How Contests Can Feed Your Hunger for Links

link building with contests

You’re starving for links.

No, I am not trying to sound melodramatic, it’s a fact. Alright, you might claim that you prefer audits. But as most SEOs, you are probably obsessed with getting links anyway.

And we both know that doing so is far from easy these days.

People are not as willing to link out as they used to be. Many webmasters can see through what we do and won’t get fooled by simple tactics. Google is not making the process any easier, instating fear on boths sides of the barricade.

Yet we need those damn links. They are still a major ranking factor. It’s just getting them now requires more creativity than ever.

Enter Contests

Contests have been a marketing tool since, well, ever I suppose. From brand exposure, awareness, insights into a target market, quick sales boost to traffic, the benefits of using them are many.

But that’s just a tip of the iceberg.

Contests are a true digital marketers tool. First of all, they go viral. A well designed contest will quickly spread among its audience. They allow you to reach a specific nice or market. Moreover, they are a quite versatile tool, able to cater for various needs of your clients. You can run contests in any niche, market and to audience of any size.

They can also be as small as big as your client wants them or can afford. You can giveaway a car or just a $50 voucher. No pressure.

And, they can help achieve various goals – new product launch, rebranding, sales boost. Anything.

Not to mention, links.

Types of Contests

There are a number of different contests types to consider. Below is a list of those I would consider the most effective for a link building campaign.


People love getting stuff for free and for that reason alone giveaways are a hugely popular contest type. Giveaways can draw large interest from target audience but also, they are ideal to attract bloggers and influencers to spread info about them.

The reason? By their nature, giveaways are quite simple, both from audience and brand point of view. There are neither complex rules and T&Cs attached to them nor obscure rules of entry. At the same time they offer great value for the target audience, making them worth spreading info about.

Product promotions

Product promotions work in a similar way to giveaways but are more product than brand focused. They are ideal if you want to introduce a new product or service to the market. A prize is typically the product itself and because of that, they often attract a boost of visitors. Again, such promotions attract the eyes of bloggers and influencers, generating you links in the process.

Coupon codes

Coupon codes are ideal contests if you want to target a small, heavily defined audience. Codes can be distributed as a reward for participation in a survey or for loyalty to customers. A special discount code can also help to get bloggers to write about your company or your main contest.

Free services

This contest type is most common among B2B companies, where services often mean more than goods. This type of a contest might seem like a bit more difficult to market (and gain links) but if done well, it can actually guarantee a good number of them. Not to mention increased brand awareness.

Before You Launch a Campaign

Even though creating a contest might seem easy, there is a number of decisions you will have to make to ensure its success. Namely:

1. What are your goals

The first answer that comes ot mind is links, of course. But that should not be all. First of all, links are YOUR goal but your client might want to identify their own ones too. They may want to increase brand awareness, introduce new product to the market or perhaps boost sales with a discount code. In fact, without those goals, your contest will look unnatural, as exactly something done to generate interest instead of offering value to the audience.

2. Who is your audience

Secondly, you need to establish who is the target audience, where you can find them online and what communication channels are the most relevant to them.

When choosing the audience, measure their perceived size and their ability to even notice the contest. Pick an audience too small and you might not gain your objectives. On the other hand, go after too large market, oversaturated with contests ran by your competitors and you risk your one being ignored.

3. What contest type will attract them the most

Even though the contest type is largely depend on your clients product or service, audience’s preferences also play a huge part here. You should chose a type that the audience will be relevant to them and they will appreciate the most.

Also, you and your client should also consider what prize / award will attract their attention. Unfortunately, in todays world audiences are practically flooded with different contests and giveaways. Breaking through this clutter is not as easy as it used to be. One way to do that is by making your award highly relevant and attractive to your audience.

It does not mean that your client has to go beyond their means to offer a big prize. Even a small award but a one that represents exactly what the audience would be looking for will do great.

4. How much time and resources can you devote to it

You should take a very realistic look at your resources. Even though running the contest might seem relatively cheap, there are a lot of hidden costs the campaign will amass.

First of all is the time. Creating, setting up, running and promoting a contest takes a lot of it – from initial research to following up with winners and running PR campaigns to spreading the word even further. Then there is post campaign analysis and reporting, adding even further to the time investment.

Depending on its size you might have to dedicate more than one persons time to the campaign reducing resources available for other projects even further.

The cost of a prize is another fact to consider. We already discussed that you should offer one your audience will find attractive. And even though it doesn’t have to be expensive, your client will have to pay for it nonetheless.

Promotion will cost money too and you should realistically consider your budget for that. Naturally a lot of it can be done for free but chances are you will still have to spend some money on getting your contest in front of the target audience.

Creating a Contest

There is also a number of things to consider when creating the actual contest.

1. Rules

Start off by coming up with the rules of entry. This is a highly crucial step if you want your contest to succeed. Make the entry to difficult and you will fail to attract both audience and bloggers attention.

