039: How to win online voting competitions

Nonprofit voting competitions are like fads that come and go. They pit nonprofits against each other to see you can get the most votes in order to win the prize. Mark Horvath, the founder of invisiblepeople.tv, and CMO of The Rescue Mission has participated and won some of these competitions but the greatest tip he has is actually not to play them at all.

Mark talks about the true cost behind burning your list to ask potential donors to vote for you.

'The best way to win online vote competitions is to not play' podcast interview w/ @hardlynormal Click To Tweet

Gary V and Mark Horvath winning Pepsi Refresh




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Episode 39

George Weiner: This is Using the Whole Whale, a podcast that brings you stories of data and technology in the nonprofit world. My name is George Weiner, your host and the chief whaler of wholewhale.com. Thanks for joining us.

Welcome to episode 39. I am so excited about today’s guest and talking about this topic but first since I have your attention and you’ve been so nice to listen to this podcast I just advantage of your generosity by just asking you to vote for us. We’re part of this competition. I just need you to vote. It only takes ten minutes to go on, find this random website, go find the thing, and I have a 1 in 1,000 chance of winning $100 for the top vote. So like please just, you know, I have to stop. I can’t even continue with this. I’m joking. Hopefully you know that I’m joking but this is what happens when nonprofits ask their audience, beg their audience, for votes in pointless voting competitions for a tiny carrot that in no way matches the amount of effort and true cost involved.

Today’s guest is going to help us put this into context. Mark Horvath, fantastic guy, founder of invisiblepeople.tv, has actually won a number of voting contests and honestly has come out the other side a wiser guy with some great thoughts that hopefully you can maybe play for somebody who in your position is trying to encourage you to do a voting contest or participate in something that is a crowd sourced if we get enough votes we get enough money type of competition. So I really hope that you find this conversation as interesting as I do because I think it’s incredibly important.

I’m here with my friend, Mark Horvath, who is the CMO of Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse and also founder of Invisible People. How’s it going, Mark?

Mark Horvath: I am doing great and excited to have this chat.

George: Oh, boy, and this chat is something that actually you posted something, you know, I wouldn’t say as far as a rant but a little bit about voting competitions. What was grinding your gears about that?

Mark: Well, I’ve seen popular vote contests coming back and our friend, Nancy, from Do Something, posted on her wall, had some other interactions with popular vote contests and nothing like social media to let out a little bit venting and a rant. But really being honest I think nonprofits and brands really should be forewarned that the quick, easy money never is.
George: So what are we talking about specifically here voting contest wise? Can you give me an example?

Mark: Sure. Probably the most famous was the Pepsi Refresh challenge and Pepsi is a brand. It was hugely successful for them and nonprofits actually got some money but it was pitching nonprofits against each other. I say this as somebody that actually won $50,000 from a Pepsi Refresh grant but I didn’t do it with my network.

What I mean is I would never burn my network in that way. Real briefly, if you ever have a friend or a salesperson just like say, “Vote for me, vote for me, come on vote for me, vote for me, vote for me,” you’d walk away and you’d delete them, unfollow them, remove their contact information or all of the above. Well, that’s what we’re doing to donors that, you know, I really believe we have to cherish, honor, and protect our networks. Don’t call them donors. Call them friends. You would never do that repetitively. I mean you would ask a friend, “Hey, vote for me,” but you wouldn’t be doing it 16 times a day because they would no longer be your friends.

We forget about that as nonprofits. We’re like, “Oh my gosh, we’re going to win money.” The other thing is you’re putting nonprofits against each other. So we live in a big scary world and I honestly believe we need to partner, nonprofits, even in the same sector. Homeless nonprofits, that’s my lens, need to be really partnering to end homelessness and poverty. It’s the only way we’re going to do it. The popular vote contests just pitch people against each other.

George: Yeah, so we’ve got a dynamic here where look, I’m sitting at a company, ad agency, what have you, and we don’t know what nonprofit to choose but we have a pile of money. And by the way, a voting contest drives a ton of awareness. You have them leveraging your networks and we don’t even have to pay, only the winner, so if I have 100 nonprofits in a voting contest that’s pretty attractive.

Mark: It is attractive but then again they don’t think. So I like this example. There was a dealership in Florida and they were doing a popular vote contest with a couple of nonprofits and the winner gets $1,000. It’s not a lot of money but it’s enough to get nonprofits jumping. So a friend of mine, because of their nonprofit, approached me to vote. I really thought about it is, “I’m never going to be in that area of Florida and I’m not going to be buying a car so having me like your Facebook page only creates noise for you. It doesn’t really give you a sale. It just makes you harder to connect with the people that might buy a car.”

