Those of us who eat, sleep (and occasionally — oh nevermind) on Twitter have noticed an increase in the Twitter “RT Contests” being promoted by companies in an effort to leverage folks who want free shwag to whore out their promotion.

When it was only a few companies, it didn’t seem so bad, but now that all the cool kids are doing it, has it become just another kind of Twitter spam?

This has been a bug up my ass for a while, but I let it go, since it seemed like there were really only a handful of companies pushing them. Now that the trend seems to be spreading like social media herpes, I decided to share a few thoughts.

If you were the FIRST person to come up with this idea, you *might* have been clever. But you weren’t. Odds are, you weren’t even in the first thousand to try it. You jumped on the bandwagon after you saw people you follow mindlessly posting contests and promotional tweets in the desperate hope of winning a donkeypunch, or a unicorn or whatever it is the company was hawking.

Fundamental Misunderstanding of Twitter

I can see the allure. It’s free, and has the potential to spread like wildfire, as many things do on Twitter. And it’s ZOMGSOCIALMEDIABBQFTW!!

The problem is that as this technique gains popularity, it begins taking over user’s Twitter streams, especially when it’s being used by a popular company.

Okay, I lied. That’s not the only problem.

The second problem is that it demonstrates once again a fundamental misunderstanding by companies about how Twitter should be used – or rather, how Twitter users expect and want it to be used. I have said this a hundred times, and will likely say it a hundred more – Twitter is about conversation. It is a two-way street. If you’re looking for a way to broadcast promotions, use an email newsletter list, targeted ads, or another more appropriate advertising vehicle.

Another facet to this is the fact that many companies don’t grok that Twitter isn’t Facebook. Twitter isn’t just a place where you connect with people you already know – trusted friends and colleagues. Twitter, by it’s very nature, encourages you to connect with people you have never met, and with whom you may share *some* common interests, but I can tell you my own list of Twitter followers are as varied as colorful as can be imagined. A good many of them classify themselves as geeks in one way or another, but even with that seemingly clear delineation, some are math geeks, some are science geeks, some are literature geeks, and so on. Some are Mac users, some are Linux/BSD or Windows users. Even out of the smaller subset of people on Twitter that I interact with every single day (my Twitter BFFs?), they’re not going to have the same interests.

Encouraging your Twitter followers to spam their friends with contests and promotions that they very likely may not even be interested in will only result in their followers resenting you *and* unfollowing the original tweeter. I treat RT contests very much like the recent syphilitic plague of Twitter-based games such as Mafia Wars. If I get an @reply or DM that was generated by a Twitter game, that is an instantaneous unfollow, no backsies.

I have marginally more patience for RT contests than Twitter games, only because I still see them less often, but anyone who knows me knows patience isn’t one of my many, many virtues, so if this trend continues, I could easily see my stance getting a little more aggressive on it.

Worst of the Worst

The worst offenders are folks like MacHeist, who offers free Mac software for download, but only if you tweet an ad for them. Their system actually checks to see if you have tweeted this message, and only then will allow you to download the software. Fucking lame.

They’ll call it a clever promotional tool, I call it blackmail. Somehow requiring a user to tweet something in order to enter a contest feels less awful to me than their approach – perhaps because contests already come with the sense that your chances of winning are limited, so a user is more likely to opt not to tweet and enter because they have decided that their slim chance of winning is not worth pissing off their followers.

Incidentally, I have spoken to a few groups that have used Twitter Tweet/RT contest promotions before, and according to them, their success rate wasn’t even very good, according to whatever metric by which they gauge this sort of thing. That is, of course, entirely anecdotal, since I made no effort to solicit this information from many of the larger companies using it because I don’t *care* how successful it is. It’s still obnoxious.

I was curious what my own Twitter followers thought, so I posted an (unscientific) poll:
poll

Only *one* user voted that they felt this was “clever marketing” (and that vote followed me remarking that I found it interesting that no one selected that option yet, so there’s a good chance the voter was just being a wiseass.) Almost 25% answered that they felt it was flat-out SPAM, and over 60% said it depends how it’s executed, but it feels mostly spammy to them.

