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| Written by Marie Johnson, CMP

Events > Forward — Using a Contest Marketing Strategy to Drive Performance

An effective ‘contest marketing strategy’ is a critical driver to the success of your sales incentive campaign. To put it simply, the goal of the campaign is to drive greater returns through the qualification period by communicating to and motivating the contest participants.

Developing Incentive Contests and Marketing Strategies

In this episode, our host, Jeff Naue, Special Projects Marketing Lead, connects with Anne Zambrano on the very interesting topic of incentive contests and marketing strategies around them. A good contest is always aligned with the growth objectives of the organization or department. So, ultimately the objectives of the campaign are to keep the contest top of mind, “move the middle” as we like to say, and drive performance. Anne Zambrano is the Marketing & Communications Lead for M&IW. In her position, Anne partners with our sales, marketing, and incentive travel teams to develop impactful marketing and sales communications campaigns and contests for our client programs.

Tune in to our interview with Anne Zambrano to hear why organizations need to develop a ‘contest marketing strategy’ and the role that marketing campaigns play in delivering investment returns.  

To stay up-to-date on M&IW’s efforts on safety initiatives and protocols for returning to in-person events, be sure to turn into our Events > Forward Podcast Series. In each episode, we interview subject matter experts on relevant and timely topics. Subscribe today on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.


Anne, welcome to the show. Tell our listeners a bit about yourself.

First, I would like to say thank you so much for having me on the show. I have been a member of the M&IW Marketing & Communications team for over 6 years. Like other corporate marketing managers, we have many different marketing initiatives, both internal and external for our clients. I can honestly say, that one of my favorite client marketing projects is working with our incentive clients to build, lead. and implement their incentive contest marketing strategies.  

Let’s start by defining what you mean by an incentive contest marketing plan and the goals of the strategies?

Great question, Jeff. I think it is important to understand exactly what we are going to speak about today. The way I see it there are basically three aspects to every incentive travel contest. First, there are the contest rules and criteria that the organization implements for their teams, distributors, and sales channel partners to qualify for the award trip—the structure of the contest. And, second there is the award itself. The amazing destination the organization has selected and incentive trip experience they’ve crafted for the winners. And, third is the incentive contest qualification period. This is where the contest marketing strategy and plan really comes into play—it is the communication and marketing focused on the qualification period of the incentive contest.

What are the goals and objectives of these campaigns?

To put it simply, the goal of the campaign is to drive greater returns through the qualification period by communicating to and motivating the contest participants. A good contest is always aligned with the growth objectives of the organization or department. So, ultimately the objectives of the campaign are to keep the contest top of mind, “move the middle” as we like to say and drive performance.

Do these contests just apply to the sales organization?

Great question and no, they don’t just apply to sales organizations. This is a common misconception. The roles and contest participants can vary. It can be operations teams or really any role or function within a company, sales channel partners, independent brokers, distributors, dealers of an organization. It greatly depends on how the company is organized and who they want to incentivize. Understanding the relationship and audience of the communications is always our first order of business when first engaging in a marketing campaign contest with a client. You have to know who you are communicating to and what that relationship looks like for the organization.

Why should organizations invest in the marketing and what drives investment returns?

In the years that M&IW has been involved in helping clients communicate during the contest qualification period, we have seen our clients achieve phenomenal results and returns above and beyond the previous years when they didn’t have a solid marketing and communications strategy. In one example, a large manufacturing company blew out their goal benchmark return by 13% over the prior year. The amount that the incentive and recognition team invest in the marketing budget for these campaigns comes back to you 3-fold in increased metrics and returns.  Any amount you invest in increased communications and marketing will affect increased performance.

Can you provide us with an overview of these campaigns? What are some critical inclusions?

Absolutely, this is where it gets exciting. A strategic campaign should have three items:

  1. A home for all the contest information, rules and criteria, leaderboards. And, enticing information about the award trip and destination. One place for the participant to go to get all the information they need.
  2. A great brand, design, and look is critical, as well. Having a strong and cohesive look gives a personality to the whole program and contest that makes it interesting and memorable.
  3. A fully integrated communications strategy where the messaging is tailored to the qualification period from contest launch through the mid-point of the contest to the final push.

