Do Blog Contests Really Build Blog Readership?

Over the past few months, I’ve been working very hard to build my blog readership and the number of subscribers. Along with building relationships with other bloggers, sharing posts I love, asking people to be guest bloggers, and being a guest blogger for others, I’ve also started running blog contests.

I ran my first contest back in December of 2009 and a second one in January. The first contest I gave away a free seat to one of my upcoming PR 2.0 bootcamps. I was pleasantly surprised with the number of participants. I figured since that went well, all my contests would run as smoothly.

Boy, was I wrong. The second contest I gave away a free book, Napoleon Hill’s classic Think and Grow Rich. I promoted it on social media, I emailed people about it, and I talked about it with clients. I was shocked when only four people participated, yet 204 people saw the post.

Unsure what went wrong, I decided to seek out bloggers who’ve run contests and see what had worked for them and what hadn’t. I wanted to find out if certain types of contests fare better than others, if the time of year had something to do with it, and if a successful contest was dependent on something I wasn’t aware of?

The first of many interviews I’ve conducted was with wedding photographer, Chris Leary, owner of Weddings by Chris Leary Photography based in New York City. Chris is currently running his second wedding-photography contest on his blog—giving away up to eight hours of free wedding photography to a lucky couple who wins his blog essay contest.

Here is the interview with Chris Leary:

Describe your first blog contest.

In January 2009, I held an essay contest called “The Power of Giving,” where all entrants were required to submit an essay on their love for each other and to play off the theme of something old, new, borrowed, and blue. Much like my current contest, the winner won eight hours of photography by two separate photographers, limited travel, online proofs, a signed print, and a copy of all the images on a disc. The intention was to give back, to donate my services and my passion for wedding photography, and to have a contest that was a positive experience for all . . . and for me.

What did you learn from this experience?

The first blog contest I ran, I relied on my blog readership, which was very small and wasn’t sufficient in getting the word out. I only made a general announcement on my blog where—according to the stats—I had a readership of about 500 people. Not a single entry came to me in the first two weeks of the four-week contest. No one even emailed me with questions or to ask if this was for real.

I kept wondering why people weren’t taking advantage of such an incredible opportunity—a prize worth about $3,000.

At that point, I realized that a readership of 500 people is way too little to have any impact and I needed to do more to get the word out. When I decided to promote on Craigslist, my blog traffic went up slightly, but nothing that would be considered viral.

Fortunately, one person who saw it advertised on Craigslist also reposted it on an online bridal forum, which really helped. In the end, I received a fair number of entries, about 50, but I thought a contest like this would generate three times that.

How heavily do you think the prize plays a role in contest popularity and participation?

I think the bigger the better for prizes. My winning prize is worth about $3,000—most of it equates to my time, but I do pay my second photographer his normal rate. There is definitely a demand for wedding photography, and people continue to get married despite what is happening to the economy. People may put their lives on hold, but it is only for a very short time; people will eventually move their lives forward. The prize has great value, not only in the quality of the services, but I’m also in demand because I can only do one wedding on any given date.

I also think the winning prize needs to have no strings attached. In my case, I have no expectations from the winning couple.

What components do you believe are essential in running a popular blog contest?

In my case, timing has played an important factor. The recession makes my contest easy to promote because many couples are looking to save money where they can in their wedding budgets. Having a contest that awards photography is an easy way for couples to save money. There is no risk to me; it’s only my time. It does require flexibility for the couple.

I also think a minimum of four weeks for a contest is mandatory—especially with a larger prize. You need time for the word to get out so everyone knows about this fantastic opportunity.

What is the biggest mistake bloggers can make when hosting a contest?

Not promoting. Not updating their blog to let the audience know what’s going on. You need to create a buzz. Make your readers feel as if they are missing out on a fantastic opportunity. I’d also suggest you hire a PR consultant to help strategize and get the word out. The success of a contest is in the sheer number of people who see it, share it, and participate.

You’re currently running a second blog contest. What are you doing differently this time around?

As in the previous year, the prize remains the same, and the contestants are required to write an essay or send in a video essay. Since I strongly value creativity and having fun, I ask the couples to share their own creativity and to just have fun with this contest.

Unlike 2009, this year I have implemented the use of Facebook and Twitter. I’ve also reached out to other bloggers, especially wedding bloggers who write about saving money on wedding expenses.

In light of the disappointment some of the contestants expressed last year, I decided to give everyone who participates, but doesn’t win, a discount on my wedding or portrait services.

Check out Chris Leary’s current blog contest.

What do you think makes a successful blog contest?

  6 comments for “Do Blog Contests Really Build Blog Readership?

  1. February 18, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    Thanks Michelle, I really enjoyed this blog. I run a monthly Stylish Giveaway contest on my website and am always interested in making it more effective to gain readership. Great interview!

  2. February 18, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    A great and very insightful interview with Chris Leary, Michelle!

  3. February 19, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    Lee, what do you do to promote your Stylish Giveaways? I’d love to hear from you.

  4. February 20, 2010 at 7:19 am

    Michelle, I’ve had success promoting my Stylish Giveaway ( through Facebook, Twitter, my newsletter readers, and my blog. I try to have giveaways that also promote other small businesses. It helps them and typically gets the giveaway double exposure since they are promoting it as well.

  5. February 23, 2010 at 6:16 am

    Sometimes the prize doesn’t have to be too big.

    I posted a mini-contest on my IPAlly site and the prize was a free t-shirts.

    Suddenly – all the lurkers in my membership came to life and began bombing in awswers to my contest question like crazy (the question was “what is the world’d most higly valued brand – the surpising awswer – WALMART!).

    The only downside is now I have to give away about 9 t-shirs!

  6. February 24, 2010 at 1:36 pm

    Michelle and Chris, thank you for being so candid about your contest experiences. I have been approached about doing giveaways on my fashion blog before, but wasn’t sure it was the direction I wanted to take my blog in. After reading this article, and seeing how relevant giveaways can be–such as donating thousands in free wedding photography during a recession–and how many new readers they can attract if promoted in the right way, I think I will give it a try!

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