The Secret

Here’s the big secret these companies seem to be missing – if your contest doesn’t suck, many of your users will retweet it because they *want* to, not because they have to.

Make it easy for them to tweet it – set up a pre-filled Twitter message so they only have to click “tweet” (but always always ALWAYS give them the chance to alter or add to the message) after they’ve signed up for the promotion and they probably will! If the prize or promotion is good enough on it’s own merit, people will talk about it. You don’t need to strong-arm them into doing it.

It comes down to part of the psychology of Twitter users. Being the first to tell their followers about something they think is awesome, and they think their followers will find awesome, is one of the most rewarding aspects of Twitter. It helps establish them as an authority on all things awesome, and shows their followers that they have something of value to offer. In return, their announcement gets Retweeted, and they feel good knowing they have sent a message that resonates with many of their followers. It is a win-win for the original tweeter, and for their followers.

Let this social dynamic of Twitter work on it’s own. This organic way of spreading information is exactly what made Twitter popular – not by companies forcing users to shill for them.

What are your thoughts? Am I over-reacting? Let me know in the comments.

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Iā€™m a tech geek/dev/infosec-nerd/scuba diver/blacksmith/sword-fighter/crime fighter/ENTP/warcrafter/activist. I'm the CTO at Mass Mosaic and the CEO of Grokability, Inc. in San Diego, CA. Tweet at me @snipeyhead or read more...

  • Bam

    While I have been guilty of the occasional contest-required RT, I still find it spammy. I find the contests that require quotes using certain words/hashtags to be much more entertaining and less spammy. But, yeah.. the only RT's I've done are ones that I know at least a small number of my followers will find interesting (and they usually do) and that it's for something that I actually like and truly want. People that RT every contest they come across, whether they want the item up for grabs or are just being greedy, pisses me off and makes me want to kill nuns.

  • The “copy our text and tweet that” shit sucks. I've done it precisely once, because I'm friends with the author the contest was for. But yeah, that sucked too.

    THe ones where you can tweet whatever you want, as long as it has <keyword> in it, those are okay, because it lets people be somewhat creative/interesting about it. Those i don't mind so much.

  • sdmonty

    me: “hi, my name's Stephen, and I've twitted contest spam.”
    everyone in the room: “hi, Stephen.”

    yes, we need a support group for this; seriously, I think you're totally on Alison; although I have re-tweeted in the name of getting something cool, I always follow up by taking a bath because it does make me feel just a little… dirty (and not the good kind).

    and you're right, if something is inherently cool it can spread on its own…

    the one thing I'll add is that while spammish tweets can be annoying, so can't the regular old kind; that is to say, even with people that I follow I occasionally find things they say annoying or just down-right unnecessary, but I just ignore that stuff and relish in the times they are erudite and eloquent. If one of the peeps I follow tosses some silly “I just got a chance to win a Wii, and you can too” RT in, I'll just cut them the slack of being a human being swimming in a Capitalist culture that's so obsessed with having stuff.

    If their twitter stream becomes totally clogged with said missives, well then it's time to cut the cord.

  • I say it is viral marketing. You know what else is viral? AIDS.

  • very insightful post, i totally agree with you, people should create content / competitions that people want to retweet and make it easy for them to retweet and not force it on people, that sort of approach has the potential to be abused which may put you in the same category as everyone else who does the same thing which may not be good in the long run

  • I'm mostly in the 61%. I think the concept works in some circumstances but not in others. I consciously tweet about new / cool tools / apps I find useful and solicit opinions when looking for something, most recently I got fed up with Roboform and found LassPass for password management which gives credence to your 'Social Dynamic'. As a contest, I think it is more a matter of context as to if its appropriate. As a Use Case: Tweetboard, a web widget that embeds Twitter conversations onto your site gave invites by tweeting your request. I think this was appropriate because it promoted both their service and your site (your url was included in the tweet) and also because the service / product was twitter based. In addition, you could as you mentioned, customize the single requisite tweet.
    Personally, I don't think a single tweet is a high price to pay for an opportunity. That said, I would un-follow someone who's entire tweet stream is composed of 'RT I just entered X contest!' in the same way that I would hesitate to use a product / service / contest that required me to continuously spam or harass my followers. Once is an announcement. More than that is spam / harassment.