What are you seeing with how companies approach marketing the incentive contest?

To be honest, it is not unusual to come across an organization who is already a third or a halfway through the contest period and they have yet to announce the contest, the criteria, and the trip destination. To me, this is like running a race with a blindfold. You are moving forward but you don’t know where the finish line is, how the track is laid out, or where the other racers are to be able to pace yourself accordingly.

My stomach always sinks when I discover this, because of the opportunity cost of running a contest that the participants know very little bit about on how to qualify can be great. And, what’s more, the participants aren’t necessarily starting out on a level playing field if you launch the contest mid-way and not from the beginning of the period. So, the question becomes… are we rewarding past performance or motivating future behavior? Typically, in an incentive contest you are trying to do the latter. The cost of this scenario could be greater than just missing the opportunity to communicate and motivate. It becomes more of an exercise in putting your participants in the right mindset and giving them the tools they need to perform at their best.

I am always very excited to help clients change this behavior and launch the contest with a well-thought out campaign strategy that starts as close to the start of the contest period as possible which is usually in January for contests that run from January to December.

Right! I can’t imagine being a participant in the contest and not learning about it until halfway through. I would feel so deflated.

Exactly! It is a great opportunity to see the full return if you get ahead of the game. That is what we encourage and consult our clients to do. And, it doesn’t have to be something monumental—just even putting the wheels in motion and getting information out can make a difference on the success of the incentive program.

What makes a great campaign “great?”

A great campaign is aligned with the organization’s objectives and current communication channels. Levering how the corporation already communicates to their representatives, distributors, dealers, agents, or channel sales partners is key. It also should include an integrated, multiple-channel communication strategy as well as having a “home” for all information in one place. Using multiple means of communication including mobile apps, websites, email communication, push notifications, and more is helpful to reach the contest participants on the go. Many of these individuals are in the field a lot or traveling. Messaging is also critical. The copy needs to be clear, concise, and aligned with any corporate or product messaging that should be also conveyed. And, the design needs to have a fun and enticing look.

Also knowing what to measure and having the means to measure the marketing analytics. As with any marketing campaign you want to be able to check how it is performing against your goals. You also want to be able evaluate and change the course as needed throughout the campaign to make sure it is reaching and resonating with the participants.

When is the best time to start a campaign?

As I mentioned before, our goal is the start the campaign at the launch of the contest to take full advantage of the year-long contest period. That being said… the best time to start a campaign is anytime! Whether you are a few months in, halfway thru, or nearing the final months of the qualification period, it never hurts to start to communicate. And, it doesn’t mean you have to have every bit of information ready to go before you start communicating. There are many times we start communicating before we know where the destination will be. There are ways to message accordingly that still get the contest participants engaged and focused on the contest. There are also fun theme design and communication ideas that can be implemented at any time during a contest to help drive greater results. And, they don’t have to be budget breakers by any means. Any communication is better than no communication. When you sit dark, you hurt the results more than anything.

What two or three tips do you have for our listeners?

First, simply the importance of having a campaign strategy and allocated budget for an incentive marketing campaign. Second, is to consider working with a professional who can leverage best practices, incentive campaign knowledge, and their past experiences. And finally, a good campaign needs to be based in collaboration between the internal stakeholders of the incentive contest, marketing and graphic design teams and the agency consulting and implementing the campaign.

If our listeners want to learn more, where can someone go for additional information?

We have written several blogs on this topic that can be found on our website under resources. Our team is always available for a conversation to discover and present a variety of ideas that can impact the marketing and communications of your incentive contest. And, finally, we will be releasing an Incentive Contest Marketing Guidebook in the near future, so make sure you are subscribed to our communications to receive the guidebook when it is released. For more information on our services, contact us today.