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Some Different Thinking around PSA Contests

PSA contests can produce some really interesting results and they can be innovative and creative in ways that the sponsoring organizations often can’t. Moreover, the user-generated messaging has the potential to resonate with target audiences much more effectively than with campaigns that are broader and more diffuse in their approach. With the recent establishment of Challenge.gov, the federal-wide platform for challenges and contest, there is the potential for this approach to public awareness to become much more mainstream (Note: there are many potential uses for Challenge.gov and PSA campaigns are merely a small subset of innovation that this powerful platform can help foster).
Personally, I have been giving some serious thought to PSA campaigns – what the goals are, how they can be evaluated, what success should look like – and I think that my nascent thinking and approach might be a little different. Here goes:


  1. Rarely will the production value of content created as part of PSA contests be on par with that is, or could be, produced by professionals
  2. The content of PSA contest does not typically have very wide distribution – i.e. winners of many contest are often only available on lightly-trafficked websites and/ or highlighted at conferences
  3. There will very rarely resources available to asses the impact of the user-generated PSAs so the most realistic proxy for PSA impact will be reach

Therefore, the goal of PSA contests should be to maximize participation in terms of the total number of individuals involved in the the development of PSAs. Some of the potential implications of this being:

  • Consider formats that, though possibly less hip, have a much lower barrier to entry. In this model print and/ essay contests may be a greater good than video contests.
  • Avoid contests that only solicit participation from a limited group, even if it is a group that may be well suited to the medium (i.e. film schools for video PSA contests).
  • Don’t just think about the number of entries but think about having a contest with the most number of people appearing/ participating in a given PSA.
  • Consider contests that look to link different groups together in the production of the video – content development, production, post-production – to get a longer chain of individuals involved with different skills and backgrounds.
  • Look for ways to get the greatest number of different demographic groups/ target audiences involved. This will get not only more people involved but will also result in more culturally and linguistically appropriate messaging around a given topic.

What do you think of this approach? Anyone out there with PSA contest experience have other thoughts? What (realistically obtainable) metrics would you look at that could measure the effectiveness/ ROI of PSA contests?

And, as always, these ideas are mine and mine alone.

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Good post. I think one part that could be fleshed out more for challenge.gov and PSAs generally is how important it is to do marketing and outreach for these initiatives. This is also true with ideation and dialogues.

It’s not “Field of Dreams” where you build it and they will come.

I’d use all the current existing channels to promote these contests. Also do outreach internally, outreach to schools/universities, and more. Maybe even flyers in related gov’t buildings.

Do PR to the important places where you think participants are reading and submissions may come from as well.


My sister is a high school teacher who teaches a film class. I think high school and universities could be great resource for these contests.

Last year a number of her kids applied to win a similar contest for Doritos.

Andrew Wilson

@Steve Marketing is a big part of this and that one of the reasons why something like the Doritos contest can be successful. In government, the marketing (which includes the visibility of the contest is housed/ promoted) might be limited to a press release, a web page and a few posts on social media – not nearly comparable to a major advertising push.

Moreover, I think we really need to think critically about what we are trying to accomplish. The analogy between PSA contests in government and those in the private sector (or even on-profits) might not hold up well enough to use them as a model.

Certainly not claiming to have all the answers (or even any answer) but want to get some deeper discussion around this – thanks for chipping in :).


Agreed – agree with you on what trying to accomplish.

Some other ideas:
-Are we trying to build on on-going relationship with citizen volunteers? Thinking like a non-profit, we don’t want people to just volunteer once…we want to build a relationship with them for them to volunteer frequently. This would also change how we think of PSAs and contests – less of success of the one-off but more in context of larger building campaign.

-There’s something I like about engaging public institutions like high schools and universities. Partly because it’s not just about the best video and who has the most time to do them….but also about getting the youth engaged in public institutions.

Kay Morrison

Andrew, I agree with you about the quality of PSAs – while there’s always a chance that you’ll get great production values in response to a video contest, in our experience at EPA it’s actually a pretty remote possibility.

I also agree that we should think about challenges that are not necessarily contests – consider our ongoing “It’s My Environment” project (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4od4tOkz5Y) which invites people to contribute a short clip about what they do to protect the environment. We’ve got nearly 130 responses and have made two video compilations from the contributions with another one in the works.

The It’s My Environment project has generated engagement much more in the way Steve is suggesting, getting schools and community groups (even people in their work places!) participating. We’ve seen lots of different languages and contributions from people outside the United States. And because we’re not concerned with production values it’s pretty easy for folks to participate. It’s a fun project.

And I agree 100% with Steve’s comment that if we build it we can’t assume anyone will come. As with any effort to generate participation, we’ve got to work hard to get the word out and keep interest up for the duration of the challenge.

Thanks for bringing this up for discussion Andrew!

Take a look at the compilations:


Love the “It’s My Environment” example – love idea of challenges that don’t need to be contests always. It’s nuanced but important difference