    I'm guilty of playing a few of those horrific games like Mafia Wars et al. However, I won't use any that force me to DM / Tweet / FB 'Invite Just 5 people…' to use the service. I think it's really about the users making conscious decisions. Most of my twitter followers are Geeks, Musicians and / or Real Estate related, so I wouldn't have too much trouble promoting a RT contest for a signed Les Paul Guitar. However, I would balk at sending out 30 tweets a day for 30 different give-a-ways. If I found 30 guitar related give-a-ways I and wished to promote / enter them I might consider blogging about it then tweeting the blog once.

    Just my 2 cents. BTW, glad to see another Retaggr user, I've been trying to figure out why more people aren't using it. Perhaps Retaggr needs a RT contest?

  • Thanks for the great comment, Adarro. You bring up an excellent point about blogging about it and tweeting it once. Unfortunately, the way many of these contests works, that means that you wouldn't qualify for those in the case where a tweet is required to enter the contest, and that's pretty spot-on for why I don't like those kinds of contests. I have plenty of avenues by which I can promote something I like – forcing me to spam isn't the way to do it.

  • Thanks for your comment, Adelaide!

  • LOL nice analogy, Zacqary.

  • I totally agree. I'm willing to forgive the occasional indiscretion, especially if the tweeter is someone who usually posts things I'm interested in. Early on, I tweeted the MacHeist thing myself. Once. And then I thought about it more, took a bath and decided that it pissed me off and was unfair to my followers.

    The stupid thing is, if they didn't *force* me to do it, I'd probably RT it on my own because my followers might be interested. It's the 5-foot-tall Italian redhead thing – I don't like being forced to do anything, even if it's something I would totally do on my own.

  • Yeah, I'm less peeved over the ones that let you pick your own text, for the same reasons you mention. That feels less like they're forcing my hand, and more like they're giving me an opportunity to share something cool. Purely bullshit psychology, but it matters to me.

  • Thanks for the great comment, Adarro. You bring up an excellent point about blogging about it and tweeting it once. Unfortunately, the way many of these contests works, that means that you wouldn't qualify for those in the case where a tweet is required to enter the contest, and that's pretty spot-on for why I don't like those kinds of contests. I have plenty of avenues by which I can promote something I like – forcing me to spam isn't the way to do it.

  • Thanks for your comment, Adelaide!

  • LOL nice analogy, Zacqary.

  • I totally agree. I'm willing to forgive the occasional indiscretion, especially if the tweeter is someone who usually posts things I'm interested in. Early on, I tweeted the MacHeist thing myself. Once. And then I thought about it more, took a bath and decided that it pissed me off and was unfair to my followers.

    The stupid thing is, if they didn't *force* me to do it, I'd probably RT it on my own because my followers might be interested. It's the 5-foot-tall Italian redhead thing – I don't like being forced to do anything, even if it's something I would totally do on my own.

  • Yeah, I'm less peeved over the ones that let you pick your own text, for the same reasons you mention. That feels less like they're forcing my hand, and more like they're giving me an opportunity to share something cool. Purely bullshit psychology, but it matters to me.

  • i don't think you're overreacting at all.

    It WAS clever the first few times someone did it, now it's just people seeing who can yell the loudest. If the campaign has legs it will grow because of emotional connection to the content, as you stated, not because someone wants to win a prize.

    Socially, I think that the price of spamming your friends is ultimately greater to most people than the value of the prize offered. This only changes is the perceived value of participation offsets the perceived costs of spamming one's friends/followers.

    Thanks for your thoughts, well said.

  • I think within the past 72 hours I've realized I want to exchange BFF lockets with you, you know those half-heart lockets that you press together in person and I believe you form Voltron or a massive Thundercat? Ya, you're awesome.

    I remember seeing one of the first companies that did this with any reasonable success… of course, I can't remember there name, which in itself is a testament to the staying power of one of those tweet-orgies for a short period of time.

