Resources Hub » Blog » How to Build Your Email List Using Contests

Article first published December 2014, updated June 2019

Email is proven to be one of the most effective communication channels you can leverage, and one of your tasks as a marketer is to keep your list of email subscribers constantly growing.

However, people are guarding their email addresses tighter than ever these days, which means you need to be offering them something amazing in order to convince them to hand it over.

Employing contests to build your email list might be one way to achieve that goal.

Read on to discover why contests are an effective way to build your list and to learn some actionable tips and tools you can use to run a successful contest that builds your email list.

Why you should use contests to help build your email list

As humans, we have an innately competitive urge and are motivated to win prizes. It’s the reason the US lottery sold $78 billion worth of tickets in 2012.

But you’re not the lottery, and you probably can’t afford to give away $656 million in prize money. So can contests still help you build your email list?

Research from Unbounce would suggest so. They recently did a study on the effect including a contest had on 100 of their customers’ landing pages. They analyzed the results from more than 3 million visitors and found that landing pages with a contest gathered 700% more email subscribers than those without a contest option.

How do I start an email contest?

The way you start your email contests plays an integral role in the impact your contest will have. Here are two things you’ll have to establish before you run your contest.

The way you start your email contests plays an integral role in the impact your contest will have. Here are two things you’ll have to establish before you run your contest.

Source: Really Good Emails

1. Set up email collection platforms.

The foundation of your contest is the method you’ll use to collect the email addresses. These are the reason for running the contest.

You’ll have to set up well-designed and easy-to-find landing pages and forms that you’ll use to gather the desired data.

2. Determine your ideal audience.

As much as you’d want the whole world to enter your email contest, it’ll do you more harm than good. The reason is simple: you’ll build a list of subscribers who aren’t interested in your product. This will lead to things like:

  • Unengaged subscribers
  • High unsubscribe rates
  • High number of spam reports

To avoid that, determine who your target audience is beforehand and tailor your contest to appeal to that audience.

The 3 key elements of a successful contest

So we know that contests work, but how do you know what prize to offer? And how do you promote it to capture as many email addresses as possible?

There are three key aspects of a successful contest: the premise, the prize, and the promotion. By getting each of these areas right, you’ll be able to create a contest that resonates with your audience, encourages thousands of entries and builds your email list.

Part one: The premise

The premise is the foundation of your contest. It helps you define what you’re asking your users to submit as an entry to the contest.

Some example premises include:

  • A video contest where entrants submit their best skating trick
  • A photo contest where people submit their cutest pet photo
  • A text contest where people enter their best joke, poem, or short story.
  • A sweepstakes contest where people only enter their email address to win

The premise of your contest is extremely important, and, before you decide what your premise is, it’s worth understanding the best practices:

Easy for participants to enter

If you’re asking people to submit content to enter your contest (video, photo, story, etc.), then ease of content creation is a critical factor in the success of your contest.

While the popularity of smartphones, such as the iPhone, have made it easier for people to create content, you can boost the volume of entries you receive by tapping into areas where people already have a lot of content created

A good example of this is a Cutest Baby Moment campaign, which taps into the huge amount of photos and videos proud parents already have of their kids and makes it easy for them to enter your contest.

Highly shareable content

People put a lot of thought into the content they choose to share over their social networks. A New York Times study on sharing motivations found that 94% of people carefully consider how the content they share will be useful to others, while 68% of people consider what that piece of content will say about them when they share it.

So, when deciding on your premise, ask yourself whether the content you are asking people to submit is the kind of content that you’d be happy to share on your social media channels with your own friends and family.

If you’re not happy to share the content on your own social networks, then chances are entrants and visitors won’t be either, and you’re missing out on a huge organic promotional channel that’ll drive new entrants and build your email list without costing you a cent.

Part two: The prize

It’s easy to offer a simple cash prize to your contest participants and cash certainly has a widespread appeal, but there are certain advantages to offering a prize that speaks to your niche. Here are a few ideas for creating prizes that are remarkable and highly relevant to your audience:

Appeal to your target demographic

While big cash prizes are great, they often draw the attention of people outside your target market who you probably don’t want on your email list anyway. They’ll likely never open your email and will cost you more to have in your list than they are worth.

Instead, you could be much better served by choosing a targeted prize that’s both less expensive and more appealing to the kind of people you want to attract.

