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Contests 101

on December 4, 2010

Editor’s note: Over the past few months, we’ve noticed Richmond confidential reporter Becca Friedman always had a lot of new stuff with her. It turns out, in addition to her work on this site and at the Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, she’s a champion contest winner. In this economy, we need all the help we can get, so we asked her to share some of her secrets with the Richmond Confidential audiences. Good luck!

Contests 101

An iPad, an all-inclusive resort stay in Mexico, canvas art for my apartment, a Playstation Move bundle, and a notebook. No, these are not items on my holiday wish-list; they’re prizes I won in sweepstakes over the last few months.

Black Friday and Cyber Monday just passed and if you’re like me you may be feeling like your wallet is on a diet, especially in this difficult economy. There is, however, an alternative that you may not have considered to accumulating an assortment of items this holiday season and beyond. All you need is time, luck, and an optimistic outlook.

It all started while looking for graduate school scholarships. I stumbled upon a website that claimed to be a scholarship site, and turned out to be more of a contest social network. One thing led to another and I discovered that winning contests is something that anyone can do. The following guide is an accumulation of the experiences I’ve had and the lessons I’ve learned over the last year and a half since I fell into the contest world.

I offer this guide to you with one final warning: Contesting is addicting. I know many contesters that spend hours exchanging votes, and others like myself that see the word “win” and feel compelled to read more. But there are worse addictions that don’t include a year’s supply of bananas.

Lesson 1: Definitions

I think it’s important to clarify the difference between contests and sweepstakes from the start. A sweepstakes usually requests basic personal information in return for an equivalent chance at a prize. Drawings for sweepstakes tend to be random, and odds are often based on the number of eligible applicants. On occasion a sponsor may throw in additional ways to receive entries, i.e. tweeting a contest on twitter, but this is still a sweepstakes.

A contest requires the entrant to display a skill. This may take the form of a game they need to complete, a type of photo they must submit, a creative writing piece, a video, or a number of other requests. Many contests winners are chosen through a more rigorous process as well. The winners may be the entrant that has received the most votes, or may be selected by a panel of jurors, or even a combination of the two. Regardless of the form it takes, contests are generally considered to take more effort. They tend, often, to yield greater odds for the entrant.

Lesson 2: The set-up

A lot of people shy away from contests because they are afraid of junk mail and e-mail spam. Yes, it’s likely that you will receive some of both if you become an avid contester, as sponsors often use contests to promote the business, product, or deal. For other sponsors a contest can gather a fan base or help them create a mailing list that will help spread future promotional announcements and/or show advertisers how valuable a partnership can be.

For this reason, many contesters have an email address specifically used for entering contests. I do not advocate the creation of multiple email addresses to vote for yourself or send referrals without bothering friends. This is cheating and looked down-upon. However, in the case of keeping your information private and not clogging your business and school emails, I advise a contest-only email address.

To help you save time while contesting, many contest sites and forums also recommend a form-filler. A form-filler is a tool that usually takes the form of a plug-in for your browser where you can put your personal information in once, hit one button, and it will put your information into the form. This can save you a load of time, especially when you start entering large numbers of sweeps at a time.

And while you’re filling out the form-filler, make sure to use your real information when entering contests. There’s usually an opt-out button to prevent a sponsor from sharing your information, but remember that often sponsors need to call or email you to let you know when you won. They also need to know where to send your prize.

Lesson 3: Read the rules

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen entries that violated the rules of a contest. Many times I suspect that the rule breaking is unintentional and caused by over-excitement about the contest. I know I’ve submitted a photo to a contest online without reading the official rules, having only read the “details,” and had to withdraw my entry. However, it will save you time in the long-run if you do a quick read-through before you enter. Additionally, by entering a contest you generally have to agree to the official rules, and in that case you are essentially signing a contract. You wouldn’t sign an apartment lease without reading the terms would you?

Some common rules to note:

• In the state of California it is illegal to offer alcohol as a prize. Because of this, many contests from sponsors whose primary business is in the sale and manufacturing of alcohol are void in California.

• Most contests require that entries be the original work of the entrant. Simply put, don’t use anyone’s photos, videos, or music other than your own. There are a few exceptions but as a rule of thumb it’s best to have your work represent you, especially since your name is attached.

• Have you entered your photo in a contest before? If the answer is yes, you will want to check the rules of BOTH contests to see if you are allowed to enter it again. In many cases, by entering your creative work into a contest you sign the rights to it over to the contest sponsor. So if you plan to enter it into another contest, you no longer have the right to give the work away. Similarly, many contests state in their rules that the entry content must not have been published or entered anywhere before. When in doubt, don’t re-enter.

• The age of majority in the state of California is 18. This means that if a contest’s eligibility section requires that entrants be the ‘age of majority,’ you must be 18 or older to enter. This is generally the rule unless otherwise stated. Some family-oriented contest may be 13 and older, but generally parental permission is required for anyone under 18-years old.

For your own protection, know the sweepstakes laws. There are several websites out there that you can reference, but the official law can be found on the California Department of Consumer Affairs website.

Lesson 4: Be skeptical

You’ve probably seen those ads that tell you to, “enter now to win $50,000 toward your next home improvement.” In many cases the fine print will explain that you must jump through hoops to enter.

My rule? NEVER pay to enter a contest. This includes contests that require a purchase to enter. If you’re making the purchase anyway, that’s fine. But sweepstakes for major companies must require an alternate (free) form of entry that can usually be found by scanning the official rules.

Buying a raffle ticket at a charity event or fundraiser is an exception to the game of chance and will not be included in the rest of the discussion.

