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Twitter Promotions: Winners and Losers

Photography: Josh.Liba

Moonfruit’s tenth anniversary promotion set the standard for Twitter-based marketing. The content management and hosting company promised to give away a Macbook Pro every day for ten days. To enter the competition, twitterers only had to include the hashtag #moonfruit in their tweet; the more they tweeted it, the greater their chances of winning. It was a giveaway that caused a Twitter stampede. At one point, helped by additional prizes for creative entries, tweets with moonfruit hashtags made up almost 3 percent of all the tweets being posted on the site. Overwhelmed by the popularity of the contest, Moonfruit called an early halt to the campaign, giving away the remaining Macbooks in a one-day bonanza. Since then, other companies have tried to copy the model. In particular, recognizing that prizes have to be desirable — and that everyone desires Apple products — the launch of the iPad looked like a golden opportunity, a chance for any company to gain instant exposure by giving away tablets and cashing in on Apple’s hype. Their failures have provided a textbook on what works on Twitter, what doesn’t and how the site is changing for businesses looking to use social media for marketing.

Choose Your Hashtags Carefully

Part of the problem was a poor use of hashtags. Software retailer Nothing But Software invited twitterers to simply include the hashtag #NBS in their tweets in order to stand a chance of winning. That hashtag though could have stood for anything. It was short enough to be added to any tweet, even one on unrelated topics, but not interesting enough to encourage readers to find out what it meant. It looked like a technical tag for people in the know rather than a fun theme that others would want to join. Had the tags reached the trending topics list, the company might have been able to cash in on some useful publicity. But it didn’t, and considering that even #moonfruit had mysteriously disappeared from the trending topics list, it was always unlikely to do so.

Hashtags might look like convenient ways for giveaway software to pull out winners but they’re also the main marketing message that users will be distributing, remembering and seeing. It needs to be a catchword that creates curiosity and looks fun, rather than a group of initials with no obvious meaning.

It wasn’t just careless hashtag choices that caused the iPad giveaways to fail though. They also lacked momentum. Giving away one giant prize every day for ten days meant that people whose tweets weren’t chosen on the first day felt that they were still in with a chance. Seeing someone else win each day showed that people were receiving their prizes — and that if those lucky winners could win, they could too. A lottery that can point to previous and current winners will always find it easier to continue attract players. It’s the near miss as much as the win that keeps gamblers coming back.

While a series of giveaways is always likely to be more expensive than a single offer of a solitary prize, however big, there are ways to keep a giveaway rolling without breaking the bank. Starting with small but valuable prizes such as iPod nanos or free consultations that lead up to the big prize can help to build interest and prove to followers that your timeline is serious about passing out the freebies. iPads aren’t cheap but handing out five over five days would have made for a $2,500 promotion. That’s an amount that shouldn’t take too long to earn back depending on the company .

Deliver What You Promise

Some of Moonfruit’s copycats didn’t learn from experience in the same way that Moonfruit did. The Internet company wasn’t the first to orchestrate a giveaway. It was preceded by Squarespace, a direct competitor, which had promised to give away thirty iPhones in thirty days. Like Moonfruit, they too reached the trending topics list but the handouts didn’t happen. Instead of receiving shiny new phones, winners were given less shiny gift cards — nice, but not the same thing and nowhere near as exciting. There’s a reason that people prefer gifts on their birthday rather than gift cards, even though the cards are more versatile. Specialist blog iPad Insider made an even worse error by promising to give away a 32GB iPad on April 2. By mid-May, there was still no sign of a happy winner. Promising to give away a product but not actually doing so might make for the cheapest way to attract attention but it’s also the quickest way to ensure that the company has no trust after the competition ends.

It’s unlikely though that iPad Insider intended to keep its iPad to itself. It’s more likely that the publishers looked at the number of new followers the promotion was providing, calculated how much they were paying for each and decided that they were too expensive. With little more than 1,600 followers altogether, the site could have been paying as much as 37.5 cents each if all the followers were new. Assuming the site had an advertising clickthrough rate of 3 percent, those new followers would need to click ads that paid $12.50 to make the promotion worthwhile. It probably looked cheaper for the site to sully its reputation among the relatively few people who noticed the promotion than wait for the ad revenue to pay for it.

That might suggest that expensive giveaways on Twitter should be restricted to companies with expensive enough products to recoup the expense. Moonfruit started its campaign with around 750 followers. The numbers rose to 47,000 followers before dropping back to just over 21,000 but its traffic increased by a factor of eight. With prices that range from $4.49 per month to $23.99 per month, it had a much higher chance of recouping the roughly $15,000-$20,000 the company would have spent on the promotion.

It would be tempting to say then that the rules have become clear — make the prizes desirable; make the hashtags interesting; create a series of giveaways rather than one big prize; ensure the cost of the promotion matches the value of returns — but it’s possible that giveaways have had their day on Twitter. When everyone is giving away an iPad, the opportunity doesn’t look special. And when users know that they can create a new timeline without followers and use it for hashtag promotion tweets without bothering anyone, the benefits to companies are minimal. The biggest loser of Twitter-based promotions may be Twitter-based promotions themselves.

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