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Sponsors are real winners in online contests

The Baltimore Sun

Anyone who has ever tried to win an online contest could learn something from Adrian Piccardi.

Piccardi, a 20-year-old freelance movie editor, has netted $23,000 in the past eight months by taking first place in three best-video competitions, campaigning by giving away beer and reaching out to more than 100,000 "friends" on MySpace for votes.

He is a marketer's dream. By going to extraordinary lengths to persuade people to cast ballots in online contests, Piccardi has sent hundreds, even thousands, of users to Web sites that are trying to sell something.

This is how it works: After setting up a user-generated contest, as it is called, all a marketer has to do is sit back and count the hits. That explains why advertisers are expected to spend $4.3 billion by 2011 on user-generated content sites, including YouTube and Flickr, up from $450 million in 2006, according to research firm EMarketer.

"People become their own marketing team, but they're marketing your brand," said Nadia Nascimento, a project manager at Memelabs of Vancouver, British Columbia, which designs and runs online contests. "They're very creative about the way they go about doing this."

Substitute teacher Leigh Meunier didn't just ask her students to vote for her basset hound Lager in the Smoochable Pooch challenge sponsored by Kibbles 'n Bits. She enlisted a teacher friend to encourage kids in her high school science classes to click on Lager's photo. Meunier also dispatched her mother to post fliers promoting Lager at the hospital where she worked in New Jersey.

And Meunier herself voted - many, many times - using about 50 different computers at the school in Boston where she was substituting at the time.

After all that, Lager did not take the top prize of a trip to Los Angeles, $1,000 and a lifetime supply of Kibbles 'n Bits. Meunier said her pet, one of 4,563 entrants, "lost to a stupid pug from Virginia."

Del Monte Corp., on the other hand, was a big winner. Its Kibbles 'n Bits brand got loads of attention, considering that nearly 5 million ballots were cast. And voters presumably saw the ad posted on the Web site for a new dog food that cleans pooches' teeth "for sweet-smelling kisses."

On the all-contest-all-the-time Brickfish Web site (www.brick, every entry in a competition sponsored by Givenchy is generating about 200 comments, said Linda Maiocco, vice president of marketing for Parfums Givenchy, which is part of the French luxury goods maker LVMH. There are 479 entries so far - but nearly 4,000 reviews, 5,500 votes and 92,000 views. (The winner of the contest, to come up with a slogan for a new perfume, will get a free trip for two to New York City to meet actress Liv Tyler.)

"The viral affect of this is really amazing," Maiocco said.

Of course, that's the point.

"The objective of the campaign is to get consumers to spend time with the brand," said Shahi Chanem, CEO of Brickfish, which is based in San Diego. "You want as many interactions as possible."

So the Internet is littered with contests looking for the funniest stand-up comedian, the hippest-looking shoe, the most creative haiku. Most of them are connected to some sort of marketing campaign, which entrants don't seem to mind. And sponsors don't mind if contest entries are harebrained or nonsensical or even deadly dull.

"It doesn't matter what the nature of the content is," said Paul Verna, a senior analyst with EMarketer. "Getting votes is one of the key benchmarks of success."

Some people cheat to get them. They may create several e-mail addresses and vote a number of times from all of them. Or they click on an entry repeatedly, for minutes or hours at a time.

One New York-based contest player who asked not to be identified said it was easy to figure out how to game the system. In one recent competition, she found that double-clicking quickly on the balloting section registered extra votes. The contest site limited each voter to 15 votes a day, but that was also simple to evade.

"It's easy to get votes because you can make up multiple e-mail addresses for things like this, and then vote as many times as you'd like," the New Yorker said. "But it's very time-consuming."

Alana Semuels writes for the Los Angeles Times

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