Online community competitions attract mercenaries

by Martin Reed on 31 October 2008 in Articles

Online community contests

Another day, another forum competition. It seems that almost every online community I visit (particularly the newer ones) are running a competition. Almost all of these competitions are held with the apparent aim of increasing either member count or post count and almost all of them are inherently flawed. I am not a strong advocate of forum competitions, although I feel they can be successful if done right.

Why most forum competitions fail

As I just touched upon, the majority of competitions held in online communities offer rewards in return for the number of posts made by a member, the number of referrals made by an existing member, or a reward just for being a member. What is more, most of these ‘rewards’ are either cash or big ticket items.

Let’s say you are walking down the street in town. The manager of one of the local bars invites you in – you aren’t really interested; the bar isn’t the type you normally frequent and it looks a little quiet inside. Normally you would just move along, but then the bar manager tells you that if you come in, he’ll give you a free round and an iPod. You accept. You go in, have your free drink, take your iPod and then leave.

You might go back; if the manager gives you more free drinks and another desirable electrical item. You might even tell your friends to get themselves over there whilst the going is good. As soon as the manager stops giving away free drinks and prizes though, neither you nor your friends will return. The same is true of most online community competitions.

Incentivising participation in online communities

As soon as you offer incentives in your online community, you need to consider whether your ‘promotion’ will help you to achieve your goals. Are members that join solely to win a prize the type of members you want? Successful online communities are made up of passionate members – are mercenaries as passionate as freedom fighters? No.

The worst prizes you can offer are valuable ones. Oh, and NEVER, EVER offer cash. As soon as you do, you are effectively paying someone to be a member of your community. Smells a bit like corruption when you put it that way, doesn’t it? That’s because it is corruption and that is why most online communities that run competitions should face corruption charges!

As Richard Millington rightly says, ‘Money makes communities implode‘. Gifts are more effective when they are unexpected. Furthermore, Matt Rhodes wrote a great article on incentivising participation in online communities. Here is an excerpt:

When we are building and managing online communities we want people to take part in the social context. The communities are not market-based transactions, but social environments. Monetary incentives (or equivalents) will only go to create an environment at odds with this.

The right way to do online community competitions

I run forum competitions at Female Forum. Does this make me a hypocrite? No, and I’ll tell you why. First, I determined the precise aim of the competitions. In this case they were to increase the number of new, thought-provoking threads. Therefore, the prizes would be given away to the member who wrote the highest number of threads I select as ‘Featured Discussions’.

Of course, I then had to figure out how to avoid attracting mercenaries. I wanted to generate interest and a little buzz, but avoid attracting members only in it for the big prize. So I give away items that are junk.

October’s prize was a tea making penguin. November’s prize will be a sushi watch. These prizes are so ridiculous, most people only in it for the prize won’t bother to get involved. These competitions have worked however, to create buzz within the community and have picked up a few links from other sites due to their originality. The offer of a tea making penguin saw an increase in the number of new threads, which in turn generated more interaction within the community as members posted in response and sparked up conversations and debates.

Any new members that joined solely for the prize (weirdos!) were soon responding to these posts and getting involved in the community. They were soon hooked.

People that post for cash or highly desirable items only want the cash or the prize. They probably don’t even read the posts made on your community. In my competition, even if the member really does only want the prize, they have still created high quality content – something that has added value to the community and has encouraged interaction.

Dos and Don’ts for online community competitons


  • Decide on your objectives before launching any competition
  • Determine how you will avoid attracting mercenaries
  • Consider surprise prizes – how about not even announcing your competition?
  • Be original


  • Offer cash
  • Offer high value prizes
  • Reward members based on post count
  • Reward members based on referrals
  • Reward a visitor just for becoming a ‘member’

Remember: Your aim should always be quality over quantity. What is quality in the context of an online community? Well, that’s a whole new article!


Have you ever run a competition in your online community? Was it successful? What made it successful? Did new members stick around once the prize was awarded? Perhaps you completely disagree with me: tell me why. Share your thoughts, experiences and opinions by leaving a comment below.

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Smiley October 31, 2008 at 9:01 pm

I run, or rather a member of mine runs a “Member of the Month Awards” each month, but no prize is involved. All they get is a little picture to add to their signature stating they’re a MOTM winner for what ever category they won for. People love it.

We also have a weekly “theme”, not so much as a competition as just a bit of fun. All the regular members vote on a “theme” and then they go and change their avatars & signatures respectively. For example, the other week we had Chuck Norris. So all the regular members had Chuck Norris signatures & avatars. This week is Hallowe’en.

For Hallowe’en I have got a competition going though, but it’s not designed to attract members nor posts, it’s just a bit of fun for the regs. I’ve told them to take a picture of themselves in their Hallowe’en costume, holding up a piece of paper with “” on the front, and the person with the best costume, as judged by myself & my Co-Host wins a £10 Amazon gift certificate.

