5 things “Beat the Bank” Teaches About Creating Good Contests

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Last Friday (August 26), CHUM FM’s summer installment of the Beat the Bank contest came to an end. On the following Monday (August 29 ), the Toronto-based radio station launched the fall edition of the same contest, which will run until October 7:A web banner for CHUM FM's Beat the Bank contest

Why run this contest without a pause? Because Beat the Bank is incredibly addictive and a great example of a good contest.

The Setup

Beat the Bank is simple. Six times a day, listeners can call in to the station for the chance to “open” bank vaults and win anything from $100 to $500,000. Each vault contains more money than the last; players can stop at any time.

The catch is that if the player opens a vault containing an alarm, she loses all of the money earned to that point.

I’m fascinated by this contest and have listened to the morning slots — 7:10 and 8:10 am — avidly over the last few years. They happen to coincide with blocks of time where it’s easy for me to listen (and to try and call in).

Now that I’m on leave, I have the flexibility to catch several of the later slots as well (11:10 am, 3:10 pm and 6:10 pm, with a bonus round for CHUM FM members or those entering via text message at 10:10 am).

Beyond its entertainment and voyeuristic value, Beat the Bank is an excellent example of how to create a good contest.

Here are five elements that make it so effective.

1.  Offer a Desirable Prize

Good contests feature prizes that outweigh the inconvenience of filling out a web form, calling in, sending a text or — as is the case for an increasingly popular array of charity prize contests — buying a ticket.

Beat the Bank understands what 50:50 raffles and the lottery have known for years — nothing beats the universal appeal of cold, hard cash.

Depending on your organization’s resources, you may not be able to offer cash as an incentive. If you offer a non-cash prize or service, the risk is always that your prospective entrant may see no value in winning.

Choose carefully — your item should be desirable, novel, functional, or some combination of the three. When the Ipod became popular a few years ago, it felt like you couldn’t throw a rock across a university campus without hitting some contest in which an Ipod was the prize. It was hot ticket in the beginning, but once it felt like everyone had one, Ipods lost their appeal as contest gold.The Ipod Family of Products: Even your dog has one now

So scope out your competitors — try to pick a prize that differentiates you from the herd either by its nature or by its quantity (other Toronto radio stations offer cash prizes, but to my knowledge Beat the Bank’s $500,000 grand prize is the largest).

If you’re stuck for ideas, consider a prize that reflects your core business — what do your customers want from you?

If I designed contests for Pampers, for example, I’d offer free diapers as a possible prize. It’s not inherently sexy, but does reflect the customers’ core needs, particularly when having a child and taking a maternity or paternity leave inevitably means living on a reduced salary.

2. Qualifying Seems Easy; Getting Selected is Hard

If you’re running a contest, your first goal is to maximize the prospective entrants. Again, you need the right balance between simplicity and complexity.

Make the qualification too hard and no one will enter or (worse) complete the task. Make it too easy and you have a glut of qualifiers and potentially too few prizes.

On the surface, qualifying to play Beat the Bank is easy — when prompted, pick up the phone, dial CHUM FM’s number (416-870-1045 for those of you living in Ontario) and be the 25th caller.

But when your radio station broadcasts in a city of 2.48 million people and many of them are calling at the same time, qualifying becomes incredibly hard. The contest is technically open to any resident of Ontario — a pool of about 13 million people.

In my two or three years of attempts, I’ve never gotten more than a busy signal. It’s clear my experience is typical — many contestants spend their first few seconds on air exclaiming that they can’t believe they’ve finally gotten through.

You know you’ve done a good job designing your contest if your contestant feels like a winner simply for getting the chance to play.

3. Strike the Right Balance Between Greed, Luck and Random Chance

Beat the Bank plays the individual’s greed for a significant prize, perceived momentum, and fear of losing her accumulated winnings against random chance.

Although the prize money in each vault is randomized, I have heard both contestants and the radio hosts comment about perceived patterns and strategy when Beat the Bank is played.

To be fair, the hosts make a point of reminding contestants that they have no idea how much money is in each vault. They do a reasonable job of minimizing their influence on the contestant’s decision-making process. Due to the nature of an on-air exchange, however, a certain amount of commentary on the proceedings is inevitable — particularly when the host must prompt an indecisive contestant.