For example, Glee Gum conducted an online contest to help raise awareness for their new flavour and build their email list. The prize: each participant got a free sample of the new flavor. While it might not sound appealing to you, their main promotion method was people who already followed them on social media and liked their product, so the chance to get an inside preview of the new flavour was a scoop. The result? Glee Gum received 5,000 new email addresses within the first hour.

So, rather than trying to go too big, think more about the kind of things you can offer that would really appeal to your target market and to your target market only. Doing so could save you some money and attract more of the kind of people you want on your list.

Be unique

More often than not, a unique prize will gain more attention than a big, cash prize. This is true not just for your target audience but for media coverage as well.

For instance, Queensland Tourism’s “Best Job in the World” campaign offered the winner a job as the “Caretaker” of the Great Barrier Reef, which essentially involved touring the reef and its associated islands and blogging about it for a year. This unique, money-can’t-buy prize not only attracted over 34,000 entries but also secured an estimated $150 million worth of media coverage, being covered by CNN, Time, and BBC, to name just a few.

So, when deciding on your prize, consider the things you could offer beyond just cash and iPads. Training sessions with athletes, celebrity meetings, and backstage passes are all great examples of money-can’t-buy prizes that really appeal to people.

Use supplementary or shared prizes

Supplementary or shared prizes are a great way of encouraging entrants to spread the word to their friends and family. Consider these ideas:

  • Random draw prize – Conduct random draw prizes whereby you give a prize to random entrants throughout the contest, and promote it heavily. This helps break down the “I’ll never win” barrier that exists around contests and encourages more participants.
  • Bonus prizes – Aside from having a major prize for the winner, offer a number of bonus prizes for others who enter. This gives people incentive to share the contest with their friends and family in the hope that they can win some of the bonus prizes as well.
  • Shared prizes – Consider offering a prize that can be shared amongst friends, like multiple backstage passes or holidays for several people. This helps increase word of mouth, as entrants tell their friends to enter so they can have multiple chances of winning the prize.

Part three: The promotion

Now that you’ve established the premise and prize, it’s time to promote your contest to get as many entries (and email address submissions) as possible.

Try promoting your contest by:

Notifying your current email subscribers

Your email subscribers are some of the most engaged and easy to reach potential entrants around. So send out an email campaign notifying your current subscribers of the contest. Although you might already have their email address, if you’ve established a great premise and prize, then chances are they’ll share their entry over social networks and help get the submissions flowing.

Placing it on your website

Your website is a great, inexpensive way to promote your contest to people who are clearly in your target market and interested in your company, so try placing it in a pop-up or scrolling header bar to grab visitor’s attention and drive entries.

Make sure to keep your form simple to encourage visitors to sign up. Requesting too much information will deter some visitors from signing up.

Promoting through social media outlets

If your business has a Facebook, Twitter, Instagram (or any other social media accounts), be sure to share it on those platforms to encourage entrants and convert those fans and followers into email subscribers.

A great example of this is to create a lookalike audience on Facebook using your email list.

A great example of this is to create a lookalike audience on Facebook using your email list.

Source: AdEspresso

A lookalike audience is a group of prospects that mirrors your email list and, therefore, makes for the perfect target audience. Since they’re similar to your current list, the chances of the lookalike audience being interested in your contest and product are much higher.

Social media is a powerful tool when it comes to promoting virtually anything, including email contests. Encouraging followers to share the link to your contest will help increase your organic reach. You can also promote your contest, a tactic that won’t cost you much.

Collaborating with influencers

Reach out to relevant voices and influencers in your industry to see if they’d be interested in either partnering with you for the contest or are interested in simply helping promote a valuable prize.

Partnering with influencers can help you make the prize more irresistible, as you can ask the influencer to give away something. This can be something as simple as a cheat sheet, eBook, or anything that won’t cost much but will be of interest to your contestants.

Getting placed on directory sites

Based on the contest type, there are a number of directory sites that can help you get some exposure. For instance, if you require your users to submit a video upon entry then you can add your contest to to garner some attention and entries from their community.

Leverage your stationery

Your receipts, invoices, and other stationery that you send out to your customers are another great avenue for promoting your contest. By placing your contest details on them, you encourage customers who aren’t yet on your list to sign up. You can also use the small real estate on your receipts and invoices to direct your customers to your website, where they’ll have an opportunity to enter your contest.