One thing to remember is that you design the contest to be spread by people who can see through most SEO techniques these days. They also know how contests work and can spot a problematic one from a distance. If they feel your contest will be too difficult or seems suspicious for their audience, they will neither promote nor link to it.

2. Timeline

Next you should decide on the timeline. For most part, building links through contests is a time consuming campaign and your work on those links often starts way before the contest is even designed. You need to gain attention of influencers and people who will be able to link to you and that takes time. Create a realistic timeline for the whole campaign, not only production but also promotion and link building campaign.

BonusDebra Mastaler posted a case study outlining steps her company took when creating a 5 month long contest campaign to build links for a client – a financial institution. Her post is packed with incredible info and I strongly recommend you read it.

3. Promotion

Promotion is by far the most problematic aspect of any contest. Many people rely on their own network or traffic to their site to help spreading information about it but most of the time, that’s not enough. Depending on the type of contest you run, your promotion might look differently but most commonly these steps would be included:

  1. Reaching out to industry influencers to ask them to spread the word.
  2. Joining industry or market specific forums, membership sites or other places online where yout target audience resides and promote the competition there
  3. Promoting it on your clients owned media – blog, social media accounts etc.
  4. Using paid media like social media ads or banner ads
  5. Runining a PR campaign around the competition (can be great for link building too).

Building Those Links

Naturally the most important part of the campaign – getting those links. If you design and promote the competition well, many links will come to you naturally. However, you should also actively build those links through:

Bloggers and Influencers

People love telling others about cool stuff they found on the net. Also, many bloggers are constantly looking for valuable information they could share with their readers. Your contest might work really well for them.

Once you get the go ahead from a client, start by seeking out top industry people – bloggers, leaders and influencers. Seek out anyone whos opinion matter online. Introduce yourself and your client to them. Do it via email, social media, on the phone. Don’t ask them anything, just build relationships with them.

A good way to attract these peoples attention to your contest is to also get them involved in the planning stage. People love feel special. By getting them on board, perhaps to help you solve a “problem” you encountered while doing your research or even to offer their opinion is a good way of gently letting them know of the upcoming contest. Plus, it will make them feel more positively about it, since they are somewhat involved in its inception.

Not to mention that this could get you links as well. If you play it well, many influencers might feel compel to share something about your client to their audience or even hint an upcoming event. Linking to it in the process.

Contest Partners

Another way is to find partners to host the contest with. Non profits are ideal for this. If you can afford it, offer to make a donation for every contestant that enters through from their website. The more that enter, the more you will donate.

Use Membership Organizations Lists

Depending on your industry, there might be some dedicated industry portals. Check if members can connect with others within the group and if so, join in and spread the info on your competition. Many of your influencers might be members themselves, allowing you to an easier access to them.


Develop badges for anyone who participates. Sure, they might not be the best linking strategy anymore but if used wisely, they can still deliver some value. Offer the badge for free to anyone who enters the competition and a special one for a winner. You will most likely have a very low take up on those but given the cost associated with developing them, it might be worth it anyway.

Making the Most of Those Links

OK, here is the catch. Most of the links you will build will point to your competition page. It, it turn will become obsolete after the competition is over. To make the most of those links though, you have two options:

  • Use 301 to redirect competitions page to the home page, passing a lot of link juice along
  • Leave it as is for any future contests you might run. In such case though, update the content to reflect this but also let everyone who linked to you know about it to stop them from removing those links. Once they know that more competitions will pop up on this page in the future, they will be less likely to drop your links.

What Can Go Wrong

Even though it might sound easy, contests are actually quite a complex marketing strategy. Many things can go wrong with such campaign, namely:

  • Lack of solid promotion. Sure, giving away stuff for free attracts many eyes but as we discussed already, without any promotion a contest will most likely die a natural death.
  • Lack of authority. This is a problem of many new companies. It is hard to gain big interest, both from audience as well as industry VIPs, until you are known. To overcome that you might have to advertise more. However, even with that, your audience might not know you well enough to trust to enter the contest. The same goes for bloggers and influencers. They might have a problem in spreading the news on your contest, resulting in lack of links. Simply.
  • Poor targeting. Another common problem is poor audience targeting. You can’t attract everybody to your contest, unfortunately. Therefore you should focus on a smaller slice of the market to ensure that you will attract its attention and entice them to enter. Poor targeting usually results in low results and little interest from influencers.


Links are damn hard to get these days. Most scalable techniques no longer work, forcing you to build individual links. That however takes time and resources, both of which you might not have. After all, your competition is building those links too.

One solution is to focus on techniques that can generate a number of links at once (and look naturally in the process). Running contests is one of them.

Your Turn

Have you ever used contests to build links? What are your experiences? Share them with us in the comments.


Creative commons image by Smaku / Flickr

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