Smart Marketing: Public Voting Contests


Isn’t life a series of images that change as they repeat themselves?
-Andy Warhol

Andy Warhol was a commercial artist before he became critical of commerce – Warhol intimately understood the centrality and power of pictures in marketing. Years later, the influence of image is increasingly affirmed by digital technology. Just look at social media: Over 500 million people already use Instagram (with 89.4 million American users logging in at least once each month) and by 2017, 51.8% of people on social media will be Instagram users. Images matter to consumers, and because any good conversation requires a common language, it makes good sense to speak to your market visually.

Creating company profile pages on social media is a great approach, but you can do even more. Why not host a public voting contest where users of your product or service submit images or videos to a digital forum? GoPro, for example, awards outstanding content from customers who send a wide range of footage, from charming to adventurous; New Zealand’s Tahuna Beach is just finishing up two contests that highlight their destination – short stories and photos link Tahuna Beach lodging with holiday memories. There are endless, creative ways you might celebrate the uniqueness of your organization and your users.

There are a number of reasons to do this. Contests are entertaining and interactive – people like to compete and people like to judge. Further, awards of this type provide excellent user-generated content, a powerful marketing tool with countless applications. Public voting contests put new potential consumers in touch with your brand, and give your organization access to data regarding preference, plus contacts for follow-up.

Perhaps the most compelling argument for public voting contests is to consider psychology. Humans are inherently competitive – this is no surprise. We are motivated by extrinsic and intrinsic factors – the former rewards us outwardly, with a prize for example, while the latter is internal, such as the experience of gratification in doing the right thing. Public voting competitions engage both instincts: contestants seek to win a reward and to experience the personal satisfaction of confirmation from the public. Voters anticipate the external reward of seeing their favorite contestant win, as well as the good feeling that comes from helping someone by casting their vote.

What makes competition compelling is the fact that not everyone can win, and so we eagerly anticipate an outcome. Though seemingly enjoyable, according to some psychologists, winning (or supporting a winner) in a competition isn’t the human brain’s ultimate motivation. In fact, we may actually be driven more by the uncertainty of the chase than the pleasure of a positive outcome – and our attachment to modern technology exhibits this perfectly. Dr. Kent Berridge differentiates between “liking” and “wanting,” both behaviors we exhibit while scrolling through media like Instagram, and both strong influencers of dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure.

When we scroll through a feed, the outcome is uncertain. We may experience joy, disgust, affirmation, or pain. Same thing when we hear a text message arrive or we connect to email. Intermittent satisfaction is what keeps us logging in; we get more pleasure from anticipating someone “liking” us than from the actual “like” itself. How does this play out into public voting contests? Contestants and voters are both driven by the inherent gamble, motivated to follow contest progress, participate, and share.

Not that “liking” isn’t important. A good internet-based contest resembles social media (and other “likable” web applications) such that voters experience familiar sensations in making their selection. And why do we like to like? Digital “liking” is easy (much easier than expressing similar sentiments in the real world), and it serves to confirm and enhance our sense of self.

There’s also the likeness principle: we tend to be drawn to images that resemble us. This makes assessing user-generated photography, for example, more appealing than selecting between professional images. This doesn’t mean that aesthetics don’t matter or bias doesn’t play into it – just look at recent analysis of voting behavior. What it does indicate is that we come to different media with different expectations.

Visual media is essentially about connection and photos epitomize this– in fact, as Ming Thein recognizes, “photography is fundamentally a relationship between the photographer and the viewer…at its core, a successful image is about communication.” Not only does photography itself forge a link between people, but its creative application magnifies this potential. A public voting contest provides countless possibilities for connection – between the sponsoring organization and the contestant (plus their network), the organization and the voter (plus their network), the contestant (plus network) and the voter (plus network), etc. It can also be easy to set up and manage, as well as enjoyable for everyone involved.

How and why people choose what they do is still mysterious and at times irrational, although we do know for certain that too many choices can be exhausting. Regardless of the largely unpredictable outcome of public voting contests (remember, pleasure chemicals), the most successful ones will limit audience choices through curation and layout of content to encourage stress-free participation. They will be aesthetically pleasing and fun to use. The best contests allow contestants to create and share a contest profile page easily on social media to encourage their friends and family to participate. They also encourage voters to share their choices and bring even more people into the fold.

Warhol’s assertion is likely true and false. Modern life is certainly all about changing images but maybe we don’t have to keep repeating ourselves.

Submittable’s Gallery View is a great option for running a public voting contest. Check out our latest developments, including sample tile view and personal contestant profile pages. Set up your own gorgeous public gallery by contacting our sales team at

Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is a content creator and strategist for Submittable's Marketing and Product Teams. She also writes and teaches poetry. You can find Rachel's creative work here: