Against my better judgement I recently went on a mission to harvest votes for a video I entered into a competition. I will explain why in a moment, but first here are the reservations I had about doing this:
- Online competitions that require votes are not about the quality of the entries. They are about who can drum up the biggest army of voters. This is irritating.
- Contests that require you to register before you can vote are irritating.
- Emails, Facebook messages, Tweets and so on shouting, â€œVote for me!â€ are irritating.
So why did I decide to inflict this general irritation on both of my online followers?
- I have been working hard at my video-making with an eye on one day getting a decent documentary on TV. Winning a video contest would have been great for my CV.
- I have various ideas bubbling away for crowd-funded projects. This was an interesting, educational experiment into aspects of that world.
- The contest was narrowed down to a short-list of four videos. My honest opinion was that my video was the best one and therefore had a decent chance of winning.
- I looked at how many Twitter followers and Facebook friends my rivals had: I had far more than all of them. (I overlooked one crucial matter here â€“ more on that later).
- Overall I feel that I â€œgiveâ€ more online than I â€œtakeâ€. This is a crucial ratio for bloggers and anyone using social media platforms for business. I occasionally ask people to do stuff for me (buy books, vote in contests) but I aim to offer more than I take (good blog posts, useful and interesting links and events in my niche). The sense of goodwill this generates is intangible but a vital commodity.
- The prize was great!
How did I try to generate votes?
- My mailing list. This was the riskiest avenue. It takes a long time to build up a decent sized mailing list. It takes a very short time to annoy people so that they stop opening your emails or unsubscribe from the group. I only mailed the group once, and tried to keep the hard-sell to a minimum. This was my most effective vote-generator, though only 2% of my mailing list voted.
- My blog. Rather than a series of tedious â€œVote for Me!â€ posts I instead ran a series of blog posts on â€œWhy I Exploreâ€ (the title of the contest) and finished each post with a Vote For Me message. I was very surprised how ineffective this was, particularly as I see the messages from my blog as instrumental to generating the things that allow me to generate money from what I do (paid talks, book sales, sponsorship opportunities).
- Asking favours. Asking people to vote and retweet / share on Twitter and Facebook is very common these days. I found that it worked quite well for a day or two but dwindled quickly. On Twitter more people â€˜unfollowed’ me in that week than usual, but there was no decrease in the rate of new followers. I feel that the power of a retweet / share is over-rated: they disappear too quickly in the deluge of daily information. I tried not to over-do the tweeting; some people would say I do that already!
- Facebook was more effective than Twitter. I was surprised by this. In the past year I have come to regard Twitter as my most effective social media tool. Perhaps I need to put more effort into using Facebook judiciously. [2016 update – I have definitely learned that Facebook is more effective for getting people to commit to action.]
- Book contests. I ran a draw on Twitter to win free copies of my books in exchange for votes and retweets. This was remarkably useless. This either reflects very badly on the appeal of my books, or else being entered into a draw for a free book is just not sufficiently interesting to persuade people to vote. It proved to be an expensive way of buying votes.
- Free books. Finally I gave away free copies of a Kindle book on both Twitter and Facebook. This was more successful than the prize draw and an option I would certainly use again. It generated interest, it cost me nothing, and it hopefully will produce a few more evangelists for my books (people who like a book and then tell their friends about it).
Despite my efforts I did not win the contest. I irritated people by pestering them for votes. I sacrificed a fraction of my reputation and self-respect in exchange for votes. I wasted a few hours of my life. And I still lost! Do I regret it? A little bit.
Why did I lose?
- The obvious answer is that the best man won (his video was certainly beautiful, if not to my taste). That my video was not the best. However, whether that is true or not does not actually matter. Because the crucial truth of these contests is that the winner is the person who harvests the most votes rather than the person whose film is the best.
- These contests are determined solely by your reach on social media platforms. This way my undoing: although I had a bigger platform on Facebook and Twitter, the person that won had vast success on Vimeo, with well over a million views of his film. If I had seen that number at the start I would not even have begun.
What have I learned?
- The size of your online footprint is more important than the quality of the video. If you continue to make good videos (or blogs posts etc.) and promote yourself cannily then your online footprint will grow. So quality pays in the end, but quantity wins in an instantaneous arm wrestle. It’s not about the quality, it’s about the distribution and reach.
- That the intangible commodity of online goodwill is vital to people making a career through the internet, particularly if their â€œbrandâ€ is themselves. Risk that at your peril.
- Giving good stuff away for free works well.
- People are so swamped with online information that the % of people you can engage is tiny. This should be a cautionary tale for anyone looking to sell products online or generate momentum for a crowd-funded project. Having 500 Facebook friends does not mean you will sell 500 books to them.
- That I am a sad, shallow man who has sold a shard of his soul for the pitiful price of online popularity and the near-meaningless votes of virtual strangersâ€¦