Contacting traditional media outlets

Contrary to popular belief, traditional media is not completely dead when it comes to marketing and advertising. Leverage its power and allure to reach people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach with your digital media outlets.

So how do you leverage traditional media outlets to bolster your email list building?

Consider writing a press release and reaching out to relevant newspapers, radio stations, television stations, and other more traditional mass media outlets to help spread the word.

Putting it on your packaging materials

If your business delivers any physical products, your packaging is another opportunity to encourage participation in the contest. Add a sticker, a note, or an attention-grabbing insert that makes your buyers aware of the contest.

Guest post

Guest posting is another great way to promote your contest and speed up your email list building. By publishing a blog post on other websites, you increase your reach, particularly if you publish on websites related to your niche.

The key with this strategy is to include a call to action that directs readers to your contest. Since your contest is time sensitive, you’ll need to plan this list building strategy ahead of time for it to give you maximum results.

How to run your contest

There are a huge range of tools and platforms out there that’ll help you run a contest and build your email list. The best one to choose largely depends on the kind of contest you want to run, and we’ve listed a few of our favorites here:


If you want to run a simple sweepstakes competition where people only need to submit their email address to enter, then KingSumo Giveaways is a great tool to use.

KingSumo is a WordPress plugin, so it integrates natively into your WordPress site. Once you’ve installed it, you simply enter the details of your contest into the admin interface (start and end date, prize, rules, etc.) and launch the contest on your website.

When people arrive at your website, they’ll see the contest window and be able to submit their email to enter. KingSumo also contains a great virality feature that presents entrants with their own unique link to share with their friends and family, and gives them an extra entry in the contest for anybody else they manage to sign up.

Once the contest finishes, KingSumo chooses a winner at random (important for complying with competition laws) and then you can download all the email addresses you collected as a CSV and upload them into your email marketing software.

In terms of cost, a personal license is $198 and allows you to use it on one site forever. A developer option is available for unlimited sites as well. They also offer a 60-day guilt-free trial, so, if you’re not happy, you can get a full refund.

Photo contests

If you want to run a contest where people submit a photo to enter, then check out Strutta’s contest builder.

If you want to run a contest where people submit a photo to enter, then check out Strutta’s contest builder.

Using Strutta’s DIY contest builder, you can quickly create and launch your own photo contest as part of your website, as a separate campaign microsite, or even as an application on your Facebook page.

Once set up, people can create an account and upload a photo to enter and there are a number of community features like social sharing and comments to get more people engaged in your contest.

You can manage everything from Strutta’s administration interface and, once the contest has finished, you can easily download all entrants and their email addresses and upload it as a CSV file to your chosen email marketing software.

Video contests

If you’re interesting in running a video contest where people submit videos to enter, then check out the Launchpad6 video contest platform.

If you’re interesting in running a video contest where people submit videos to enter, then check out the Launchpad6 video contest platform.

With Launchpad6, you can setup your video contest as part of your website, as a separate campaign microsite, or even as an application on your Facebook page.

Once launched, people can create an account and upload a video to enter before sharing that video with friends and family in order to gain votes and win the contest.

You can manage everything from the administration interface, including moderation of videos, management of comments, and more. When the contest is over, you can easily download all entrants and their email addresses and upload it as a CSV file to your chosen email marketing software.

In terms of cost, packages begin at $250 per month.

Other contest types

If you’re interested in running other types of contests and promotions, such as coupon giveaways or instant win competitions, then Woobox may be your best bet.

If you’re interested in running other types of contests and promotions, such as coupon giveaways or instant win competitions, then Woobox may be your best bet.

Woobox allows you to create a variety of contest types with forms that gather valuable lead information (including email addresses). At the end of your campaign, you simply download your data and import the email addresses you’ve collected into your chosen email marketing software.

Pricing begins at $15/month and goes up from there, depending on usage.

Wrap up

By following the best practices around premise, prize, and promotion outlined above, you can create a highly appealing contest that builds your email list without needing to offer up big cash prizes that’ll cost your business more than it’s worth.

Your turn: Have you ever tried a contest as a way to grow your list of email subscribers? If not, what questions do you have about getting a contest up and running?

For more tips on list building best practices, check out our 7 Tips for Building an Engaged Email List.

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