March 03, 2011
Case Study

Content Marketing: Microsoft crowdsources content ideas with a viral contest for new Windows Phone 7 platform

SUMMARY: Getting ideas for content and knowing which content will excite your audience can be a challenge. One way is to create a contest, offer incentives and ask your audience directly.

See how Microsoft launched a viral contest to get new ideas for mobile apps and build excitement for its new smartphone platform, all without much paid advertising. Also see how measuring interest in certain apps was built directly into the contest's rules.
by Adam T. Sutton, Senior Reporter


There will always be barriers to launching a new product. Microsoft's new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 7, had a big one: Building an applications (apps) library.

A deep library of powerful apps is a huge draw for mobile customers. The mini-programs are some of the most appealing content on smartphones. But Windows Phone did not have an apps library before it launched and its competitors had a multi-year head start.

"It was really important for us to understand which apps our customers were most interested in seeing in the early days," says Marty Collins, Director, Emerging Media, Microsoft. "We were starting an apps library from scratch."

Before phones with the new platform were sold, Collins' team needed to understand the content consumers wanted in the apps library and build excitement for the launch.


Microsoft created a contest where consumers and developers could submit app ideas to be voted on, discussed and shared. The winning app would be available as a free download for Windows Phone 7.

The contest incorporated social and viral tactics to help uncover which apps generated the most excitement. The team would then use the information to guide its apps library.

Here are the steps Collins' team followed:

Step #1. Design contest and rules

For one month, contestants could submit app ideas in a 90-second video or 1,000-word write-up. Contestants could share links to their entry on social networks to encourage friends and contacts to vote for their ideas.

A single grand prize winner would receive $5,000, a new Windows Phone 7 device, and have his or her app available as a free download for the platform. Four runners-up would receive a Zune mp3 player.

Awards were judged on the following criteria:
o Creativity
o Relevance
o Audience support
o Votes
o Viral influence

[Note: Be sure to check with your team's lawyers before running a contest or sweepstakes, as they are controlled by specific laws.]

Step #2. Set up contest architecture

Contestants could submit entries on the Windows Phone website and a partner's website. The user experience was housed in an interactive tool similar to a large widget (see creative samples below). The tool was identical on both websites and included five tabs:

- Overview

This default tab listed the basic information about the contest, prizes and deadline. It included links to learn more about Windows Phone apps, submit entries and view all entries.

- Entries

This tab listed current entries in a thumbnail format for browsing. When clicked, a thumbnail revealed an entry's page. Each entry page included:
o Contestant photo
o App idea description and information
o Comments and reviews
o Social sharing buttons
o Button to vote for the entry
o A graph that visually and numerically illustrated the social activity around the entry in various networks (see creative samples)

- Details

Here visitors could find all the contest information in detail, such as eligibility requirements, steps to enter, prize descriptions, legal information, and a link to a PDF with more details.

- Submit entry

This tab included a simple form for entrants to submit a video or text entry.

- Social activity graph

Similar to the graph on each entry page, this graph illustrated the total reach and sharing data of all entries in the contest.

Step #3. Incorporate a viral strategy

Collins' team needed to measure the social and sharing activity around each app to better understand consumer preferences. By making several viral tactics central to the contest, the most popular app ideas would rise to the top. Additionally, the use of viral tactics fit well with the team's limited budget.

"You can get exponentially more value out of your investment if you can figure out a way to get people to share with their own social graphs and spread your message," Collins says.

Here are three key viral elements to the campaign:

- Built into contest rules

As mentioned, entries would be judged largely on the social activity they generated -- such as comments, shares and links. This expanded the campaign's reach by offering incentives to contestants who ask friends and followers to share and vote for their ideas.

"We also know that word-of-mouth and social-sharing are exponentially more meaningful to somebody than a banner or another non-word-of-mouth experience," Collins says.

- Easy sharing across networks

With a few clicks, contestants could share a link to their entries with contacts via Facebook, Twitter and email. They could also copy provided HTML code to embed a link to their entry in other sites, social networks and forums. The winning entry, for example, also promoted her entry in MySpace and PCWorld's forums.

- Work with relevant partner

The team worked with a partner that had an audience built around viral contests (see useful links below). By hosting the same contest experience on the partner's site, the campaign received exposure from an audience that was predisposed to similar contests.

Step #4. Promote the contest

The team had limited resources to kick off the campaign and focused on channels that would be likely to encourage social activity around the contest. In addition to exposure on its partner's site, the team helped attract attention through:

- Facebook advertising

The team built a tab for its Facebook profile that featured an image describing the campaign. When clicked, the image linked to the contest page on the Windows Phone website. The team also purchased advertising on Facebook throughout the campaign which pointed visitors to this tab.

- Social network updates

The team periodically updated the Windows Phone profiles on Facebook and Twitter with information about the contest and a link to the contest on its website.

- Email

The Windows Phone monthly email newsletter included information about the contest and a link to its page during the campaign.

- PR and outreach

The team also pitched industry publications and blogs for mentions and posts about the contest.

"We were super happy with the contest. The engagement metrics were amazing," Collins says.

Stats for the contest:
o 1,860 entries
o 32,906 votes
o 8,394 reviews and comments
o 67% of all entries were shared on another site

Each contestant spent an average 9.2 minutes engaged in the contest.

"It was over nine minutes people were spending with the brand. You never see that anywhere," Collins says. "So we're really, really happy with the results for sure."

Furthermore, the engagement metrics such as the votes, reviews, comments and shares helped inform the team's decisions about which apps to feature in the Windows Phone 7 library when the platform went live.

Useful links related to this article

1. Contest home
2. Winning entry page with social activity graph
3. Final results and entry thumbnails
4. Details tab

Members Library -- Driving Sales through Social Media, Smartphones and User-Generated Content: 4 tactics for retailers

Content Marketing: How to get your subject matter experts on your corporate blog

Windows Phone: Facebook

Windows Phone: Twitter

Brickfish - powered campaign architecture and hosted the contest as a partner

Windows Phone

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