Savvy marketing professionals and agencies representing big brands often turn to online giveaways to create hype for a new product or event, drive engagement, grow their email list, and/or boost their social media followings.

It sounds like a foolproof plan: Host a giveaway (everyone likes free stuff!) and you'll receive more sign-ups, likes, comments, and follows than you've ever had. Sales will spike because awareness for your product and brand will be so broad--and you will be profitable forever after.

Time for a reality check! While giveaways can be incredibly effective for reaching business goals, they can also be a huge waste of time and money if you haven't prepared well. Thorough preparation includes asking yourself a handful of important questions during the planning process.

How do I know?

Because having run ShortStack.com for the past five years, I've examined the results of thousands of giveaways and have a pretty good understanding of what it takes make a giveaway successful.

Here are four questions you need to ask and answer before you host your next giveaway so you don't end up wasting your money or your time.

Does the prize have emotional appeal?

While expensive prizes are what some marketers might call "sexy"--an all-expenses-paid trip to an exotic location or the latest Apple must-have--they don't guarantee success. The giveaways that do really well, i.e., get shared a lot and/or receive thousands of entries, are the ones that take their intended audience into consideration. The prizes speak directly to the needs, interests, and desires of the audience they're trying to target.

I happen to have an excellent example of this concept. My team just wrote a case study about a contest hosted by Tootsie Roll Industries, the iconic candy company. The prize? The opportunity to be a test-taster for a new Tootsie Pops flavor.

More than 43,000 people entered the contest in just three days.

Obviously it wasn't the value of the prize that drove this crazy level of interest and engagement, it was the unique prize.

During your planning process, spend some time thinking about the kinds of prizes that will resonate with your audience. You could save money on what might have gone to an unnecessarily extravagant prize and you'll also help improve your giveaway's odds of attracting more of the kind of people you want to engage with, the way Tootsie Pops did.

Am I asking people to share more information than they want to share, or want to spend time sharing?

Even as people become more comfortable with sharing information about themselves online, there's still resistance. The two biggest reasons for this reluctance to share are lack of trust about what will happen with the information, and lack of time.

First, people don't trust businesses to do the "right thing" with their personal information. ("Sure, asking for my email address is fine, but why do you need my phone number and zip code and marital status, too?!") When creating your giveaway's promotion form, avoid asking your users to share too much information in order to enter. Instead, ask for the bare minimum, like a name and email address. This is one piece of advice that has been proven to help increase conversions. By simply reducing the number of fields in your form from six to three, you can increase your giveaway's conversion rate on average by 66 percent, according to QuickSprout.

Second, in the time it takes a person to enter a giveaway, even one with minimum form fields, a potential entrant could be doing a million other things. What's more, they're likely being distracted by Facebook notifications, incoming text messages, Slack pings, etc.

The less time you require entrants to spend navigating your form, the better.

Have I automated the promotion of my giveaway as much as possible?

When you're planning your giveaway, it's easy to think that by the time it launches, executing it will be your top priority. Think again. What often happens for businesses running giveaways in-house is that the responsibilities of day-to-day business get in the way--go figure! This often shoves promoting the giveaway to the bottom of the daily to-do list.

To avoid doing your giveaway a disservice, automate your promotional efforts as much as you can before it even starts.

This is easy.

First, set up autoresponder emails to fire off to entrants at calculated times. Second, schedule various social media posts to publish throughout the duration of your giveaway. The more you invest in marketing automation processes, the better chance your giveaway has of being successful.

Do I have a post-giveaway action plan?

If you don't have a solid post-giveaway plan, you're shortchanging yourself. Why? Because your giveaway's ROI cannot be fully realized unless you make use of all the data you collected.

Think of every person who entered your giveaway as a brand new lead. And if you got your prize right, they're not just leads, they're highly qualified leads. To make them work for you, you must follow up. Whether it's sending out a personalized and incentivized email, or commenting on each piece of user-generated content that was created to enter to win your giveaway, follow-up is a crucial step in the giveaway process. Without these post-giveaway efforts, you're missing out on the real value of hosting a giveaway.

Do you have any questions about how to make the most of your online giveaway? If so, leave them for me below.

Published on: May 27, 2015