If you do competitions they should be done because they’re fun for your members and should benefit your members. In your case, increasing the standard of new threads and articles benefits your members by increasing their enjoyment. In my case, my members have fun posting their costume pictures, having a bit of a giggle at each other and such and enjoying themselves.

I think it’s been said before a few months back, but when a community starts offering money or rewards to the person who “posts the most” or “refers the most users” it’s pretty much a sign of desperation and a huge sign that the community is failing; or even is already a failure.

Jeremy October 31, 2008 at 10:35 pm

I run a forum for a game called “Cornhole” ( it’s nothing dirty, I promise ), at a site called

As a way to build relations with retailers of Cornhole products, I started month long promotions on my site. I run them as “contests” which usually involve submitting photos, contributing tips of some sort, or even creating tutorials. It’s been a great thing. The retailers get great ad placement for a very low cost, and the members have the ability to get free game materials for a game they’re already playing. I don’t always have great participation, but it does give people something to talk about, and the winners are usually really appreciative.

Very much agree that winners are not always great community members, but I have had a few who became great contributors afterwards. It seems to be a toss up, but in my case it’s been very worthwhile to run contests.

Really like the information I’ve found on this site. Thanks!

Thorb October 31, 2008 at 11:43 pm

I was wondering about starting some contests to attract some more people. (Just started a forum 2 weeks ago, and got 39 members as of today.)

I see that money wouldn’t be smart to use, but how about a “Member of the Month” where the winner will be a member of the “Winner” group?

Greg November 1, 2008 at 10:53 am

Martin, once again an excellent article!!! I was originally thinking of running a competition to get things going… Four months down the line, without a competition and things are picking up heavily! So I have to say your statement about passion is very very true.

Angela Connor November 2, 2008 at 2:26 am

I like what you said about unexpected gifts. Every once in a while I’ll look at some stat and decide that I want to send a nice trinket to the top 10. I recently sent a GOLO mousepad to the top 10 posters of the month and you would have thought I sent them a $100 gas card. They all were so grateful. You can’t MAKE people stay in an online community, but you can certainly show gratitude for them being there. It’s the things we do, and the tools we provide to give them a good experience that matters. I am currently running a “November madness” contest where you pick the winners of the federal and state elections. Anyone who gets them all right, will win. I think timely competitions that somehow encompass an issue or topic that is of interest or importance to the community is always a great way to go.

Nicole Price November 3, 2008 at 3:49 am

Yes using prizes as a promotional tool does have that drawback, that they tend to attract the mercenaries. I agree with Angela Connor when she says that you canít MAKE people stay in an online community, but you can certainly show gratitude for them being there.

Stephie November 3, 2008 at 12:59 pm

Great tips indeed. Cash prices are ok when you have very big forum community and want to reward your best posters. And the much better way is to give interesting prices like you have done on your female blog. But making cash prices to increase forum posts and number of member is disaster in beginning.

Amish November 3, 2008 at 3:10 pm

As long as the mercenaries stay hooked, and the membership keeps growing with quality content, running regular competitions keep the members hooked and participating regularly. And that is the point of the forum any way!

Amish November 3, 2008 at 3:12 pm

I must also quite appreciate the prizes offered. They are really innovative and fun to compete for.

Rico November 4, 2008 at 8:30 pm

I think it also depends on what type of community you run. For example, for years I ran a forum that catered to the hip-hop community – specifically the artists, producers and engineers that made the music.

We had some very successful contests where wea chance to appear on a famous arist’s mixtape that we were about to release.

Creativity was the name of the game. For instance, as part of a grassroots effort to promote a mixtape called “Fear & Loathing: Riding with DJ Resident”, we created a contest called “The Red Shark Remix Contest”. In effect, we branded the contest.

The objective of our contest was threefold:
a) Get more people involved in the community
b) Attract talent for our record label
c) Promote the upcoming mixtape release

We accomplished this by asking artists to record a song with elements we provided. A specific drumbeat & samples were provided (that appeared somewhere in the mixtape). The song had to “fit” the Fear & Loathing concept.

The winner was chosen out of over 50 entries, and we got a considerable amount of links. These links came from the artists that entered (linking to their official entries on our website), and from press releases & news blips we got from other sites.

My point is, try to be as creative as possible with the contest, and use every available resource to brand the contest to fit your community. Good luck…

Michelle November 5, 2008 at 6:09 pm

I’ve been toying with the idea of running a competition. What I was thinking of doing is offering a t-shirt with the website logo on it as a prize. That falls into the “give junk” idea in that the ones just in it for the prize aren’t as likely to try for a t-shirt and it’s also advertising for me.


Nicole Price November 7, 2008 at 2:37 am

@Rico, that sounds like a really interesting community (hip hop); you said “for years I ran a forum” implying that you no longer run it? Is the forum now closed and if so what was the reason?

