Last week I had to privilege to co-chair the ACI Social Media, Sweepstakes, and Promotions conference in New York City. I chaired the event last year when it was focused more on social media and the business analytic technology behind it all, so it was interesting to see the shift in focus and the increased attendance (easily twice as big this year).
Conference chairs have some very important responsibilities during the conference: we introduce speakers and hold up time cards to keep them on schedule. It’s grueling work. We also are given a 15 minute time slot at the start of the day to make any introductory comments. Last year, since I chaired both days, I spoke one day about my favorite parts of Dell’s social media team and the other day I made it a bit more personal talking about all the ways social media helped me out when my wife ended up getting an emergency appendectomy in New York City about 6 weeks prior to the conference.
This year, since I only chaired one day, I decided to do something a little different. I chaired the first day which had more of a focus on sweepstakes and promotions, so I spoke about how the essence of those contests is something many people and companies have lost: the game. Sure, a sweepstakes is nice if I think I can give something of little value (my email address and name) in exchange for a big prize. But over time I realize that I get more email than I wanted and I never win, so they aren’t fun. Instead, the best promotions are fun games by themselves and even if I win nothing I have a blast participating and tell all my friends about it.
To illustrate the point, I spoke about my favorite book from the last several years, Ready Player One. If you haven’t read it, you should. In the near future, everyone goes to school, works, and plays in a virtual reality system called OASIS. The creator of the system died and left his entire fortune to whoever can complete three challenges in the game. Since this programmer loved 80s pop culture, movies like WarGames and video games like Joust and music like Rush all weave themselves into the game. So this is an entire book about a contest with billions at stake.
When the paperback version of the book came out, Ernie Cline, the author, decided to have his own contest. He devised three challenges and whoever completed them first would win a replica of his car (he has a DeLorean made to look like the car from Back to the Future). The first two stages were some relatively simple retro-style games (think Atari 2600, if you can remember that far back). The third stage was a doozy–set a new world record in a video game. Yikes. But a few days later, the prize was won. Here’s Ernie’s blog post with a note on how the winner did it if you’re interested.
My message to the lawyers and marketers attending the conference was to of course learn all they could those two days to make sure their contests complied with legal restrictions and platform terms, but also to make their games fun. And to inspire them, I held a contest of my own. Before each speaker or panel I would give them a random word or phrase (like “Zombies” or “Swiss Cheese”) and anyone who incorporated the word/phrase into a comment or question could get 1 or 2 points (depending on how creative it was). It was a game anyone could play, from speakers, to observers, and I’m happy to say every round we had at least one participant (and when people did work it into a comment or question there was usually a bit of applause from the crowd).
I also devised some contest Easter Eggs of my own. Sadly, nobody found them. The first was in my speaker bio where I said the first person to tell me “Bacon is awesome!” would earn 3 points. The second was in this blog post. I guess people were just too busy watching all the awesome speakers to go searching.
The prize for winning was, naturally, an autographed copy of Ready Player One which Ernie graciously signed for me prior to my trip. And I even had a consolation prize for the best comment done in the session immediately after lunch (also known as the Food Coma Session at most conferences). I hope both winners enjoy reading the book (they hadn’t read it yet, so I got to spread some more RPO joy) but more importantly I hope the attendees saw that it isn’t hard to make a fun game out of a contest. Something that can be much more memorable than a simple sweepstakes that the vast majority of people will forget except when they get the annoying follow-up emails they signed up for to enter.