While there are extravagant prizes to be had, you should never drop your guard entirely. Follow your instincts. Sometimes if it sounds too good to be true, it really is. In the case that your instincts steer you away, navigate to the sponsor’s website and see if the contest is mentioned openly on their home page.

Above all else, you should decide if the prize is worth the effort, and also if it’s worth the taxes you’d pay on it.

Lesson 5: Taxes, liabilities, and why the IRS spoils all the fun

Before I enter a contest, I ask myself, “Do I really want/need this?”

If you live in the United States, and you win something, you are responsible for the taxes. How much the taxes will be vary from person to person and winnings are listed on taxes as “other income.” A tax professional and browsing the IRS website, could help you figure out what the actual amount would be.

In most cases the sponsor will send the winner a W9 to report the winnings to the IRS if the prize value is over $600, but it is helpful to track your winnings yourself, especially if the wins begin to flow steadily in. In some cases high-value wins can push you into the next tax bracket, so it’s important to know what that level may be, before entering to win a $30,000 car.

How do you determine the value of your winnings? When you enter a contest the sponsor will list the approximate retail value (ARV) of the prize(s). However, the amount you pay in taxes is based on the fair market value (FMV) of the prize you receive. In that way, if the ARV of a trip to Mexico is listed as $5,000 but when you go you learn the value was actually $4,000, you can dispute it on your taxes if you have proof. When you receive the prize also matters. If you win something in 2009 but don’t see it until 2010, then you don’t have to list it until 2010’s returns.

Lesson 6: It’s all about who you know (or rather, how many)

With voting contests it is important to build a network of people that you know will vote for you. Usually, this means finding a group of people you trust and exchanging votes. Exchanging votes is a reciprocal process where you vote for someone’s contest entry, and they return the vote to you. It’s a win-win situation.

Thinking outside the box and across the internet are also key to collecting votes. You can post a note on your Facebook, tweet on Twitter, or send a request to your blog followers. Whatever the case, if you don’t ask you’re saying no for them. An important note about spreading the word on the internet is that spamming is annoying and can hinder your chances to win. You want people to want to vote for you.

Lesson 7: Contest etiquette

There are a few rules for how the ideal contester would behave for the benefit of all contesters.

• Don’t cheat. Don’t even try. There are people out there that attempt to undermine the rules of a contest out of their own greed. Many of them are caught and disqualified. I won’t discuss the possible methods because you shouldn’t even think about it.

• Don’t ask your friends’ friends to vote. This is perhaps a problem more on Facebook than any other site. Just because someone votes for your friend, does not mean they will also vote for you.

• Don’t steal your friends’ contests. “I need it more,” does not count as a reason to enter. There may be instances where a contest can facilitate multiple entrants winning a prize, but if your friend entered first be sure to make sure they don’t mind. The one instance when this guideline is most lax is in the case of judged contests. If the contest is judged, theoretically everyone has an equal shot at winning.

Lesson 8: Don’t expect to win right away- it takes time

Many new contesters stop entering after a few weeks without a win. I recommend against this. The more you enter, the more likely you are to win. It’s a game of odds and while very few people make any sort of living off of contests, it can lower some financial burdens if you manage to win something you need and would otherwise have had to purchase.

One thing I suggest to new contesters is to play as many instant-win games as possible to start. There’s nothing like an instant win to convince you to keep trying. Like all contests, none of these are guaranteed, but you can check the official rules to see how many prizes are given away. Often instant-win contests offer thousands of very small prizes that your odds of winning skyrocket. And don’t worry too much if you’re terrible at the instant-win games, as the winners are actually based on what time you enter. Many contest sites have a separate list for instant-win contests.

Lesson 9: Where to look

The question people ask me most is, “where do you find all these contests?” There isn’t a simple answer to that question. I have found a few personal favorites, but there are many more out there. I’ve also found that forums are exceptionally strong sources for contests because forum members often contribute to discussions about whether or not a particular contest might be a scam, or whether people are winning the instant wins. A Google search can send you on your quest, but to start you off, here are a few of my favorites:


This list may appear small to start, but I promise that it will take you weeks, if not months, to enter every contest on the sites above.

Lesson 10: Tips and Tricks

A few final tips and tricks from my own arsenal:

• Turn the date stamp on your camera off. Nothing ruins a beautiful photo like a pixelated set of numbers.

• Learn to think like the sponsor: “What would I want to choose to highlight my product the best?” The sponsor’s marketing department is often the party that runs a contest, and many times the purpose of the contests is to source promotional materials or introduce a product.

• It’s a game of odds. The more you enter, the more likely you are to win. I try to enter 10 sweepstakes per day.

• Keep a list of the contests you’re entered in, the dates voting will be open for, the dates they end, and the URL. You can send this to friends, post it to your social networking sites, or just keep it for personal records.

• Be gracious. Always thank the sponsor.

• Beggars can’t be choosers. If you won something and it’s awarded differently than you’d expected, try to remember that at least you have something.

• Have fun! If it becomes a chore, it’s no longer worth the effort.

Our contest! Learn how you can win a $5 gift card

All this talk about contests, we at Richmond Confidential thought we would host our own. From now until Dec. 14, anyone that ‘likes’ Richmond Confidential on Facebook will be automatically entered to win a $5 gift card to your choice of three retailers (Starbucks, Petco, Target). If you’re already a fan, consider yourself already entered. On Dec. 15, I will run all the names through, send you a Facebook message, and once the winner is confirmed we will announce the winner on our Facebook page. Good luck!

Official Rules

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  1. Kim Siflinger on December 4, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    hey there

  2. margaret on December 4, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    nice article!

  3. Colleen Hayes on December 5, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Terrific article !

  4. Phyllis on December 5, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Thanks for the great tips.
    Now I’m off to win the Richmond Confidential Facebook Contest! 😀

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