So even from that aspect, from the brand aspect or the organization aspect, you might… Well, what the heck are you going to do with a million likes anyways? You know what I mean? It’s better to have 1,000 of really engaged supporters, 1,000 really engaged customers, better than a million people from all over the world that are just creating noise.

George: A thousand dedicated fans, certainly that’s the Kelly’s model of how you succeed. But I’ll push this further though. Let’s say I’m a national branch, like a bank like Chase let’s say.

Mark: Well, the Chase one was one of the first ones and there was Pepsi Refresh and there were several others that came around. There’s actually… These are… On the philanthropy side these are well meaning people so there’s a very large one in Los Angeles that’s a million dollars. Everybody wins $100,000. That’s a serious chunk of change.

But again, it’s pushing organizations against each other and you always have to read the fine print because in this particular contest even if you won the popular vote they still go and vote by panel. So you could be the top winner and burned your network and still not get the prize. Again, I’ve got to preface this, this particular organization I’m talking about in Los Angeles is a big foundation and they have great intentions. They’re doing great work and even their model of pushing Los Angeles to be a better city is great. But having a voting people just on their networks and how many votes they can get to win the prize is… There’s better ways. There’s better ways. I mean really on impact who is going to have the most impact, not who has the most friends or can bother the most people.

George: Yeah, and there’s a lot to unpack here. Your rant and these comments are coming up again because we’re seeing this trend arise and I think we’re seeing it arise because there seems to be an unfortunate immutable truth that if you’re on the giving side, if you’re on the Pepsi or Chase side is you basically get a high leverage for a prize package. You’re leveraging your dollars 10, 50, 100:1 because of the amount of impressions these forced voting competitions drive for your site.

So the return, scarily, might be there if you’re running the campaign and you’re a nonprofit. It’s sort of like prisoner’s dilemma or war of escalation like I have a chance so I should try.

Mark: Well, all you have to do is drive down any freeway and you can see bad marketing just in the outdoor advertising. It doesn’t mean that it should actually be. So popular vote contests are one tactic and I get it because right now advertising is dying. I mean Apple is soon to be re-launching Safari with ad blockers. I mean the display ads on the internet are going away. Holy cow, what are we going to do?

George: Yeah, seriously what are we going to do?

Mark: You know what I mean? How about providing worth? How about providing value? How about connecting to a loyal audience and considering them friends and developing it that way? No, let’s spike it. Let’s do a popular vote contest and let’s create some noise.

George: So, it’s fair to say if this were a fox five interview and I were asking you the critical question voting competitions for social good, is this a good thing or bad thing, you’re on bad thing side?

Mark: I am on the bad thing side. Even still, I feel a little hypocritical because I won a very large one.
George: You did. You won.

Mark: But I have to go back to say that I had actually turned down the Pepsi Refresh Challenge but when Gary Vaynerchuk contacted me and said it’s my network, we just need you as the charity. It was a three day event at SXSW which got a lot of exposure and Gary Vaynerchuk doesn’t lose. To be honest, there was a lot of help from Jessica Golley, Beth Kanter, and a couple of other people that just…

George: You’re playing with a loaded deck.

Mark: Yeah.

George: You’re playing with a loaded deck there.

Mark: Right. Exactly. It wasn’t my network that was going to be exhausted. It was a different aspect. Now if I was going to enter, I have a theory. If I was going to, it was so compelling that I have to enter this vote contest, what I would do, my suggestion to a nonprofit, is create a landing page that has your story. So you have a video embedded of your story, a short video. You have a link to go and vote and you have a way to catch emails. So even if you don’t lose your email list will go. I mean if you lose, which is probably going to happen, you’re going to collect new names in your email and people will know your story.

So using the Pepsi as an example, when you’re sending people to go vote you’re sending them to the Pepsi site and that’s what Pepsi wants. You’re getting really nothing back in return, especially unless you win and what are the chances. So if you create a landing page, I’ve seen this done one time, and I don’t know under the hood… I don’t know the people from the nonprofit but I thought it was very, very creative and a smart way to do it to get your story out so you’re sending all these people to vote and they get to know you and if they like you they sign up for your email.

George: Yeah, so one of the things I think when we’re talking about should I do it or not, look here’s the opportunity. The company for better or worse has put out x amount of prize. One of the things I think nonprofits that jump in with blinders on, they don’t calculate the true cost. You started off our conversation with that topic. The true cost, it’s free, it won’t cost us anything to join, is a huge lie. There’s time. There’s the cost of messaging to your list. There’s the burn, the churn of your list. How do you sort of sum those up in your mind?

