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Want Lots of Responses to Your Contest? Think PR!

Alice Lipowicz of Federal Computer Week wrote an interesting article about different government contests going on – some very successful, some not so much: http://fcw.com/articles/2010/10/04/low-participation-ssa-contest-remedies.aspx?sc_lang=en

I expect we’ll be seeing more of this trend, so if you’re planning to try this approach, I’d like to offer some advice on how to ensure your organization’s contests fall in the ‘very successful’ category.

The trend didn’t come out of thin air. Last September, the Obama administration released the ‘Strategy for American Innovation,’ which, as part of its recommendations for integrating more innovation into our efforts to improve sustainable growth and quality jobs, called on agencies to use prizes and challenges as a different way to engage the public and get input and ideas from a broader pool. The obvious advantage of the prize approach is that the government only pays the winner – the competitors invest their own money in research and development.

Some government organizations are incredibly successful with this approach – for example, NASA has solved several unusual challenges through successful public contests, such as the NASA Astronaut Glove Challenge in 2009 – where entrants competed for $400,000 in total prize money for creating a new astronaut glove design that allowed for more movement and increased flexibility. They truly pulled from disparate sources, ensuring the result was something different than what their researchers could have come up with in their lab. (According to a NASA spokesperson, the first prize winner in the astronaut glove competition was an engineer, who built his first glove on his kitchen table; and the second place winner was a Brooklyn costume designer working in the theater industry). Other contests, such as the SSA recent video contest drawing only 10 entries, aren’t doing so well.

So what makes a successful government contest (or for that matter, a contest sponsored by anyone – company or government organization?) The answer is amazingly simple – just as with any effective public relations campaign, you must think strategically, define your goals and objectives, and then define the actions that will help you achieve those goals and objectives.

First up: what are you trying to accomplish with this contest? What is the ultimate goal? Then: who is the target audience – who do you want to respond and submit an entry for this contest? Once you define who your target audience is, you can think through what are the communication tools that would be most effective in reaching this audience, and what kind of prize would entice them to participate? Money isn’t necessarily required, though it can be a great incentive – especially when it’s coupled with significant or prestigious recognition. Most people don’t enter contests just for the money, but a good prize definitely helps people take it more seriously, and helps to pull in a larger pool of entrants.

A crucial step is to think through the communication tools you use to inform people about the contest, and inspire folks to enter. Just issuing a press release or posting the information on your website is not enough – we can help you match the communication tools with your target audience, to ensure you’re reaching – and enticing – people who can contribute innovation, inspiration, and winning entries to your contest! If you’re planning a contest or game-changing open grant program or challenge, call us at 301-924-0330 or email me at [email protected] – and let us help you make sure your contest is a winner!

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