September 29, 2009, 12:00 AM

The Now Thing

Nothing’s hotter than a promotional contest on Twitter. But you have to know the rules to win at this game.

2009 has been a pivotal year for online retailers’ marketing strategies, with the proliferation and immense popularity of social networks and social media tools. By complementing traditional marketing strategies with these new methods, brands and retailers can reach new and existing customers in a way that is innovative, viral and interactive.

Twitter, the darling of this year’s social media craze, is a playground for marketers that allows companies to reach thousands of customers almost instantly and with very little cost or effort. Some companies are finding Twitter to be the ideal place to experiment with new kinds of promotions. Through this experimentation, companies are gaining valuable insights into what kind of promotions work on Twitter, and particularly getting good results with promotional contests.

No one can say if Twitter will still be popular five or 10 years from now. But right now the relatively small investment required and the payback potential mean that the benefits easily outweigh the costs. And marketers know consumers want to interact with their favorite brands-and not just be targeted with canned, generic buzz words. The most effective tools for interacting with shoppers continually change, but right now the must-know tool is Twitter.

But, before we proceed, a word of caution: Be careful how your brand uses Twitter. The two most important words to remember in social media marketing are “transparency” and “relevance.” If your brand is participating in sponsored tweets, be upfront about it. If you plan to run a contest, develop one that will be interesting and exciting to your existing and potential customers. Otherwise, they may label your attempt as spam-and no one likes a spammer.

A Twitter contest typology

Currently, there are four widely used incarnations of the basic Twitter promotion.

The Sign-up Form, the most rudimentary and traditional Twitter marketing tactic, encourages people to sign up for a prize drawing. It’s a quick, easy way to build your contact list for newsletters and company mailings. Because many people attempt to avoid spam and are hesitant to enter e-mail addresses and even Twitter user names, be clear about why you’re collecting contact information and how you plan to use it.

The Follower Gathering contest is the Twitter equivalent to the “when we reach X goal, you win Y” promotion. With this contest, participants are eligible to win when the target Twitter account reaches a certain number of followers. An example of a Follower Gathering contest is Whole Foods’ one millionth follower contest, in which the natural foods grocer awarded a gift card and a million grains of quinoa, a grain touted for its nutritional value, to its one-millionth follower.

Followers are encouraged to tell their friends to follow the target account. More complex contests involve multiple goal tiers with increasingly valuable prizes.

Retweets, one of the best forms of viral marketing on Twitter, are fast, simple and expand the reach of your message substantially by getting it in front of your followers’ followers. The goal of this contest is to cultivate word of mouth by getting your followers to promote a tweet on your behalf. Every person who retweets a promotional tweet is entered to win a prize.

Valuable and transparent

The promotional tweet should be as interesting, valuable and transparent as possible. People don’t want to spam their followers any more than you do. A recent Orbitz promotion asked contestants to retweet the company’s contest message for a chance to win a round-trip airfare voucher valid for travel in the United States. The contest was extremely popular and helped increase the company’s followers by more than 10,000.

Hashtags are another way you can encourage Twitter users to promote your contest, by asking them to tweet interesting posts about your topic that include your hashtag in the tweet. On Twitter, a hashtag is a hyperlinked keyword. Any word that starts with a pound sign (#) is a hashtag, which becomes a clickable link to all other mentions of that word. For example, a tweet that says, “Welcome to #twitter!” makes twitter a clickable link that brings up other tweets about that term.

In many cases, hashtags are instant advertising; if the hashtag shows up in someone’s Twitter stream, any person can click on it and see all dialogue associated with that topic.

Moonfruit, a company that provides web site design tools and training, recently experienced huge success with its hashtag contest. To celebrate its tenth anniversary, Moonfruit held a Twitter contest to give away one MacBook every day for 10 days to random users who added the hashtag “#moonfruit” to their tweets.

For a full week, “#moonfruit” was one of the most popular topics on Twitter, at one point accounting for 2.5% of Twitter’s traffic. The company reportedly signed nearly 2,000 new customers in 24 hours. The potential risk with this contest is that you can’t control what people say as they use your hashtag-some posts may be unrelated to the contest or company, or even negative.

What should marketers be doing?

The key to a successful Twitter presence, including contests and beyond, is to be creative and genuine. One benefit of Twitter and other social networks is that marketers can test out ideas openly with their customers before investing a lot in ad campaigns. Here are a few things to remember about Twitter:

-It’s interactive. Don’t just tweet at your followers. Engage with them.

-It’s fast. Things change on Twitter almost daily. This means you’ll have to act quickly on your ideas to capitalize on how Twitter works right now.

-It’s transient. Don’t expect all of your followers to see a single tweet. You’ll have to tweet multiple times throughout the day, and over the course of several days, to make sure many people see it. But don’t overdo it.

-It’s growing. As Twitter traffic grows, what worked last month won’t necessarily have the same impact this month. Keep trying new things and adapt as Twitter does.

-It’s immediate. You have a direct connection to your customers with Twitter. Use it to communicate with, learn from and provide value to your customers.

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