. Ideally, it will be in an intriguing context that makes their followers curious about who this @account belongs to, and they'll click through to find you.
  7. Twitter contest + boring Twitter account = wasted effort. For a contest or promotion to pay off, you want to capture new followers. If someone sees a contest-related tweet and clicks through to your Twitter feed, you need to grab their attention. A list of your latest blog post URLs won't do it. So make sure you have some funny, intriguing or informative tweets, and possibly other recent offers that make you worth following.
  8. Twitter contest + 1-click participation = big results. It takes literally a single mouseclick (on the "RT" button) to participate in this offer and forward threadless' mention. With such a low participation threshold, it's easy to get big numbers.
  9. Twitter contest + your product as prize = great showcase. The threadless prize is threadless product; not only does it save them a hard cost on prizing, but it showcases their product as a desirable incentive.
  10. Short tweet + retweeting contest = room to spread retweets. Make sure your offer or promotion doesn't take all 140 characters of your Twitter update. When people retweet, the "RT @accountname" will be counted against their 140-character count, and your offer will get cut off.
  11. Retweetable offer + reason to retweet = viral. Each person who tweets the threadless offer "spread" it to their friends, who were likewise motivated to retweet it. This has exponential growth potential, particularly given the low barrier to participation.
  12. And three guidelines that threadless didn't follow:

  13. Retweeting contest + actual content in tweet = retweets with value. If you're asking people to retweet something, give those retweets some value. Twitter is going to suck big if it gets cluttered up with a thousand people retweeting contest offers every hour. (If your Twitter feed is full of RTs of this morning's threadless offer, you know what I'm talking about!) So think of a way for those retweets to offer something more: a smile, an insight, a user-contributed tidbit.
  14. Contest + request for follows = more followers. Until you get to at least your first 10,000 followers, you need people to follow you as much as (or more than) you need to Twitter you. So don't just ask for retweets, ask for follows.
  15. Sucky Twitter feed + relaunch + contest = redemption. If your site, brand or Twitter feed fall short on any of the criteria above, successful contests are still within your grasp. Use a contest to turn lemons into proverbial lemonade: announce a (re)launch of your Twitter presence with a great contest that speaks to your new, compelling Twitter strategy.

That's what we're doing today.

In February, we created a new feature on Social Signal as part of our site relaunch. Dear SoSi offers answers to the questions you're asking about social media:

As of today, we're renaming our Twitter feed from Social Signal to Dear SoSi. Follow it to get the practical, strategic and funny tips we offer in our Dear SoSi Q&As, condensed to a magical 140 characters. You'll also hear about the most useful social media advice we've found online, the latest DearSoSi resources, and of course, you'll be the first to know about our great Twitter promotions.

So here's our very first Twitter contest:

Retweet one of these tips on Twitter promotions, and you'll be entered to win a Flip MinoHD Camcorder, pre-loaded with Rob's Teh Funny keynote at Northern Voice -- in which Rob became the first standup to heckle himself on Twitter. Follow DearSoSi on Twitter to get these tips in 140-character, retweetable form.



Tzaddi says

April 3, 2009 - 10:41pm

These are great ideas. It certainly got me to retweet! I wish you much success with the contest.

Later in the day I saw a mention of this article in my twitter stream: Social networking isn't for spamming.

I'm curious what your thoughts are on this?

I've been thinking I should look into twitter clients that let me filter my feed. Not for "spamming" but for livetweets of events I'm not interested in. When there's a few folks live tweeting something you're not into it can get pretty annoying.

Rachel W. says

April 6, 2009 - 6:26am

While these are great and helpful ideas, I'm frequently astounded at how little people do to protect themselves and their brands when running contests.  I'm not talking about individuals who may not have a clue, but corporations who leave themselves open to potentially nasty lawsuits by failing to include any kind of language or disclaimers protecting themselves when they run contests- tweeted or otherwise.



Phil Bradley says

April 7, 2009 - 2:06am

Sorry - anyone who asks someone else to RT stuff for them in order to increase their popularity or presence on Twitter is spamming, and encouraging others to do exactly the same thing. Any of the people that I follow who do that - Im not going to be following them for much longer.

Rob Cottingham says

April 9, 2009 - 4:04pm

We thought about this pretty hard, Phil, because we don't like seeing spam any more than you do. That's why we think it's critical that any retweet campaign include something of genuine value - not just to the retweeter (e.g. a chance to win a prize), but to their followers as well. In our case, with a Twitter following of people interested in social media and online participation, that value was the practical tips we included.

But that doesn't mean anyone's obligated to listen, and you're right to drop people from your feed if they aren't interesting to you. One of the most important skills for anyone hoping to get value out of Twitter is the ability to shape their attention stream to their needs. That can include keyword searches, the use of the right features and tools (yay, Tweetdeck!)... and, when need be, unfollowing.

