Sweepstakes and Strategic Bankruptcy

February 12, 2009 at 1:46 am Leave a comment

I have long had a bottomless reservoir of scorn for the sweepstakes–especially the cash-prize sweepstakes. To me it is the ultimate admission that a brand is strategically bankrupt. The ads scream, “You Could Win $1,000,000 in the Brand X Cash-O-Rama Giveaway.” What they actually mean is, “we have absolutely nothing interesting or compelling to say about our product; any chance I could bribe you to spend a few minutes pretending you’re interested in it while you fill out this entry form?”

   This type of consumer interaction with a brand is all but worthless. That’s especially true with the sweepstakes that have infected online marketing like some ghastly communicable disease.

   Here’s the problem. There are sites—more than a few of them—that do nothing but alert the droves of people who live in hopes of getting something for nothing to the existence of every sweepstakes, both online and off. The reason these sites exist is to put all the consumers you really don’t care about one click away from winning your valuable prizes.

  Got a product that targets14-year-old boys? No problem. Put a sweepstakes online and you’ll be inundated with entries from more 58-year-old women than you can fit into the Rose Bowl.

   This is not merely conjecture. The beauty (and sometimes horror) of the internet is that you can measure virtually anything, including exactly where every visitor to your site came from.

   Here’s another symptom of this communicable disease: Put up a sweepstakes and the length of the average user session on your site will plummet. Why? Because the people who are being driven there by the something-for-nothing sites go directly to the sweepstakes, complete their entry form as quickly as possible, then leave. They have no interest in what the brand has to say. They aren’t there for the experience or to get anything out of their visit other than a remote shot a winning something.

   They are prize prostitutes. They have no loyalty or love for your brand. They’re sucking up your bandwidth and your marketing dollars. But here’s the biggest problem: Far too many marketers don’t mind at all.

   This is because having a sweepstakes will almost always create increased traffic to a brand’s website. Don’t be seduced by the numbers. They’re empty. That’s a hard lesson for the average brand manager to absorb. “Our sweepstakes site got two million visitors,” is a great headline for the presentation you make to the CMO.

   “There’s not a chance in hell any of them will buy our product,” is a somewhat tougher sell, and unfortunately, often far closer to the truth.

   Showing an increase in traffic isn’t going to be good enough for very long. Smart marketers are going to figure out that it’s sleight-of-hand. The letters R-O-I are going to be ringing in the ears of everyone in this industry, and frankly, they should be. We have the tools and data to measure ROI with a pretty high degree of precision. Multiple linear regression and other complex statistical analyses can separate the pretenders from the performers with relative ease. And you can rest assured that if they can, they will.

   Ours is an imperfect world. I cannot eradicate sweepstakes from the face of the earth with a wave of my arm and a strongly worded edict delivered spray-painted onto the sidewalks of Madison Avenue. Believe me. I’ve tried.

   The truth is that some marketers are going to go out and do a sweepstakes anyway. If you must—and please think long and hard before you say you must—there are a few things you can do to infuse a bit of strategy into your efforts and increase slightly the chances that you will get something like meaningful results.

   First, do not offer cash prizes under any circumstances. Offer experiential prizes that are intertwined with your brand’s personality and marketing strategy. The something-for-nothing crowd will still enter (and if they win they will probably hector you to receive a cash equivalent instead of the experience), but maybe you’ll ward off a few of them if they know they’re going to win a job as a roadie on a concert tour instead of a wheelbarrow full of benjamins.

   Second, link entry to purchase. Of course, you cannot require consumers to make a purchase to enter your sweepstakes or it becomes a lottery. However, you can greatly increase the likelihood they will make a purchase to enter by incorporating entry codes on product packaging or the like. Inflict the dreaded and feared entry on the 3” x 5” index card on those who don’t make a purchase, and you’ll weed out some of the riffraff.

   Third, do everything you can to get the guys who calculate ROI for your organization fired. If you don’t, there’s a high degree of probability that your head will wind up mounted above their fireplace.

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February 2009

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