Microsoft the Contest Machine

Last updated: 6/30/08

NOTE: If you've been forwarded a link to this blog post, it's likely that one of your colleagues thinks you should do your due diligence before thinking a contest is the fastest road to salvation. It isn't, here's why...

I'm starting a crusade at Microsoft to lower the number of contests we run a year. I know I'll be successful if the number of contests a year goes down. I fear I won't be. First, let me explain by showing how bad the problem is.

The Problem
Today is March 17th, and there are already *18* 30 contests that will finish this year. That's 1.6 contests a week. Mind you, this is only after a cursory search and it does not include Microsoft partner contests (large companies like HP, community sites like codeproject, etc).

1. Mix Restyle contest

2. Mix Show Off

3. Dream Build Play Contest

4. SQL Server Bug Bash

5. Imagine Cup

6. Server 2008 Championship

7. WinTheWeb

8. PhizzPop

9. Office Developer Sleepless Contest

10. Ingenuity Point Contest

11. Next Gen PC Design Competition

12. Small Business Summit Technology Makeover

13. Microsoft Future Pro Photography Contest

14. PowerShell Mascot Naming Contest

15. Windows Live Contest (Zune A Day Giveaway)


17. TechNet DesignIT Contest

18. 2008 Scripting Games

19. Web Harmony

20. Dobbs Challenge (sponsored by Microsoft)

21. Digital Home Makeover

22. SQL Server Heroes 2008 Contest

23. INETA European Silverlight Challenge (sponsored by Microsoft)

24. Ultimate Video Relay

25. Windows Media Center: Ultimate Install Contest

26. TechEd SEA: Blog and Win contest

27. AT&T and Microsoft Indy Mobile Game contest

28. Creator's Club Game On Sweepstakes

29. Microsoft Expression Contest

30. Microsoft Dynamics NAV Contest

31. Silverlight Control Builder Contest

32. INETA Silverlight Challenge

33. Software + Services - Bring it all together

34. PDC 2008 Show Off (and yes I am a "host" for this)

That's a *lot* of contests. Most customers don't even know that half of these exist. In fact, I only knew of about five of them, but still teams are out there building another contest page and even having contests for the same customer base overlapping each other. I wonder if you could live off of just entering Microsoft's never the same teams evaluating your project, idea, etc... Perhaps I should run a contest to have one person try to win every Microsoft contest 🙂

Why do teams run contests?

While this depends on the group, here are some of the most common reasons

  • Community - Grow a community or get the community involved in a technology -

  • Content - Get samples built using a technology

  • Testing - Test a pre-alpha application

  • Usage - Drive usage of a new product or service

Contests to Drive Community
Running a contest to grow a community is probably one of the worst reasons why to run a contest. First off, a contest pits users against users rather than having users work with each other. It forces what are considered equal members to be subdivided based on their skills or aptitude. It's not the healthiest thing to do and it certainly doesn't grow your community.

Contests to Drive Content
Another common reason is to have content built using your technology. There are a couple of reasons why this isn't a good idea, including:

  1. Not Shareable - You did not setup your contest so that the projects themselves would be open source projects and available to everyone

  2. Licensing - The content makes use of things like GPL code or components which may bar the Microsoft team from using it elsewhere

  3. Poorly written The content is built with poor programming standards

  4. Fragile bits - The content is built on an alpha or beta version and likely won't work with the final release

  5. Wrong audience - The audience for the technology is ISVs or VARs that really don't want to share code that they could use/resell

The goal is to drive some form of behavior and in many cases, it's decided by a product manager for a specific technology that really just wants applications and samples to be built using that technology and to drive PR. 

Contests to Drive Testing
Things like a bug bash are probably some of the best suited for contests as it is really more of a reward for helping test an application. The only issues with testing is that depending on the software's complexity, the end result of a bug bash or extra testing end is likely to be documenting the issue in a "known issues" or "readme" document and punting the bug for the next service pack 6-8 months later. If the software is smaller, say like a starter kit or sample versus Windows 7, then most of the bugs found will actually be fixed by the time the sample ships.

Contests to Drive Usage
Usage can be a mixed bag, depending on the service. In many cases, it can drive the wrong behavior, like having hundreds of people sign up for a service that they will never use, just for a chance to win a sweepstakes. The important thing to remember is that you want to drive the right behavior with the right audience. In many cases, customers will jump through whatever hoops necessary to win your "prize" and things like free online services are the most likely to be abused.

Contest Realities

  • Contests drive no PR to your product (with few exceptions). Look at Google and Apple, they smartly do very few contests, about 1-3 a year and they get great press out of them versus the 30-50 department contests we do.

  • Customers are already inundated by existing contests, why will yours rise to the top?

  • Contests may only have a limited number of entrants (20-30). That means your $5,000 in prizes and an additional $10,000 in demand generation, site design, legal fees, etc was a very ineffective spend for such a small audience. You could get more customers by handing out $100 bills at Best Buy

  • Contests that do have lots of entries >1,000 require a massive level of effort to sift through and measure each entry. You better have planned for a lot of logistical time in reviewing each and every entry and how to deal with international entries that may have parts that aren't in English (assuming you're doing a worldwide contest). Judging is a huge, huge time sync and something that would be better used actually talking with or interacting with customers.