A strong opening vault (say $1,000) is sometimes interpreted as a sign that the alarm will come early. In contrast, a rapid, consistent jump in vault values ($100 to $200 to $400 to $800) is sometimes taken as a sign that the prize will be very large.

Inevitably, these assumptions are broken and the random nature of the contest reasserted. Either an alarm sounds when not expected or an unpredictable pattern presents itself after a host continues opening the remaining vaults once a contestant has stopped.

While some lucky contestants choose to stop in exactly the right place and maximize their winnings, others fall hundreds or thousands of dollars short — or go home empty-handed.

There is simply no reliable way to tell when the alarm or a huge payout will come, making Beat the Bank addictive and entertaining. It’s a delicate balance, but one worth emulating.

4. Make it Fun to Play Along

While the number of people who actually play Beat the Bank is limited to six a day, I suspect thousands join me in playing along — thereby expanding CHUM FM’s listener pool during key hours.

Listening to someone blunder into an alarm when I would have stopped is armchair quarterbacking at its best.

At the other extreme, I often feel a rush of vicarious excitement when a contestant pushes her luck further than I would have and escapes the alarm with the cash.

If you’re designing a contest, explore ways to expand your contest’s reach by adding an audience. If your contest is run online, can you allow comments or community participation?

Whatever format you design, make sure it’s fun.

5. Oh, the Humanity

If “I can’t believe I got through!” is the phrase I’ve heard contestants playing Beat the Bank say most often then “This is so much harder than playing at home” has to run a close second.

It can’t be easy to play Beat the Bank knowing half of Toronto is second guessing your choices. The money’s got to feel more real when it’s you deciding how many vaults to open — to say nothing of the radio host playing the role of tempter by repeatedly reminding you of the sum in play and asking how you plan to spend it.

Although Beat the Bank takes only five minutes or so to play, the hosts do a good job of allowing the contestants to express their fears and hopes. Roger, Marilyn and Darren (the morning show hosts pictured below courtesy of the CHUM FM blog) are particularly good at drawing people out. These segments often feel like a much longer stretch of time, giving me a small glimpse of the contestant’s personality and personal situation in the process.

To me, this is what makes a good contest great. Some people are so charming or gracious I can’t help but root for them. Others are tentative, asking family members or coworkers for advice. Some seem to play as a team with those hanging around in the background. Some are paralyzed by the prospect of losing whatever sum they’ve accumulated.

Occasionally, I’ve heard winners express such gratitude for the prize money that I’ve been left wondering what kind of hardships they’re facing in their lives long after the contest has ended.

These moments of insight into peoples’ lives, along with the uncertainty of the outcome, are what make a contest like Beat the Bank memorable and keep it fresh despite the familiarity of its structure.

Is There An App For That?

One thing I’ve wondered is why CHUM FM hasn’t brought in an additional sponsor to help underwrite Beat the Bank’s costs.

If I worked in the marketing department at a bank, I might think about a promotion that would offer a conciliation prize to contestants who trip the alarm — say a chequing account at my institution with a nominal balance of $25 or so.

On the other hand, maybe a bank wouldn’t want its brand to be associated with the contest’s losers.

It may be that winners of large cash prizes are so rare that CHUM FM prefers to keep all the promotional glory. They do spend money on TV advertisements when the contest is running — Beat the Bank must pay for itself through advertising or other streams to make that investment feasible.

That makes me curious about the kind of call volume Beat the Bank produces and whether the volume varies depending on the time of day or day of the week in which the contest is played.

Also, is there an app for this contest? There totally should be. I couldn’t find one in Blackberry App World (I joined the 21st century and acquired a Blackberry Bold this summer) but that might not mean there isn’t one.

I am also curious about why social media isn’t better integrated into the contest platform. The station is on Twitter — why not add some kind of qualification round there and milk that?

Summing Up

I contacted CHUM FM before writing this post to see if I could talk to someone in their promotions department about Beat the Bank’s success and ask some of these questions, but no one responded.

If I hear from them, I’ll let you know.