Today, we’re launching Social Signal’s first Twitter contest, inspired by another great contest that ran today on Twitter.

Twitscoop is a service that tracks the hottest topics on Twitter. This morning, one topic jumped out as the super-hot discussion of the morning: 200k.  It turns out that hipster T-shirt company threadless had made the following offer:

@threadless In celebration of passing 200k followers, we’re giving away $200 in GC today! RT this to be eligible to win 1 of 8 $25 GCs

Let me translate:

@threadless [the Threadless company’s Twitter account] now has 200,000 “followers” on Twitter (people who get their Twitter updates). To celebrate, they are offering $200 in gift cards. To enter a contest to win one of eight $25 gift cards, you must “retweet” the offer. That means you copy & paste the threadless message into your Twitter update field, and click “update” (or more likely, hit the “retweet” button in a Twitter client like TweetDeck).

When I first pulled up the collection of ensuing tweets, it had been an hour since threadless posted this offer; in that hour, about 950 people had retweeted the message. In the time it’s taken me to write this blog post and eat breakfast (roughly two hours) another 500 people have twittered it. When did YOU last get 1500 of your customers all shilling for you on a single morning, at a cost of $200?

Threadless has some particular strengths that positioned it to do this kind of marketing. But those strengths are within your reach, and so are the benefits of this kind of promotion. Here’s how you can learn from Threadless’ example.

  1. Participatory brand/site + Twitter contest = Tweet-o-rama. Part of the reason that threadless was able to get this kind of uptake — and get 200,000 followers in the first place — is that it is an intrinsically participatory brand. Threadless is a t-shirt company that invites user-submitted designs, and then sells the most popular designs online. It invites high-intensity, expressive participation with tangible rewards (submitting t-shirt designs in return for exposure and the prospect of winning $2,500) and low-intensity, still expressive participation (scoring and optionally commenting on designs). That participatory edge makes it a darling of the Twitterati, and gives it real credibility when it invites customers to engage in another form of participation (like retweeting).
  2. Chicken/egg? Big contests << >> more followers. Part of the reason this got so big, so fast is that threadless is building on a base of 200,000 Twitter followers. That’s a lot of people receiving their offer. It’s a great example of why it pays to build your Twitter audience: many follower >> big impact from online promotions >> more followers.
  3. For Twitter juice, frequent $100 prizes beats one $500 prize. Unlike a blog post, a tweet is evanescent. If I happen to be on Twitter when you post your update, I’ll see it; otherwise it’s unlikely I’ll hear about your contest. Threadless is able to get around that because its high volume of followers translates into a high enough surge of tweets that it shows up in Twitscoop; but the best way to build up to that base of followers is by offering contests, discounts or limited-time-only stock on a regular (even daily) basis. That said, $25 is a bit low —  you’ll probably get more action in the $50-100 zone.
  4. Great contest + short deadline = Twitscoop love. The threadless contest unfolded over just a few hours. That encourages a high density of participation in a short time, which is what pushed it to the top of Twitscoop, making the threadless account visible to far more people.
  5. Unique phrase + retweeting contest = Twitscoop visibility. Make sure there’s a unique phrase you’re asking people to retweet, so that it can emerge as a Twitscoop trend.
  6. Intriguing context + retweeting contest = mentions = visibility. The key metric you’re after is Twitter “mentions”: people posting updates on their account that reference your account name. Ideally, it will be in an intriguing context that makes their followers curious about who this @account belongs to, and they’ll click through to find you.
  7. Twitter contest + boring Twitter account = wasted effort. For a contest or promotion to pay off, you want to capture new followers. If someone sees a contest-related tweet and clicks through to your Twitter feed, you need to grab their attention. A list of your latest blog post URLs won’t do it. So make sure you have some funny, intriguing or informative tweets, and possibly other recent offers that make you worth following.
  8. Twitter contest + 1-click participation = big results. It takes literally a single mouseclick (on the “RT” button) to participate in this offer and forward threadless’ mention. With such a low participation threshold, it’s easy to get big numbers.
  9. Twitter contest + your product as prize = great showcase. The threadless prize is threadless product; not only does it save them a hard cost on prizing, but it showcases their product as a desirable incentive.
  10. Short tweet + retweeting contest = room to spread retweets. Make sure your offer or promotion doesn’t take all 140 characters of your Twitter update. When people retweet, the “RT @accountname” will be counted against their 140-character count, and your offer will get cut off.
  11. Retweetable offer + reason to retweet = viral. Each person who tweets the threadless offer “spread” it to their friends, who were likewise motivated to retweet it. This has exponential growth potential, particularly given the low barrier to participation.
  12. And three guidelines that threadless didn’t follow:

  13. Retweeting contest + actual content in tweet = retweets with value. If you’re asking people to retweet something, give those retweets some value. Twitter is going to suck big if it gets cluttered up with a thousand people retweeting contest offers every hour. (If your Twitter feed is full of RTs of this morning’s threadless offer, you know what I’m talking about!) So think of a way for those retweets to offer something more: a smile, an insight, a user-contributed tidbit.
  14. Contest + request for follows = more followers. Until you get to at least your first 10,000 followers, you need people to follow you as much as (or more than) you need to Twitter you. So don’t just ask for retweets, ask for follows.
  15. Sucky Twitter feed + relaunch + contest = redemption. If your site, brand or Twitter feed fall short on any of the criteria above, successful contests are still within your grasp. Use a contest to turn lemons into proverbial lemonade: announce a (re)launch of your Twitter presence with a great contest that speaks to your new, compelling Twitter strategy.

That’s what we’re doing today.

In February, we created a new feature on Social Signal as part of our site relaunch. Dear SoSi offers answers to the questions you’re asking about social media:

As of today, we’re renaming our Twitter feed from Social Signal to Dear SoSi. Follow it to get the practical, strategic and funny tips we offer in our Dear SoSi Q&As, condensed to a magical 140 characters. You’ll also hear about the most useful social media advice we’ve found online, the latest DearSoSi resources, and of course, you’ll be the first to know about our great Twitter promotions.

So here’s our very first Twitter contest:

Retweet one of these tips on Twitter promotions, and you’ll be entered to win a Flip MinoHD Camcorder, pre-loaded with Rob’s Teh Funny keynote at Northern Voice — in which Rob became the first standup to heckle himself on Twitter. Follow DearSoSi on Twitter to get these tips in 140-character, retweetable form.