By Michael F. Carmichael
March 18, 2010
It used to be if you wanted to win a lifetime supply of Cheerios or a new car you had to fill out a form with your name and address, send in a specially-marked boxtop or something similar and hope for lightning to strike.
That was the way it was for years. Until 1999, when lightning struck Josh Linkner.
That was the year he founded ePrize and brought sweepstakes and other promotions online and changed the way marketers and customers interact.
1999 was when companies were jumping on the dot-com bandwagon and many of them fell off not long afterwards. How did Linkner and ePrize not only stay on, but catch the brass ring?
“First of all,” he replies, “we had a real business model that met a real business need. A lot of companies were doing things that were consumer-facing and didn’t make that much of an impact online. In our case, we really helped reinvent an industry. The promotion industry was an old school, good-old-boy network and we really shook it up. We took it online and changed the model - which benefitted our customers.”
ePrize today works with 77 of the top 100 marketers and most have been repeat customers for years. If you want a lifetime supply of Cheerios or a new General Motors car you go online, fill in the required information and discover somewhere in the fine print that the sweepstakes is managed by ePrize.
With sweepstakes and other promotions showing up everywhere - even the popular “Who Do You Think You Are,” an NBC television program that follows celebrities as they track their ancestral roots, has a sweepstakes run by ePrize for the sponsor Ancestry.com - Linkner has tapped into a basic human trait.
“The idea of a chance to win, as a motivator of human behavior,” he explains, “has been working for a hundred years. People respond to that. In the old school it was much more limited, it wasn’t interactive, it wasn’t instantaneous, it wasn’t a brand-immersive experience.
“What we did was totally recharge it. Now, when someone plays a chance to win promotion online it can be a very rich brand-immersive experience. There can be flash demos, or product information or other rich content,” Linkner continues.
In the offline world promotion entrants’ information had to be manually transcribed and somehow sorted if the sponsor of the promotion wanted to add them to a mailing list, for instance. In today’s ePrize world not only does the person who wants to win the promotion enter his or her own data, that data can be instantly analyzed “to serve up content that’s much more customized to the person,” Linkner explains. “So, if I’m 39, live in Detroit and have two kids, I might have one promotional experience. A female from Miami, who’s 22, with no kids, might have a very different promotional experience. Offline, it’s a one-size-fits-all approach while digitally we have a much more robust opportunity.”
There are many more opportunities open to clients of ePrize, Linkner says. “We can say ‘come every day and play an interactive game and you can be an instant winner,’ so the level of connectedness between a brand and a consumer goes up dramatically by using digital technology.”
ePrize “runs hundreds of promotions every month for major brands and on any given day we might have stuff launching for Disney and Miller Beer and Citibank,” according to Linkner. There’s a very good reason for that. “Overall, the ROI on digital promotions is terrific. That’s why our clients keep coming back. Seventy to 80 percent of our business is from existing clients. It’s one thing to get someone to want to try the cool new flavor of the week, but it’s another to get them coming back year after year. They see there’s a real business value.”
Linkner is asked if only Fortune 500 companies can benefit from ePrize promotions. “We do have promotions that are tailored to smaller companies. We launched a ‘self-serve’ templated approach, but that was a little early in the marketplace so it’s not currently available. We do, however, have a number of programs geared to small businesses. The type of work we do probably wouldn’t benefit a local dentist, but organizations such as the Henry Ford Museum, La-Z-Boy and Quicken Loans do benefit from our services,” he explains.
ePrize now offers clients much more than sweepstakes. For Coca Cola, their largest client and one of their oldest, they handle the My Coke Rewards program - the one that has those hard-to-read numbers on the underside of bottle caps. “It’s a points-based loyalty program,” Linkner says. “The more Coke products you drink the more points you earn and the more rewards you can get. That kind of digital loyalty program couldn’t happen just by sending in a bottle cap through the mail.”
To grow, ePrize “has to be on the cutting edge of digital innovation,” says Linkner. “We can’t rest on our laurels of having invented online sweepstakes. We have to say ‘what’s the next next thing?’ so we spend a lot of our energy, talent and brainpower focusing on that. We run programs on any device you can think of - mobile applications, iPods - we’re doing a lot in social media with hundreds of promotions on Facebook and Twitter.”
Linkner continues, “The way we look at it is, the core essence of what we do - motivating human behavior - is always going to be in need of marketers. We take that core essence and translate it to whatever technology trends may be happening. People can be rewarded when they post an instant-win or trivia game on their homepage in Facebook where others can play. Or, a company can do that on their fan page. We have virtual bumper stickers where people can promote a favorite brand and earn chances to win for doing so. There are a lot of fun things that people can do that are sponsored by brands and offer them chances to win something.”
Linkner was the founder of ePrize and until now was its chairman and CEO. This month marked a transition for him as he turned over the CEO position to Matt Wise, formally president and CEO of ad network company Q Network. Continuing as chairman, Linkner has now become the company’s Chief Innovation Officer, charging himself with coming up with that “next next thing.”