Tag Archives: social media

Six Guidelines for Running an Ethical Contest in Social Media

ACT ETHICALLYCross-posted from my blog Public Relations Matters.

As many of my readers may recall, I was a participant in a social media contest earlier this year that went horribly wrong, in oh-so-many ways. In fact, it went so poorly that the company didn’t even publicize the results of the contest in its own social media channels (though it did issue a standard news release). I found myself frustrated when my repeated attempts to provide helpful advice to the contest sponsor were dismissed. And I learned a LOT from this experience that may help your organization should you desire to plan a contest in social media.

So what I have for you here are six things I learned during that catastrophe about running an ethical contest in social media. Following these guidelines may help turning your brand ambassadors into your “assadors,” as one of my Facebook friends called them.

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, nor am I giving legal advice. I am just sharing my understanding of the guidelines.


Learn, understand and apply the disclosure guidelines that the Federal Trade Commission has published. As the FTC says, “If there’s a connection between the endorser and the marketer of the product that would affect how people evaluate the endorsement, it should be disclosed.” Put simply, if you are incentivizing people to mention your company online (by providing them with something free OR having them mention something specific to enter a contest of yours), they need to say so. And it’s up to YOU to be sure they do.

The FTC provides a handy, dandy mnemonic to help:

  • Mandate disclosure from your contestants. (See my post “In the Interest of Full Disclosure” for more on this.)
  • Make sure your own staff knows the rules, and
  • Monitor the contestants, to be sure they are following the guidelines.


Don’t ask or require participants to “stage” something as a way of endorsing your product or company. Doing so is creating false advertising.


Know and follow the terms of service for the social media platforms you are using in your contest.

Did you know . . .

  • businesses should not ask for reviews or endorsements on Yelp?
  • if you’re having participants create a video to post on YouTube, you must provide clear judging criteria, and you must not use video views or video likes to conduct the contest?
  • requiring participants to post something on their personal  timelines to enter a contest violates Facebook’s terms of service?
  • you can’t use Facebook Likes or Shares as a voting mechanism?
  • you should not ask contestants to tweet something multiple times for multiple entries, or the contestant risks being  suspended for Twitter spam?
  • and for more examples, see Social Media Promotion Law: Contests and Sweepstakes.


Follow your own contest rules and guidelines to the letter. Varying from them will cause frustration among the participants at a minimum, and a run-in with the FTC or state for more egregious errors.

  • If you are asking contestants to create a 30- to 45-second video, then award points only to those whose videos are within these parameters. No exceptions.
  • If you have in your contest rules that “no additional purchase is necessary,” do not require contestants to purchase specific items for photos they must post.
  • If you provide a calendar of social media posts that your participants must publish on specific days, use that calendar; do not make last-minute changes. (In the contest I participated in, this happened more than once. One of the days, the participants were supposed to create a specific video to post on YouTube. Videos take time to shoot and edit. The day the assignment was due, the contest manager changed the assignment to something totally different . . . and never had the video used at all as an entry. This caused much frustration among the participants, as you might imagine.)


Provide objective criteria for judging entries, especially when the entries will be judged by a panel chosen by your organization. Having your panel vote for which entry they “like best” doesn’t cut it.

As a professor, I tend to use rubrics to grade assignments. (A rubric states what the criteria are and how many points can be earned by fulfilling the requirements.) A rubric would be helpful for participants in contests, as well.


Be available to answer questions from your contestants. Have one place the contestants can come to for official answers from your organization. Ideally, this would be a place on your own platform, rather than an informal Facebook group, for example.

Availability is especially important if you are running a lengthy, multi-part contest. Establish and maintain an expected turn-around time for answers. For example, if someone submits a question, respond within 24 hours.

Remember, in the absence of official communication, the contestants are left to speculate about the answers to their questions.


That said, what other recommendations do you have for making sure your organization’s social media contest is run in an ethical (and legal!) manner?




Frankly, I’m Embarrassed

Image Credit: "Embarrassed" from MeInLilaPark
Image Credit: “Embarrassed” from MeInLilaPark

It takes a LOT to embarrass me, but the Genghis Grill Health Kwest has done it to me (and countless others).

Merriam-Webster defines embarrass as follows: “to make (someone) feel confused and foolish in front of other people; to make (a person…) look foolish in public.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, I thought this contest would be a fun way to lose weight and make my social media skills shine. Instead, I feel foolish for ever having participated in it in the first place. It’s amazing what people will put up with (or do) when  the possibility of winning $10,000 is dangled in front of them.

Here’s what I’m embarrassed about.

I am embarrassed to be associated with an organization that rewards people who use diuretics, stimulants and dehydration to lose ~80 pounds (25% of his body weight) in 60 days, all while calling the contest a HEALTH Kwest. This year’s winner admitted doing so in his own blog posts, many of which have been deleted. When I shared screen captures of his admissions, those running the contest chose to do nothing about it. (Oh, and last year’s winner wrote about eating 300-800 calories a day during the contest to lose weight.)