    I believe that once Twitter notices a trend that's been “forced” (aka bribed) they actually remove the term from trending topics, defeating part of the purpose of the campaign.

    It also throws in the issue of disclosure. If you're told “TWEET THIS LINK TO WIN AN IPOD” and then the tweet is “Scottzies SEO company rulez the interweb tubez” you've now endorsed a company that you really know nothing about, and in theory need to disclose the fact that you tweeted it to try and win something, according to my uneducated interpretation of the new FTC laws.

    People spread things on Twitter and everywhere else naturally because it's either funny, makes them say “wow” or evokes a strong emotion. Trying to force it is just lazy. These companies should focus on making something great. When you're good, you're forced to tell others. When you're great, others tell (tweet) it for you.

  • wade

    I think this is only true for the early adopters of twitter. the early adopters have become pros and acutely understand how to use Twitter to maximize it. To them, these RT contests are SPAM, the get in the way of the real conversations and relationships they are trying to foster.

    However, as twitter becomes more popular and the masses of moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas get on it, the median level of user sophistication lowers. it is unlikely this new audience truly understand how to use twitter anymore than the companies that are pushing the RT contests. to them it is all a novelty, or at worst, white noise. the RT contests don't interfere with their use of twitter, because they aren't truly using twitter.

    the bad news is their numbers will rapidly increase and greatly out number the early adopters. thus adding a larger audience for these companies to blindly market RT contests too. you will just get more and more frustrated until the new whiz bang tool comes along and you put away your twitter account in your closet, right next to your myspace account.

    the war is already lost, move on.

  • wade – I'm sorry, I don't subscribe to the “well we can't make a difference, so stop talking about it” school of thought. I think discussions like this from smart people actually do shape the way the community grows, especially in social media. They may not eliminate the problem entirely, but they will shape the way things are done. Small companies that are just trying to figure this out will copycat larger companies who are getting great results (or end up on Mashable a lot for being great at this stuff). It's how the RT contest (and other social media diseases) became popular in the first place. By keeping the conversation alive, we have a better change of the people working at these large companies (either as social media agencies or in-house) actually hearing it.

    But maybe it's just me. I'm just not a “give up, it's a lost cause” kind of chick.

  • OMGBFF!! It's a deal. šŸ˜€ Growing up, my sister and I played Wonder Twins, and since I was younger, I *always* got stuck being the bucket of water.

  • We did one of these for our Beyond Blogging launch, and more than anything, it was great for brand presence. I didn't get any complaints, but I'm sure some were turned off by it.

    You're right though, the contest can't suck, and it can't look like spam.

  • “the war is already lost, move on.”

    Yep, fuck it. Why even try to educate others on how to get the most out of Twitter.

    (packs his bags)

    Or…………………. Since people are coming in droves we can choose to try and educate them.

    “early-adopters” to use an over-used phrase, have a choice. They can resent the “n00bs” that come in their land and piss and moan on what it used to be like (like the early Nirvana fans that remember them before Teen Spirit hit MTV and were grunge before it was trendy) or they can do what a true pioneer fan of something should do: help guide the way for people and companies that truly want to use it as a relationship platform.

    Sure, I remember Twitter when the trending topics didn't contain #Jonas #IdTapThat and #JustinBieber but that's the part of something growing and evolving.

    We can either adapt and help out the millions of people and companies that are willing to learn best practices by reading a great blog post such as this, or just give in, stop listening to Nirvana and say the war is already lost, move on.

    I just choose the former.

  • Spam. The more successful it is, the more annoying it becomes because you see more and more of it. I was on the verge of mass unfollowing people during the flood of spam with #moonfruit, “I just upgraded Hootsuite” and “I just took the 'How much of a Twitter douchebag am I?' quiz.” All the Formspring tweets are starting to get a little annoying too.

    You want to know how well those campaigns worked on me? Those companies destroyed their brands in my eyes. They promote themselves by encouraging the worst sort of behavior on the net: spamming. I will never use Moonfruit or Hootsuite or any other company that does that. I don't use my Twitter login on any site that I suspect is going to send a tweet with my account.

