I recently read this article published in The Awl about ”Viral Culture … Before the Internet”, where author Kliph Nesteroff discusses the evolution of popularly transmitted cultural artifacts before the internet age – what we now commonly refer to as “memes”. It got me thinking about other “analog-era” lessons we can learn from, particularly with regards to running contests.
It’s no secret that the Internet is now ruled by engagement, not blatant advertising, and that’s why developments like gamification, virtual rewards and contests that leverage user-generated content are such a huge hit amongst consumers. But everyone knows that an online contest has the opportunity to go viral (win!), or it could completely flop (#fail). Whether or not users want to participate in a contest can be based in age-old theories of extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. So, who’s the best person to teach us about the effectiveness of contesting in engaging a consumer? Allow us to introduce you to Mrs. Evelyn Ryan, a woman more commonly known as The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio.
Lessons from a 50s Housewife
Evelyn Ryan entered American hero status after her daughter, Terry “Tuff” Ryan, wrote the biography The Prizewinner of Defiance, Ohio: How my mother raised 10 kids on 25 words or less. The story goes that Ryan managed to narrowly save her family from poverty by entering over 800 jingle-writing contests (you could say, the 50s version of the user-generated contest).
It may seem like an extraordinary tale, but, threats of poverty aside, there are certainly lessons within this story that point to the power of contests in motivating consumers to engage with a brand.
Extrinsic motivation – providing the incentive to enter an online contest
The extrinsic value of a contest, for example, the grand prize, is the initial motivation inspiring consumers to participate. Simply put, you provide a prize that the consumer of your brand wants, maybe even needs, and they’ll enter. Cash incentives, a washer and dryer, a freezer, a shopping spree at the local grocery store – these were all vital prizes for a mother of 10 and a housewife in the 50s. Why Evelyn Ryan would work so hard to enter these contests is, in my opinion, a total no-brainer.
But what about the cases where the prizes were non-essential? In Ryan’s case, these items included things like the Bulova watch she won from the Bob Hope radio show or the fishing rod and reel she won from the Bazooka bubble gum contest. What’s the motivation to invest her time and energy in contests where these are the prizes? Or the motivation behind continuing to enter contests even in the cases where she didn’t win at all? Here we look to powerful intrinsic motivations that inspired Ryan to continue to engage with these types of contests.
Intrinsic motivation – seeking personal fulfillment
Intrinsic motivation ultimately points to performing actions because they achieve some kind of internal fulfillment. As Dan Pink elegantly stated in his TED Talk, intrinsic motivators are based in “the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they are a part of something important”.
In an interview with Terry Ryan posted to www.theprizewinner.com, she mentions that, “With ten kids, the contest format suited [Evelyn’s] need perfectly – she could write a quick 25-words-or-less entry, put a stamp on the envelope, and feel intellectually satisfied, not to mention make a few dollars in the process.”
This quote shows how Terry Ryan clearly values her mother’s intellectual satisfaction ahead of the prizes she won. For a 50s housewife relegated to a life of cooking, cleaning and caring for her children, the jingle-writing contests afforded Evelyn the opportunity to elevate her status as more than just a housewife, but equally as a talented writer and a significant contributor to the household.
A modern day example of contest psychology
State Farm hosted Friday Night Feats, a three-month video contest that honored big moments in high school football. A huge incentive of $160,000 in prize money for 52 high schools provided prime extrinsic motivation for users to upload videos.
Yet, the opportunity to show off the skills of their school football teams triggered powerful intrinsic motivation amongst entrants. The appeal of the contest resided in the fact that aside from monetary gain, entrants were also afforded the opportunity to gain bragging rights, express pride and show off their school patriotism throughout the duration of the contest experience.
This contest strategy resulted in an incredible amount of engagement, with a total of 94,660 users who signed up to view and vote on the sites’ content over a 3-month period and with total video views reaching an overwhelming 1,876,398 times.
Designing a successful contest experience – blending extrinsic and intrinsic motivators
A successful contest plays on both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, offering entrants the opportunity to gain tangible products or financial rewards, while satisfying an inherent need to showcase their skills, talents and competencies. So often, brands focus on securing that big jaw-dropping prize, forgetting that a critical part of contest success is to create a meaningful contest experience on the whole. As Evelyn Ryan’s example so deftly proves, a brand’s ability to persuade a consumer’s extrinsic and intrinsic motivations leads to an ongoingly engaged entrant and brand loyalist. And that is how the story of a 50s housewife helped me learn how to host the best and most memorable darn contests in the internet age.