Years ago, I used to design and run contests for a digital media company, and I learned an important truth that made me much better at the job:

More people will enter a contest with a really cool prize that's worth, say, $500 or $5,000 than if you simply made the prize $500 or $5,000 in cash.

We used to talk about why this was. Maybe it's that while most people like money, part of the fun is imagining having a specific need or want satisfied. 

  • If you tell someone you'll give them $3,000, maybe they start thinking about how they'd pay bills or save or invest, or wind up frittering it away. But if you offer a $2,500 Caribbean vacation, maybe they imagine themselves leaving their cares behind for a few days on a beach.
  • Likewise, an estimate from a few years ago was that new parents spend an average of about $900 per year to buy diapers for each young child. But when we ran contests for a parenting brand, we'd get more entries by offering "Free Diapers for a Year!" than by simply offering a $1,000 cash prize.

I thought about all of this when I heard that Raising Cane's, the Louisiana-based chicken finger chain restaurant, had spent $100,000 to buy 50,000 tickets in this week's $810 million Mega Millions lottery jackpot, with the promise that the chain's 50,000 employees would split any winnings.

Let's call this the "$2 Truth":

Simply giving $2 to each employee wouldn't have done very much. But instead making a big, fun deal about the idea, sharing that it took eight hours of standing in a pair of 7-Eleven stores and printing 50,000 tickets (bought with cash by the way), and announcing it all to the world got the chain a lot more bang for its two bucks.

"Buying 50,000 lottery tickets is harder than you think!" the company's CEO, Todd Graves, wrote on Twitter. "Hoping to share the winning jackpot with our 50,000 @RaisingCanes Crew."

As you might know, nobody won the Mega Millions drawing the other night. But let's look at what Raising Cane's got out of this whole operation:

  • Tons of media coverage.
  • Positive feedback from employees, according to company spokesperson Julia Doyle. (She forwarded messages from the company's internal app: "Love this. Even if we don't win what a company and Todd to do this. Exciting," and "What fun Aj thanks Todd we all can't wait. GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE.")
  • And, we have to assume, more than $2 worth of dreaming, joking, and thinking about what they'd do if they won.

Now, I have to acknowledge two things: 

First, even with a $1 billion Mega Millions prize, if you have to share it among 50,000 people, the takeaway comes out to only $20,000 each.

Not that I would say no to $20,000, but it's not the life-changing, family-defining amount that winning the whole thing yourself would be.

And, second, I am aware of the irony that the lottery itself offers cash, as opposed to whatever creative $1 billion prize it might come up with. 

Maybe that's the "$1 Billion Exception" to the "$2 Truth."

Or maybe we should point out that math is challenging for some people, which leads many to take lottery prizes as annual installments, which are likely to be worth less overall, rather than a giant lump sum.

But I think there's something worth learning here. It's a reminder that whether you're selling a product or rewarding a team, people buy the benefit, not the feature. And here, the benefit is the dream.

They expect to be treated well and compensated fairly. But when you can add a dose of creativity to prizes, awards, and discounts, you can sometimes reach an emotional level that prompts an even greater reaction.

The only problem -- or maybe I should say, the opportunity -- is that when we're talking about something like lottery tickets, the fact that nobody won the roughly $800 million jackpot earlier this week means that there's now another drawing, with an estimated $1 billion or more prize.

So, does that mean that the folks from Raising Cane's will be spending eight more hours standing in 7-Eleven, buying another 50,000 tickets for Friday's drawing to do it all over again? 

"We are," Doyle told me in a message last night. "Chicken fingers crossed."