Capitalize On Your Next Contest

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I love design contests. Here’s why: I run a web design firm, and since using the design contests on SitePoint (recently rebranded as 99designs) a little over a year ago, the quality of my firm’s work has dramatically increased, we’ve been able to take on far more clients, and we’ve delivered three times the number of completed web sites.

It’s fair to say that design contests have completely transformed our business. Instead of laboring over a design and doing a mediocre job, we get awesome design work that we can bring alive for our clients. Higher quality, a shorter turnaround on jobs, and greater profits — hmm … not much to argue with there!

Have you ever wondered, though, why some contests get filled with great submissions in a short amount of time, while others attract only a handful of entries that are generally of lower quality? You know the ones I’m talking about — the project brief is only a couple of lines long, it includes no artwork, and there’s no real feedback from the contest holder.

It’s not just an accident that we’ve had consistently great results from design contests. There are some key steps that you can take to make your contest successful. Holding a great contest delivers an outcome that’s beneficial for you and for the designers, so it’s worth making sure you get it right.

Surveying the Landscape

Before you launch into holding your next contest, take a look at a few of the current contests that are really bustling. You’ll find some recurring themes. These contests provide:

  • a detailed brief that gives the designers the information they need to do a great job
  • lots of comments
  • lots of constructive feedback from both the contest holder and designer

These three traits reflect the minimum ingredients required to hold a successful contest: good communication and a bit of preparation.

Helpful Hints

While those are the overarching characteristics of a good competition, there are numerous other tactics you can use to make your contest a success. To break things down I’ve put together these hints, based on successful contests I’ve either posted or watched closely.

Create a Great Project Brief

Provide as much detail as you can, but keep your brief to a page or less, if possible. Here’s the information we include in our briefs:

  • client description
  • Project description
  • supporting information (site map, graphic files, initial content, drawings, etc.)
  • examples with links to web sites or logos that show the client’s likes and dislikes
  • exact requirements (required elements, formats, sizes, etc.)
  • payment details

Leave Feedback

After you post the contest, turn all of your focus onto giving feedback to participating designers. The better the feedback, the better the results you’ll get. Important things to remember when giving feedback include:

  • Give feedback early.
  • Give feedback often.
  • Be helpful, but also be honest.
  • Eliminate any entries that you believe don’t meet your requirements. Doing so will keep the contest area uncluttered, making it far easier to manage. However, don’t forget to leave feedback as to why you’re eliminating the entry — this can be valuable to the designer.
  • Leaving only a star rating with no written feedback can hurt your chances of achieving the best possible result. Designers want to know whether they’re on the right track, or whether they could make any changes that could possibly increase their star rating. The more feedback you give, the better subsequent entries will be.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want.

Feedback really does help designers. One of the earlier contests we ran was a real eye-opener to me in terms of giving designers feedback. A number of great designs were submitted, but one designer in particular was really making an extra effort.

The problem was, her work wasn’t that great, and I could tell that this designer had little experience. I told her that her work wasn’t great, but I also told her what improvements could be made. She made the changes and was very happy to get the feedback.

A year later, she still enters our contests, and is one of the hardest working designers we work with. The quality of her work has come a long way, largely due to the experience she has gained in the contests. I’m also happy to say that she has won a few of our contests as well. The feedback she received from us and other contest holders has had a lot to do with her developing her skills and producing quality work.

More Tips For Great Results

1. Be Creative

99designs is a busy place, so getting creative with your contest will help you get more eyeballs to your project. More eyeballs mean more entries, and that means better results. A catchy title or some other fun twist is all it takes to attract designers to your contest. Take a look at the recent contest for the logo for a healthy dose of inspiration.

Our more successful contests appear to be the ones where we limit the contest length to a timeframe that’s much shorter than the default of 9 days. We’ve found that we actually have more designers entering these fast contests, and we’ve had numerous designers tell us that they prefer them.

A word of caution: you’ll find that you need to be very committed to holding such a short contest, especially when it comes to provide feedback. Respond to each design as soon as possible so that designers have the time to make any necessary changes for you.

2. Money Talks

There’s no denying the lure of a fat prize! A large prize (more than the basic prize outlined in the contest guidelines) will attract the best designers, and they’ll work harder to give you what you need.

3. Communicate Often.

Are your clients taking their time deciding which design they like the best? Post a comment to your contest. Not getting what you want in the contest? Post a comment to refocus the contest. It’s up to you, the contest holder, to steer the designers towards the end goal: a winning design!

4. Pay up.

As soon as you’ve made your decision, declare a winner and make arrangements to pay your designer. Nobody should have to wait for their money.

Remember that you’re paying for the concept as well as the artwork when making a decision — consequently, the design that you choose might still need some tweaking. This shouldn’t prevent you from choosing a winner. Even the winning entry of the contest held to design the logo for 99designs itself had some minor font and alignment tweaks applied before it was put to use. If you’ve been communicative and paid the winner promptly, they may even be prepared to help you apply that final polish.

5. Guard Your Reputation!

Your reputation is gold — the more contests you post, the more designers will get to know you and trust you. I’ve seen what happens when a contest holder loses trust, and it’s ugly. Worse yet, you have the potential for getting yourself banned if you don’t follow the contest guidelines. Read the guidelines carefully before you launch a contest.

6. Get Personal

Take a look at other contests, find designers who do great work and whose style you like, and invite them to join your contest. A personal invitation is not just a way to get better results; it’s very flattering to the designer that you took the time to personally invite them to join your contest.

Clinching Contest Success

By following the steps outlined above, we’ve found that all of the contests we run on 99designs are successful and, more importantly, very popular. We have the best designers entering our contests, we don’t receive any negative feedback on the approach we take to running contests, and we always find a winning design. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list of tips for contest success. I’d love to know what works for you!

Joey AmbroseJoey Ambrose
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Joey Ambrose is the President of Go Web Solutions, a fast-growing web design firm in Tucson, Arizona. His idea of "unplugging" is going for 100+ mile bike rides in the deserts of Arizona.

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