Hunter November 12, 2008 at 7:02 am

Thanks for the good tips. I think that there are ethic ways of using promotions such as you describe. I agree that using cash is emphatically bribing people to be a part of your community…which doesn’t ring very kosher if the website is at all legitimate. Thanks again.

jennifer November 15, 2008 at 1:31 am

Angela, I think your gesture was a sweet and unexpected way to say thank you. Not enough of that goes on these days, which is why the members were probably so grateful.

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 17, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Smiley – I like the idea of a Member of the Month award. Do you choose the winner yourself, or get your members involved in the nomination process? I love the community ‘theme’ idea – almost like a virtual fancy dress party :)

You have some great, original ideas and I have no doubt they are helping you to make a success of your community.

Jeremy – If you have a responsive community, creating contests that invite members to submit photos is a great idea. Being able to see other members brings a community together – it helps build relationships and reminds your members that behind every username is a unique individual.

Thorb – 39 members is a good start for a 2 week old community; just don’t lose the momentum and get as many of those members involved and interacting as possible. As per Smiley’s comment, member of the month contests can definitely be successful – just make sure you keep the emphasis on fun so you don’t upset those that miss out on the accolade!

Greg – Thanks for your kind comment :) Just because your community is doing well, doesn’t mean you can’t hold a fun competition!

Angela – Everyone loves surprises; especially members of online communities. Another good idea is to send out ‘Get Well Soon’ cards to members who are unwell. So many online communities fail to exploit ‘real world’ opportunities (such as physical mail and prizes) to develop relationships.

Nicole – Exactly. As soon as your prizes and contests feel like bribes, they probably are.

Stephie – I would never reward members with cash because they have made the most posts. After all, they may have made 1,000 posts of pure drivel – I would rather ‘reward’ the member who has made 50 insightful, engaging posts.

Amish – What if you no longer want to give away prizes, or genuine, passionate members start resenting those that are clearly involved in the community solely for the rewards on offer? Mercenaries are no good in an online community.

Rico – You make a good point; the more relevant you can make any contests or prizes to your online community, the better. I love the fact you had clear aims and goals, and the creativity it promoted!

Michelle – T-shirts could work, but it seems every site offers them. Think of something a little more original. You run a local community, right? How about offering tickets to a local event, or a voucher for a local spa?

Hunter – I am glad you enjoyed the article; thanks for your comment :)

Jennifer – I agree; sentiment is still alive and well online (well, in some places at least!)

John November 17, 2008 at 10:44 pm

I started a new forums on one of my sites recently, but I’m having a hard time getting new forum members. I was thinking about doing a posting contest, but after reading your post I’m not so sure that this will work as I expected. Anyway I’ll give it a try and I’ll post back here how it went.


Smiley November 21, 2008 at 2:48 pm

Oh, they’re entirely member-ran. Except for the weekly theme, the reg who usually does it is on holiday, so I’ve taken over her duties for now.

But it makes them feel involved. If you’d like a quick peek at this week’s “weekly theme” thread to get a taster of how it works:

I create a thread saying “nominate this week’s theme”, all the regs put in what they’d like to see on the poll. The most frequent/popular nominations make it to a poll and the members vote. I announce the winner and they all run off to Google Images, or in this week’s case, banner making sites to get their signature for the week. They love it.

Same goes for the member of the month awards, all member-ran. I give the more loyal regulars little ‘jobs’ to do on the forums. That’s why I like them segregated because it’s its own little community by its self. I am thinking of adding a new forum to the chat site though, and keep it more chat related. But I do really love the atmosphere of these forums, I genuinely enjoy visiting and posting with my members, this time last year I was posting to mainly myself. So I’m really soaking it up at the moment, especially the nice comments.

Here’s a gander at how the MOTM works. The regular ‘Hedwig’ with his little title “Member Awards Boss” runs them. Every month without fail he puts every effort into them.

He’s in nominations mode at the moment, in a few days or so he’ll put up polls where the members choose. I’ve installed the mod that lets me see who votes for what to make sure there’s no cheaters, if there are then I tell him who to knock points off, that’s my only involvement.

And thanks so much for your kind words regarding my ideas. My site, or more accurately, my members have changed me a lot – I just do my best for them and think about ways to give them a bit of fun. A reason to keep coming back!

Martin Reed - Blog Author November 29, 2008 at 1:05 am

John – Please, please, please avoid posting contests. All you will get is low quality posts from members who will disappear as soon as you have awarded the prize(s). Think carefully before deciding what kind of competition you want to run – you want to retain your members after your competition has ended.

Smiley – Thanks for sharing! That competition looks like a lot of fun – which is a good thing; after all, if a community isn’t fun, members won’t stick around!

Andrew April 4, 2009 at 2:09 am

Perhaps one way to run a competition would be for forum members to come up with an answer to a question put on the forum, like ‘why do you like this forum’ or ‘create a limerick’ about the forum’. Then run a forum poll to choose the competition winner. That way it creates interest for the competition and the poll.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 9:23 am

I love the idea of the funky prizes, we do that as well.

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