Masey says

July 13, 2009 - 11:18am

You have presented a great article above coveringhow to effectively run a successful Twitter contest, but like most other similar articles that I've found on the web right now, you don't look into how to effectively handle the back-end of such a contest. That is, how do you track and capture the entrant information with minimal effort.

I'm wishing to run a MAJOR Twitter contest for a large, well-known client in the next couple of months. We anticipate entry numbers to be well into the tens of thousands. With these sorts of numbers ovbiously we want to be able to capture the entrant Twitter user names with very little manual effort required.

Does anyone know of any service that can handle this kind of data monitoring, or is there some kind of way this can be handled through the use of the Twitter API?

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Jake Gevorgian says

November 17, 2009 - 1:47am

I'm a business owner; I like this idea of building a subscribers; however I may not use this option with Twitter or with any other Social networks.

I understand that everyone has got to make $$$ for living...but there are certain things in life that you just can't ignore---that is, let Social networks stay as-is.

We, especially people in America, are so good at socializing; I'm quite sure that if you're in USA and if you've got a business idea (that's real,) then go a head and promote your idea; please do it gently as many of us lack of oxygen these days :) and thus our brains don't get enough oxygen and we get SO PISSED OFF AT SPAM!

Sorry for getting pretty graphic at the end :)


Much love,

Jake @ Palo Arte

Dennis Jenders says

February 15, 2010 - 9:25pm

Good article. I just published some simple guidelines recently as well.

Greg Melton says

March 2, 2010 - 9:33am

This is an excellent post! Sorry I'm a little late on commenting on it. Going to add this link to my Guerrilla Contest Promotion Tactics post.

I wanted to share a contest platform I recently launched called,

It allows you to create contests which use OAuth from twitter, facebook, yahoo, google friend connect, linkedin, myspace, digg, friendfeed, and youtube.

You define the prize and bonus prize (for people who help promote your contest via status update or comment on your youtube video) and we handle all the entry collection, status updates, email confirmations, and provide a simple widget for collecting entries from your site.

Would love to hear feedback. Good luck with future contests!



mdy says

May 31, 2010 - 12:11am

Also worth a look: Twitter's Guidelines for Contests


Mark says

September 16, 2010 - 1:23am

Hi guys!

Very informative article! But sorry for this question. May I know how did @threadless picked out the winner? Did they raffle off the GC's to the Retweeters?

Sorry I'm new to this. Hope to get some guidance. Thanks!


David says

October 28, 2010 - 2:08pm

Very interesting. One question though. If I run a competition and all retweeters are entered how can I see a list of everyone that has retweeted my tweet so I can pick a winner?

Brian says

November 19, 2010 - 11:35am

Yes, I'd like to know the answer to David's ^ question posted just above this.

Patrick says

February 24, 2011 - 12:39pm

How do you effectively monitor the retweets and added followers?

Waxlander says

March 17, 2011 - 4:10pm

Great advise... how do you qualify a winner?  I want to give away a painting in efforts

to drive more followers and fans on our Twitter and Facebook.  How do I pick the winner

properly?  Thank you!

Rob Cottingham says

June 1, 2011 - 11:24am

There are many ways, depending on how many retweets people post. One simple technique is to capture all of the retweets into a spreadsheet, perform any data filtering you need to do (for instance, removing multiple retweets from one account, if you have a one-entry-per-person rule) and then use a random number generator to choose a row number. That row would contain the winning tweet.

In Excel, that formula would look something like this:

=RAND() * (b−a) + a

where "a" is the row number of the first tweet, and "b" is the row number of that last tweet. So if you had 568 contest entries, starting on row 3 of your spreadsheet, the formula would read:

=RAND() * 565 + 3.


Jason says

May 3, 2011 - 3:45pm

I am looking to start a twitter contest shortly and was having a hard time figuring the best way to get started. This post helped a lot. Thanks!



Yuriy says

June 1, 2011 - 4:27am

For example if I need to promote local store by gifting it's discount cards to everybody who makes 3 retweets or 10 likes of given page, how do I define that person who come to the store for the card really that person who makes the retweets?

Rob Cottingham says

June 1, 2011 - 11:14am

Good question! One approach is to ask them to follow you on Twitter, and then send them a direct message with a prize claim code.

Other ideas, folks?

Yuriy says

June 7, 2011 - 1:33am

Good idea!

And if I need to make contest boith, with Retwits and FB likes, how about likes?

Anonymous says

August 15, 2012 - 3:43pm
Just one question - does twitter charge to promoted company on a per-click basis, or how do they collect their end? Thanks!

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