Mark: Again, I’m going to go back to donors need to be friends and we… I think the sexiness of quick, quick money… And everybody is hurting these days so we’re all scrambling to find ways of raising of money. We get blinded that really if you stick with the long game, develop monthly donors that if you…

I like to put it like this. You might win $1,000, you might win $10,000, but if you have a few donors that are going to give $10 a month or $40 a month for several years and in the end you’re actually going to get more money. But if you keep on screaming, “Vote for me, vote for me, vote for me, vote for me, vote for me…”

George: You lose those folks.

Mark: You lose those donors. Gosh, maybe one of them can write a million dollar check or they know somebody that can write a million dollar check. You don’t know. It’s actually deeper than the popular vote contest is you’ve got to protect your list. I mean we don’t… Your direct mail list or your email list or your social media followers, you have to protect that. That’s your network. That’s everything. Basically if you’re entering popular vote contests, you’re selling them off cheap.

George: Yeah, you really are. Final points here. What are your advice to companies either running these things or considering running a voting competition?

Mark: First off, fire what agency just recommended that to you and go find somebody that is good at content marketing. Basically really what you need to do to me, and this is go for the long run, provide worth, tell your story. That’s… Bottom line is popular vote contests are a gimmick.

George: And we know it, right?

Mark: They’re a gimmick. Don’t be blinded by the quick easy money. They’re a gimmick. Don’t lessen or cheapen your brand, your nonprofit by some gimmick.

George: Yeah. And then finally advice for nonprofits that are potentially staring at an opportunity.

Mark: It’s the same thing. It really is the same. It’s a gimmick and I really believe now that I’m back working in a nonprofit, a large nonprofit, we’re developing everything now, try to get away from that campaign thinking and really think about audience building for the long term. Like I’m not going to just spike my numbers for this month. No, just go for that slow uphill always growing instead of spikes and valleys and this rollercoaster ride. You’re going to make more money, have more volunteers, more supporters, by focusing on an audience than you will campaigns and especially gimmicks.

George: Mark, that’s awesome advice. How do people find you and how do people help you?

Mark: Well, hardly normal on Twitter is my main feed but I get a little chatty so you can always slip over to invisible people. That is two ways to get a hold of me.

George: Awesome. Thank you for taking the time.

Mark: You’re quite welcome. Don’t do popular vote contests! Don’t do it!

George: I’m so excited. We had the chance to talk with Mark about voting contests and really what it means when you pit non profit versus nonprofit and a battle to the death of who can waste the most messaging on their audience. It’s really sad. The crazy thing is, if we were playing poker there’s a term called expected value, kind of the idea of what is the expected value of playing this hand and it’s a mathematical calculation factored on how much money I’m willing to put in to win x.

Now, if we were looking at it from just a pure mathematical standpoint, you can break any competition down into an expected value calculation. So hypothetically, when I was joking about there’s a thousand companies, small business, involved in this contest and the winner gets $1,000. Well, you can size it up. I can say, “You know what, I believe I’m in maybe the top 10% of that audience. So okay, I believe I’m more of a 1 in 100 chance,” so it’s the odds one in a hundred. If I play this 100 times, I expect to win at least once.

So the prize pool now is multiplied by those odds. One in a hundred, I chose friendly numbers. One in a hundred, one percent of a thousand gets us to, math majors, $10. So that means the expected value of doing this again and again and again, 100 times, is $10. The thing we forget is the amount of effort that you’re about to put in. That $10, is that worth the several hours plus it’s going to take, the messaging across Facebook and Twitter, the bombarding of my podcast, and the bombarding of my email list for $10?

You can’t look at voting contests when you’re gambling because that’s what you’re doing. You have a chance of winning a prize. You’re playing a slot machine. Look at the odds and look at the expected value. To date, I have never seen a single contest where the expected value makes one iota of sense. They are literally stealing from nonprofits at mass the same way Los Vegas preys on people who don’t understand the odds.

I guess I’m getting a little intense here because I get really frustrated. I get really frustrated when I see these types of marketing competitions pop up and take advantage of nonprofits who are obviously resource constrained, capital starved, and are basically like the uninformed gambler wandering into Vegas.

Please share this with at least two other people that work in the sector. I think it’s important to hear this thinking and go in with your eyes open. Thanks again for listening and more resources as always are available at wholewhale.com/podcast. See you next time.

This has been Using the Whole Whale. For more resources on today’s show, please visit wholewhale.com/podcast and consider following us on Twitter @wholewhale and thanks for joining us.

Today’s music brought to you by the newly married Greg Thomas. Thanks, Greg, and congratulations. And the interlude music brought to you by a group called Broke for Free and the song Night Owl.

(It sounds much better actually. Can you keep talking actually? Yeah, I can. I can do that. Going back home to the village of the sun. out and back upon where the turkey farmers fun. I done made up my mind and I know I’m going to go to some village. Good god I hope the…

You know I’m going to use this, right?

No, you better not.)