I am embarrassed that I asked anyone to help me via YouTube views and Facebook likes and shares to spread news of this contest.

I am embarrassed that I asked students at several universities to help me write headlines in “Upworthy style” to entice people to watch my video I made for Genghis Grill.

I am embarrassed that I had forgotten one of the more important rules about sharing sponsored content in social media by disclosing that I was being compensated by Genghis Grill. I corrected this mid-course, but still, I should have known better.

I am embarrassed that I allowed myself to #ShillfortheGrill (as one of my fellow contestants called it) for the mere price of a bowl of food a day. Had I spent a similar amount of time writing creative content for a client, odds are good I would have been compensated much more than a few dollars a day.

I am embarrassed that I did not withdraw myself from the contest earlier. Once I was told by those running the contest that everything we were being asked to do was perfectly ethical and didn’t break any rules, terms of service or FTC guidelines, I should have stepped out then as I knew this wasn’t the case. Somehow, I kept thinking that things would get better and those running the contest would take my advice to make needed changes. It never happened.

I am sorry.

In the Interest of Full Disclosure


Adapted from my post at Public Relations Matters from March 8,  2014.

UPDATE 3-31-2014: I have withdrawn from the Genghis Grill’s 2014 Health Kwest, and I have made all posts about that contest private on my blog for the time being.

As someone who had taught public relations for more than two decades, I should have known better. But I got caught up in the excitement of being part of a contest, and I have neglected to provide full disclosure with every post/photo/video I have I uploaded as a constant in Genghis Grill’s 2014 Health Kwest that the restaurant chain is providing me one free meal a day. And not making this disclosure goes against recent FTC guidelines. (There is wording about this in FanCorps, where we accept our daily “orders,” but like many, I just clicked right past it without reading carefully.)

NOTE: I am not a lawyer, nor am I giving legal advice. I am just sharing my understanding of the guidelines.

So I am making that right now. I will go back and edit as much as I can to include a disclosure I created at the  cmp.ly website.

Here’s how to create a disclosure of your own:

  1. Go to http://cmp.ly and sign up for an account as an Individual Advocate.
  2. Choose which type of compliance you need. For my participation in this contest, it’s #3.
  3. Add specific language for your circumstances. For me, I added “The author of the message that directed you to this page has the following material connection: the author was compensated (via a giftcard worth one meal a day) to promote Genghis Grill as part of its Health Kwest 2014 contest.”
  4. Then use the unique URL that Cmp.ly provides in everything you post that is based on being compensated. Mine is http://my-disclosur.es/HVNLJa .

Useful Resources



It Will Be Fun, They Said. They Were Wrong.

Photo Credit: "Sad Clown" by Shawn Campbell
Photo Credit: “Sad Clown” by Shawn Campbell

Adapted from my post at Public Relations Matters from March 31, 2014.

Early in 2014, I thought it would be a lot of fun to participate in the Genghis Grill Health Kwest. I had the chance to win $10,000, and I got a gift card worth one free stir-fry bowl a day from the restaurant. It seemed like it would be a fun way to lose some weight and use my social media skills.


By the end of March, I chose to withdraw myself from the 2014 Health Kwest due to concerns I have with Genghis Grill’s ethics in the management of the contest. Some concerns I have are as follows:

  • not informing contestants about our (and their) obligation to disclose that GG provided free meals for us in exchange for our posts in social media
  • going against terms of service for multiple social media platforms (such as requiring us to post something on our personal Facebook profiles)
  • not providing objective criteria for judging the mini-contests (worth $300-$500) ahead of time
  • changing some of the orders/challenges the day that they are due (such as Sunday’s order that had been to record a video in a grocery store, and was changed on Sunday to something different)
  • recommending that we could “stage” photos of ourselves “enjoying” a specific beverage to post in social media
  • requiring a Yelp review (again, with no disclosure that we received free food)
And here are a few additional concerns with the contest rules.
  • The contest rules state that no additional purchase is needed to enter or win. However, several of the challenges/orders required contestants to purchase something from Genghis Grill or elsewhere (including Skinny Drinks, Red Diamond iced tea and Vitamin Water).
  • The contest rules state that 1,000 points are possible for weight loss, and 1,000 points are possible for social media. However, the top 30 contestants as of April 1 all have more than 2,000 points earned, and the contest isn’t over yet. How were these extra points earned? There has been no explanation.
  • The contest rules state that “each Genghis Grill bowl has an Approximate Retail Value of $599.” If this is the case, then the Health Kwest gift cards given to the contestants should be worth $599 x 61 (days) or $36,539.

I have addressed these concerns with Genghis Grill’s social media manager, the Senior Marketing Director, the Chief Marketing Officer and the CEO, to no avail.

NOTE: I have NO concerns about my local Genghis Grill restaurant in Rogers, AR. They’ve been wonderful to me both before and throughout this contest.
UPDATE 4-24-2014: Oh, just wait until you read the latest about this contest.