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Promoting Yourself on Social Media: Lessons Learned


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, “Vote for me!” 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 – more on that later).
  • Overall I feel that I “give” more online than I “take”. 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 “Vote for Me!” posts I instead ran a series of blog posts on “Why I Explore” (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 ‘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 “brand” 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 strangers…
I think I need to go for a run!
Read Comments

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  1. I voted for you Al! It’s a great video.
    I think the Facebook thing is because we all have smaller audiences on FB but they are more engaged. I think of twitter more of a broader feed that reaches people depending on whether they are in the stream at that point, whereas FB means you appear on people’s timelines, so even if they come in later, they will find the link. So don’t write off Twitter 🙂

    There does have to be certain amount of social karma earned before asking for things on social media, and we do have to be protective of our audience. I definitely promote my own books and my business, but only occasionally. So you have to do it, the choice is for which project 🙂
    No regrets – you did a great job.

  2. Alison Jean Baker Posted

    Hey Al

    If you haven’t already, I recommend reading ‘Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior’ by the Brafman Bros; illustrates well how people will respond depending on the setup (and strangely how offers of gifts sometimes works against you).

    You deserved to win, but often the better man loses.

    Eitherway, my brother would be very pleased to see a Leeds United mug!


  3. Thomas Laussermair Posted


    Thanks for this analysis and the courage to publish all the emotional impact despite not having won the contest.

    Whether the best man wins or what constitutes the best is a question at the heart of many social justice questions. I live in the United States, where the widespread belief in the American Dream is that if you work hard enough and provide good quality results you can make it big. This works for some, but certainly not for all, not even for a majority. The resulting economic inequality is a pressing policy topic these days. And certainly not all riches are richly deserved.

    But if you think economic inequality is (too) big, it pales when you compare it to the much bigger attention inequality on the Internet. A very few sites get nearly all the attention. And I think quality has surprisingly little to do with whether you get to the top of the attention heap. (I did some quantitative analysis of this in a Blog post called “Inequality on Twitter”.)

    I have bought some of your books and I like your Blog and adventures. I have seen your rowing video and noticed your campaign to raise votes. But I didn’t vote. Something felt wrong and so out-of-style for you – especially since you indicated at the beginning of the campaign that you don’t like such vote getting campaigns. And honestly the thought crossed my mind to unfollow you on Twitter because of it. But on balance you give way more than you take and now with your explanation in this post I know I will continue following you.

    You are on the right path and don’t let the numbers game lead you off course! Keep up the good work.

  4. I found your article very refreshing, these are thoughts I have quite frequently. Particularly the concept of how busy and overloaded people are on the web and how tiny one’s reach really is, in perspective. It is something we wrestle with related to our own small-business clients, how to advise them moving forward, etc. In the end, most the time it comes down to branding which is so rooted in luck above all else. How do we continue to strive as genuine and authentic when you battle the crowded web of self-promoters?

  5. I have entered a few competitions like this in the past, never again. As you stated The best film doesn’t win, just the best social media campaign.

    When I enter competitions these days (mostly via film festivals) I always make sure the judges are an independent jury that only have the film in mind.

    There are plenty of adventure film festivals you could enter.

  6. Re: FB and engagement vs twitter:

    I follow you on twitter and I’ve purchased a book, I watched the video and I loved it, and I enjoy your blog posts — but I didn’t vote for you. Why?

    I tried to, but the FB integration of the voting pissed me off, and after getting halfway through the process, I closed the window in disgust. It may be that the FB folks hate FB significantly less than I do – previous account creation may be the metric. I doubt those FB folks would be signing up for twitter-integrated voting.

    Getting halfway through the voting process (not that it counted) was more engagement and ‘action’ than I’m normally willing to expend on random blog posts/twitter pleas. I also enjoyed the blog posts, esp the one about why travel/being uncomfortable, and reposted on twitter and emailed it to my brother.

    All of that is a way to say that I don’t think occasional linkbait campaigns are bad – asking for action isn’t a crime, and the cost was nill in dollars, and small in time and may repay you in greater reach, even if you didn’t win the inciting contest.

    All the best!

    • I second Crystal’s motion – big fan, but the website voting system was a little annoying and also (after quite a few minutes/times trying) wasn’t letting me vote properly.

      Very interesting article though, Al. Thanks for your insight!

  7. I’d have voted multiple times for you if it hadn’t involved FB. I guess with 90 odd million active users it’s an every day assumption that everyone has a FB account. I don’t so I didn’t.

  8. I’d second one of the comments made already – why not concentrate on the film festival circuit? The playing field might not be 100% level, but it’s a lot more so than in these online vote-collection contests. And because of that, a heck of a lot more credibility would come from winning an award in an established, independently adjudicated competition, especially in the eyes of the broadcast/distribution world.

