Competitions 1: Psychology of successful competitions

Whilst discussing the merits of competitions with a team of on-air professionals, a particularly enthusiastic chap, clearly out to impress me, proudly announced that that morning he had casually given away a substantial cash prize, “One caller, one question, ten grand, just like that” and he clicked his fingers. “Well then”, I replied, “that was a particularly crap competition.

I doubt if I’ll ever crack a Christmas party invite from him, but I think I got my point across. I heard an aircheck of him a couple of weeks after the workshop and he was employing what I had discussed with the team, clearly with exciting effect.

A lot of people in radio think that a competition is about giving away cool prizes on air. It’s not. It’s called a ‘competition’ because it’s all about competing and it’s NOT about the contestant/s competing. It’s about the listeners competing against themselves and, if possible, against each other.

There are two reasons why an on-air contestant is used in a radio competition:

  • to be a toy, or,
  • to be an enabler

The first reason is purely for entertainment, when the prize is invariably small in value such as movie tickets and the contestant is ‘toyed’ with by the host of the show – similar to a Jack Russell playing with a mole before biting its head off. It may sound a little predatory, even nasty, but if done correctly and if the contestant is properly assessed (as being willing and able to interact) and warned in advance off-air (“we’re just going to have a little fun, OK”) it provides an injection of entertainment in which the prize is secondary to the back-and-forth banter between the host and the contestant; as long as no-one loses their head in the process of course.

The second reason why a contestant is used is the more common – as an ‘enabler’. Here the contestant’s role is to be the vehicle that enables the competition’s execution. More importantly, the contestant is a mirror to what is happening in cars, offices and homes throughout the station’s broadcast footprint. That means when dealing with the on-air contestant, the host should bear in mind that the audience is playing along at the same time.

This is the very crux of a successful competition: There should never be one or two contestants in a radio competition; there should be thousands. They may not all be playing for the prize, but they are playing for a reward.

From a very early age, humans react to the concept of reward – something received in recognition of an achievement. Sometimes it’s an external reward such as a bonus or a measure of praise from a colleague. More often than not it’s internal such as the euphoric tingling sensation in the groin when we appraise a successfully completed task or, more importantly for our purposes, the eureka-like rush when we are right about something. I call this ‘The Quiz Factor’. It’s the real reason why most people watch programmes such as ‘The Weakest Link’ – to try and answer the questions being asked, preferably before the on-air contestant.

As a listener to an on-air radio competition we have the benefit of not being nervous and not being under pressure; neither do we risk losing anything if we get an answer wrong. We are therefore in a better position to think more clearly. Hence when the contestant is asked a question, it’s not unlikely that, as a listener, we suggest an answer quicker. We’ve all done it – shout out the answer in the hope the listener will hear it and so will those around us. There are few things more rewarding than getting an answer correct, especially if the contestant gets it wrong.

And this is where the chap who gave away the R10 000 got it wrong. He thought that casually giving away the prize ‘just like that’ made it exciting. This was nothing more than a little power play on his part – showing he had the authority to dish out cash willy-nilly – and I told him that. There were therefore only two beneficiaries: the on-air contestant who got the cash in the pocket and the host who got a kick out of it; the listener was left in the cold.

For the competition to be effective the host should have understood the psychology behind a successful radio competition – something called ‘maximising reward’, i.e. to be effective on radio a competition has to reward the radio audience, NOT THE CALLER. The host therefore should have drawn in the audience using the on-air contestant purely in the role of an enabler. That way the on-air contestant may have got the prize, but every listener competing against the on-air contestant, as well as against himself or herself, received a reward. Roll this out over the show’s entire listener base and you get thousands of people (the radio audience) getting a rush out of being right; you are ‘maximising reward’. The biggest beneficiary of course is the radio station for hosting such an amazing competition.

Every radio competition should be designed with this question in mind: “How can we ensure we are maximising reward?” The competition should then be structured and executed in a way that the listener can take part off-air. The on-air contestant is almost secondary. You want as many people as possible to be rewarded. In 1960s flower-power parlance, you want to ‘spread the love’.

This, unfortunately, is where Sales and Programming often clash; because Sales are thinking of their client and Programming are thinking of their listener. I have often rejected competition proposals from Sales because they want people to buy their client’s products to qualify for a competition and/or be asked questions about the products in order to win the products or cash prizes. This is why Sales should never determine the structure of an on-air competition.

Sales need to be reminded that for a competition to be effective it has to be structured around maximising reward and therefore around listener participation.  How does this benefit the client? The more people that can be drawn into a competition the more people can associate reward with the sponsor of the competition (the client). The distinctive character of the client’s products/services (such as a name or a catch phrase) should then be incorporated into the design and structure of the competition in such a way that it differentiates the client’s products/services from those of their competitors in the industry within which they operate. This way the listener can be involved, the client’s name and products/services come to the fore in the mind of the listener, and someone wins a prize. Sales are happy, Programming are happy, everyone is happy; because everyone is rewarded (the reward is maximised).

Lastly, I am a firm believer that if a radio host is expected to be enthusiastic in the execution of a competition on their show, they should be involved in the designing of that competition. Unfortunately they are often not involved because PDs are usually expected to design competitions or they simply prefer to take the task on themselves. If, however, a PD knows that you are well aware of the psychology behind a successful radio competition and that you therefore know what makes a competition effective, he or she will realise you are more than just a presenter and they will be more willing to include you in any decision making pertaining to your show.

Remember: your value to the PD increases if they know you have ‘the edge’.

[All the work here is original. Nothing has come from any other resource. So, if you’re going to use or repost any of The Edge then please give due credit. If not….fine – be an asshole.]

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