Keep online contests simple and fun


During this week before Valentine's Day, visitors to, the website of the Winston-Salem Journal in North Carolina, can select the winner of this year's Cutest Couples contest from among photographs submitted by 83 entrants of widely varying demographics.

The winning couple receives a getaway trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. The city of Myrtle Beach and the Journal receive perhaps hundreds of email addresses for future promotions, email blasts and business mailings.

Some of the voters may not be readers of the newspaper or its website, but instead may be voting in support of friends or relatives. Once they've clicked on the CONTEST link in the navigational bar of the paper's website, however, they may also notice other contests they would like to enter – currently including a sweepstakes to win Appalachian State basketball tickets or cash from a tax and accounting service.

For both the business sponsoring the contest and the newspaper itself, the main goal is to build lists of email addresses for their own databases. "Those are gold in terms of being able to add that to a business mailing list after a contest is over," said Desmond Johnson, digital sales manager.

Both Cutest Couples, a national contest promoted among BH Media's 71 papers including Winston-Salem, and a contest involving the local Mario's Pizza chain of restaurants have been recognized for excellence by Second Street, a St. Louis-based provider of online promotions platforms. Cutest Couples, in particular, has shown huge growth since last year, when only about 15 couples entered the contest and about 1,000 people voted.

Here's how that strategy worked. Several years ago when Johnson was dating the woman who would become his wife, the couple took a Valentine's Day trip to Myrtle Beach. In spite of an ice storm, Johnson said they were taken with the lack of children and traffic during what was the offseason for tourists.

The Journal later proposed that Myrtle Beach sponsor the Cutest Couples contest as part of its annual advertising contract. "They jumped on it," Johnson said. Promotion is heavy on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and LinkedIn, along with traditional print and email blasts. This year, voting concludes on Feb. 15 with the winning couple to be announced on Feb. 16.

"The No. 1 way we get entries is through our e-blasts," Johnson said. Print advertising is only one component of the promotion package.

The Mario's Pizza contest was run on the restaurant chain's own Facebook page. "What we learned was that businesses wanted to run Facebook contests. They just didn't have the time, nor did they have the reach," Johnson said. Instead, clients give the Journal access to their Facebook pages and the paper runs the contest for the clients.

"It looks like they put together a contest on their own and then bought banner space and the e-blasts from us," Johnson said.

Contests usually run more than two weeks. Johnson said the key to success is keeping everything simple. It should be easy for website visitors to find a particular contest, register their email addresses and enter for randomly drawn prizes or vote for winners.

"The simpler, the better is what we've learned," Johnson said. "The easier you've made the contest, the more entries are received. The more time you give yourself to promote it, the more entries you'll receive."

Although prizes have included the Myrtle Beach trip and tickets to a Garth Brooks concert, Johnson said the most popular prizes are gas, groceries and cash. Mario's Pizza, for example, gave away six $50 gift cards good at any of its restaurants in the region. A chain of gas stations gave away six $25 gift cards and collected 840 email addresses.

"Everybody loves cash. Everybody loves free gasoline and everybody loves free groceries. And it's something everbody can use."

And it doesn't take a large prize to get results.

For more information, contact Desmond Johnson at

Jane Nicholes

Jane Nicholes, a regular contributor to the eBulletin, is a freelance writer and editor based in coastal Alabama. She is an award-winning veteran of more than 30 years in the newspaper business. Reach her at Suggestions for future stories and comments on this piece are welcomed.

Winston-Salem, Cutest Couples
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