  9. I didn’t vote either. Mostly because I hate those sort of “bug your friends to vote a million times” contests, and make it a categorical rule never to participate in them, no matter how nice or gentle the ask. The ask doesn’t bother me much, though – I skim right over all of those. I am much more likely to respond to a request to buy a book, participate in a Kickstarter campaign, or that sort of thing.

  10. Thanks for this debrief, Al. Very insightful. Here are my thoughts:

    I voted. Gutted that you did not get the win. But you’ve got to hand it to the winner; his footage is captivating, and more importantly, captivating to more or less anyone with functioning vision. Your film requires a certain degree of active self-reflection as one watches it. Which has its place. But when it comes to a popularity vote (especially on the fickle attention-whore medium that is the internet video), stunning visuals will always win.

    By the way, I did not read even one of the “Why I Explore” posts. They probably had some nuggets of wisdom in them, but I felt like the only reason you were posting them was to get votes, rather than to share stories. Therefore, I just figured that they were going to be hastily written diatribes which would, at the end, make me feel guilty for not voting for you (even though I had already voted)…if that even makes sense…

    From a loyal reader and fan,

  11. I totally understand you, Alistair. I know how frustrating it is to try hard to pass a message and realize people don’t get it! You did what you had and could do to succeed in that kind of competition. My personal opinion is that your video was the best of the four finalists, but… Anyhow, keep up the great job and follow your heart, always. Thanks for sharing great adventures! 🙂

  12. If I had 10 votes I would have given them all to you. I didn’t vote. The first time I ran away because I had to authenticate myself. Secondly I thought I should even if it takes going through signing in. But that damn FB connect or whatever it was, was too slow I ran away again.

    I really like your video. The narration, I like that. A high thumbs up from me. Why? You got me do things. I have been on 4 walkathons this year. I like it because it is simple and still very challenging.

  13. Hey Al,

    Here’s a little feedback on my insight to your recent campaign….

    1. As much as I’d love to I can’t download your video in Africa, so only planned to vote out of the goodwill credits you’ve gained by our honest good writing in the couple of books of yours I’ve read.
    2. Your social media campaign got my interest by giving away your india book, dont know If I’ll get round to reading it but its a nice freeby, and therefore worth a vote if I dont know the other guys.
    3. Enjoyed your recent blog post about why you travel and challenge yourself, and see alot of things from myself in your post, unfortunately you ruined a great post by selling your soul with a cheap plug to the contest.
    3. The contest required registering so with my shitty internet connection in Zambia chose not to bother in the end anyway…sorry.

    Al, although I can’t look into your business model or wishes for your future, imo you should stick you what you do best. Good honest writing/speaking about what we do and why, you tell it well weather people like it or not.

    Good luck


  14. Ruben Lightfoot Posted

    A very interesting post. I saw your vote harvesting in action and wondered who you were doing it and how well it was going – so this was an intriguing read.

    you might find this amusing:

  15. Ruben Lightfoot Posted

    ^ wondered why*

  16. Chris Giles Posted

    Great post Al – humble and honest. In refusal to get the cheque book out, my fiance and I recently tried drumming up interest for a free wedding – we couldn’t stand the fake ‘look at me’ adoration of ourselves and were quite glad that we put in a woeful performance.

    I voted for you, but then I didn’t even have the time to watch the other three vids – what does that say?!

    In my eyes, anyone with a vented interest in your motivating words should have voted – and if there’s one lesson learnt, I spose it may be, enter competitions with impartial judges.

    Flickr for example can be very warming when you receive comments on your photos. But to get those views, favourites and comments you have to graft your balls off clicking for new contacts and making comments – it makes me query how genuine someone else’s comment or photo is when they may have half a million contacts.

    Catch 22, rough with the smooth, next one you might romp home. Ya never know, one of the winners’ contacts may have spotted your vid whilst voting for his mate. He likes yours, rings his mate in the documentary business and before you know it, you may have lost the comp but you’re on the National Geographic channel…. And to think, you nearly didn’t do it? One you could argue this for a while I think!

    I am not a fan of signing up to vote for things – but it’s not like you were asking me to vote for your baby in yet another Baby photo comp on FB. You certainly give way more than you ask for, and for that, I’m just about to buy you a couple of coffees/ales/boxes of yorkshire teabags. See you at on the micro adventure night….

    Keep on truckin…. Chris

  17. I’ve just learned the origin of the word “claptrap”:

    claptrap [ˈklæpˌtræp]
    n Informal
    1. contrived but foolish talk
    [C18 (in the sense: something contrived to elicit applause): from clap + trap]

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