    I might be a little bit of a hypocrite because I did participate in the Shorty Awards thing that's happening right now. But they're not selling anything or giving anything away (that I know of), so it doesn't set off my spam alarm. It looks like it might be pretty annoying to people getting hundreds or thousands of nominations though, since it tweets their name.

  • The RT contests are totally dumb. I have to agree with you. It reminds me of the stupid emails I get all the time that say forward to 20 friends in 5 minutes to have your wish come true, or the many other spammy emails.

    I fell for the RT contest once for a game in my niche. The problem is all my followers were also following the game company. I ended up getting 30 RT's of the same Twitter, and I am sure the same thing happened to them.

    The bad part is they wanted you to do it for 12 days. (12 days of Xmas). Every day it was the same exact video they wanted you to retweet. It was definitely the lamest RT contest I ever saw.

  • Heh – it's funny – almost everyone who has commented or talked about this post on Twitter admits that they have fallen for it once, and they are now the ones being most vocal about how much they suck. Whatever marketing rationale these companies are using, any promotional method that nets out with your users feeling like they need a Silkwood shower clearly isn't working.

    PS – Don't feel badly. I did it once too, many moons ago.

  • Yeah, somehow the Shorty Awards don't feel as shitty – probably because (as you mentioned) they're not selling anything. But their very definition, the person you're voting for needs more votes to win. You genuinely support the person, or you wouldn't have nominated or voted for them in the first place, so it feels a little more like a selfless act for a cause that you believe it more than shilling a product or service.

    I didn't get thousands of nominations, so it wasn't annoying to *me* – in fact, I thought it was sweet every time a notification showed up in my @replies timeline. I don't know if that would still seem sweet after a few hundred a day though. Even so, I think people are kind of used to that, since anyone popular enough to be nominated that often is already used to having their tweets retweeted hundreds of times a day.

  • Shaktipaj

    Firstly – you are my Wonder Woman, my Storm, my Tank Girl! Yeah, I love your tweets and blog that much!!! One of my resolutions this year is to stop being a dishrag and start saying what I really felt – thanks for leading the way.
    I admit to having done this, and mea maxima culpa to all the good people I spammed, cuz that's what it was! Luckily, a good friend who was more Twitter savvy DM'd me and basically said 'hey newbie – you are spamming your stream!' Thank god for great friends! I think we should all be so lucky….

  • gregmelton

    Great post, snipe! RT contests are lame. Ideally, the contest should be so awesome that you naturally want to share it with people. I can think of a few on twitter where I actually did this (squarespace, but it was more for the prize then the service). So, I suck.

    What do you think about the idea of offering a bonus prize (in addition to an actual prize) for people who promote your contest via twitter/facebook, etc? It removes the retweet as a requirement for winning and also makes the contest less spammy-ish.

    We recently launched a contest platform using the above premise which works with Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Google Friend Connect, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Digg, and FriendFeed OAuth. Would love to hear your feedback on it. You can learn more here: http://skril.com.

    -greg

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  • Fman

    18 months late to the party I know, but here are my thoughts.

    You touch on the company treating the retweeters as just marketing shills. They’re actually insulting them in a huge way that people don’t seem to understand.

    The odds of winning a regular contest diminish as more people enter it. So there is some pyramid action as friends tell friends about it and the company itself promotes it to new people. But with these ‘retweet to enter’ contests you are the ones forced to actively reduce your chances of winning by getting tens or hundreds of more people down the line in your twitter follower pyramid.

    This is happening for everyone who enters, some with thousands of followers so the exponential rise in entrants make it as good as certain you aren’t going to win. If a company gets 20,000 retweets for a contest for a $200 ipod or something it’s cost them 1 cent per tweet.

    That’s so super cheap, no wonder everyone is doing it. It’s zero about giving anything to the community or boosting your online reputation, only it does because so many people on twitter appear clueless as to the odds of winning such a thing and think they have a ‘fair chance’.

    I know it just takes a second to click retweet so they feel they may as well enter and not really expect to win, but have some self respect and don’t let yourself be whored out like a 1 cent hooker.