What else can I do besides contests?
This depends on your goal, but if your goal is

  • Increase Community Participation - Don't spend money, spend your time engaging customers in your product/service or related community. This could mean 3rd party communities as well

  • Increase Content

    • Product Team: See if you can drive your product team to have an "App Week" where they build content that you would want

    • RDs/MVPs/Student Partners: There are many existing "experts" that don't have a blue badge. In many cases, they're more than happy to help you identify and build content for your product/service, but price and quality do vary between groups

    • Outsource: There are tons of content experts that exist in the world, ask your colleagues who a reputable vendor is for your product/technology and you'll likely find that the cost for a great use of your technology would cost the same, if not cheaper, than running a contest and without any of the associated issues

  • Drive Usage

    • Instead of "bribing" someone into using your product, spend money on making sure your target audience is aware of your offering (advertising/promotion), talk to influencers and see if they'd be willing to try and evaluate your product/service, find another organization to partner with that makes sense, or spend the money on improving the product through "unofficial" features that would make customers *want* to use your product.

  • Get the Marketing Playbook

Do you know of other contests?
Join the overdone-contest movement! If you find a Microsoft team doing a contest, comment here and we'll add it to the list.

Comments (12)
  1. Mike-rosoft says:

    Dan – perhaps your feedback will be better heard internally with MS Poll. Our executives will read every comment.  

    MS Poll Facts:

    The survey closes at  6 p.m., Friday, March 28, 2008 (Pacific Time)

    The survey takes 20 minutes to complete

    All individual responses are confidential

  2. Van says:

    Amen brother.

    As a MS Gold Partner, we’re flooded with contests that require giant Excel sheets to understand.  Yes, there are a lot of products + this licensing eco-system which = sophisticated rules, but I often wish MS would stop providing us with content to distribute and just DO the dang thing and appeal directly to customers, whether they’re consumers or businesses.

    We’re nerds.  We do work.  We don’t do marketing very well.  

    Keep up the excellent writing.

  3. This is great, Dan, and courageous of you to point out. When I ran the evangelism team at eBay I put the kibosh on developer contests for the reasons you point out.

    Contests are like steroids for platforms. They may pump you up in the short term, but they don’t grow the platform, and they detract resources from where they’re needed.

    In a world in which no platform in history has ever provided good enough documentation or code examples, there’s no excuse to do a single contest.

    Throughout the history of American business, the worth of a marketer has been measured by the size of their budget, not the results they bring to the business. Evangelism seeks to disrupt that. More power to you, man.

  4. Contest #20 – I’m including this contest as it’s a Microsoft and Dr. Dobbs contest (not just Dr. Dobbs)

    Honestly the WORST part about this is that they are running a contest to build and modify a game, but

    1. They are not using XNA – our professional tool for building games, especially simple 2D games like this one

    2. The code is in C++

    3. They don’t call out that you can use Visual C++ Express

    (found via Clint Rutkas)

  5. SQL Heroes says:

    Not everybody likes contests apparently… (Foex, I have yet to win anything in the game alpha testing

  6. This is a 3rd party contest, but I’ll add it here for completeness:

  7. tg says:

    Considering the sheer no. of SKUs that MSFT has, I am not sure if the number of contests are that high. Besides, IMHO they are an excellent way to encourage new folks to learn about MSFT technologies.

    I can see the point that they may not be as good a case of ROI as one may like, but that misses the point about evangelism. I have participated in earlier MSFT contests & really enjoyed the thrill of competing against others.

    Frankly, I wish you do not succeed in your attempt to reduce the number of contests. If at all, maybe we need more to encourage communities / students / early adapters.

    Remember, partners & system integrators are not the only customers for MSFT. I think the contest is a great way to induce the non MSFT / open source folks into the MSFT world.

    Just my $.02. Thanks!!

  8. @tg

    TG – Do you have any proof that contests are a good way to encourage new folks to learn about MSFT technologies or that they would be a better spend, then, for example, spending that money on providing free e-books or other learning materials that could be consumed by all?

    How many people do you think enter a normal contest? I’d say its typically less than 100 entries. At that scale, contests simply aren’t worth it and your money would be better spent putting free content/starter kits on the Web that would be exposed and indexed to thousands/millions.

    It sounds like your saying you want more contests, how many more? One a day? Two a day? Were you aware of all the contests that are going on now? I doubt you were and our customers certainly aren’t.

    Without going into details, we even have customers submitting the *same applications* to multiple contests.

    As for your open source comment, it sounds like you didn’t read my post. One of the reasons I think Microsoft doesn’t "get" open source is that open source is all about *collaboration* NOT *competition* yet tactics like contests force open source developers to compete against one another, something that certainly doesn’t help build a successful ecosystem of developers on Microsoft’s stack.

  9. Larry McNary says:

    Where would I go to check on the validity of a Yahoo and Hotmail Microsoft Live international lottery?   From the UK and Africa no less.

    I do not buy it.  I would like to know where to go and who to talk to.

    Respectfully; Larry McNary

  10. ioWint says:

    Blindly we cant say that all the competitions are worthless, but i would definitely agree on the fact tat there are few which seriuosly needs to be refined!

    Ppl who wanna win a contest do learn a technology in which the contest asks them to implement their ideas. its a win win situation 🙂

    And its really true that there are lots of competitions which the general public isnt aware of, i wish a better marketing stratergy is used along with attractive prize money! 😉

    Hmmm havnt we got a Program manager for Contests yet?! 😛 😉

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