Call In To Win Contests Don’t Work

Contests effectively reach high-value respondents, also known as contest players and rating respondents. That’s why so many radio stations build a promotion strategy around contesting. High-value respondents are most likely to participate in a research study or rating service. They’re the most valuable listeners because there’s a direct correlation. They are a unique subset of the population that determines rating results, bonuses, and station revenue. But not all contests work and Call In To Win contests don’t. Not anymore.

Stations should stop them. Now. They should have ended years ago.

Don’t misunderstand. The question isn’t whether you should do contests. Contests work and have a positive impact on rating respondent behavior. The problem is how to do them.

For decades, radio stations have relied on Call In To Win. It was a new, novel idea in the 1960s and 1970s, but things have changed, and radio stations haven’t.

Part of the problem is that programmers love it because getting a winner is quick and easy. Execution is simple, and everyone knows how to execute it because it’s been the industry standard for 60 years.

Air personalities love it because the phone lines light up, creating a nice adrenaline high that the audience is out there and responding. Plus, getting a sound bite from the winner is a nice benefit.

But this contest mechanic is just not effective anymore.

Why You Should Stop Call In To Win

Calling a radio station was unique in the past. Listeners loved being on the air for 15 seconds of fame and were excited to brag that they were on the radio. Phone contests were a new, exciting action that replaced the previous model: mail-in to win. Yes, it was a thing.

But these game mechanics have aged poorly. The truth is that most listeners stopped playing call-in to win contests years ago because:

“I Never Win”: The first eight callers are told, “Sorry, you’re caller #xxx.” Then we hang up on them. Rude. The interpretation: “You’re a loser.”

The Winner: Lucky caller #9 wins a prize they often don’t want. They just heard “call now.: That’s one reason many prizes go unclaimed or the caller says, “Thanks. What was it that I won again?” You don’t even get a good sound bite!

The Dreaded Busy Signal: All phone lines go on hold when a winner is found. What air personality keeps answering the phones? That means everyone else gets a busy signal. They never get through.

It’s a terrible user experience. How often does a listener hear a busy signal until they stop playing? Most listeners have never won and don’t know anybody who has ever won a radio contest, resulting in real listeners questioning if the giveaways are rigged. 

Everyone except Prize Pigs ignores the invitation to call.

Over time, the positive benefits of Call In To Win contests have eroded to the point that they only impact listeners who happen to be already listening. Stations no longer generate new quarter hours with these contest mechanics. It’s a waste of time, prizing, and resources.

However, data proves that incentivizing listeners to engage with a brand is still valid, and there are at least two valuable alternatives.

Enter To Win Online

Online studies show up to 47% of the population has entered an online promotion in the past 30 days. That’s amazing. It sounds high, but even if that is twice the actual number, how does that compare to the 1-2% willing to ever participate in a Call In To Win contest?

Entering online is fast and easy, and it doesn’t require a grueling commitment from the listener. Each entrant becomes an asset that can be added to a database for future marketing. By collecting relevant profile data and asking questions in embedded surveys, stations can gather a wealth of knowledge that can be used in dozens of ways.

Then, use the data to deliver relevant, valuable invitations to tune in at specific times. When a new Taylor Swift song is released, wouldn’t it be nice to alert 10,000 fans who entered to win tickets to her concert? You can promote specific times to hear the new song on your station and provide a chance to win a Taylor-related prize.

A viable database lets you jump-start future promotions before a single promo is aired. With Call In To Win contests, you start over each time.

Text To Win

Text to Win has become a popular contest method because it’s faster and easier to enter than calling and more accessible than online entry. Texting happens instantly, and everyone gets through with no busy signals. Studies prove texting contests generate more active responses than either call-in or online entry.

However, there are drawbacks:

Expense: Text To Win requires a platform to accommodate heavy traffic, and the software can be expensive, especially if contests are successful. The more activity generated, the higher the cost. Most station budgets struggle with this!

A Less Useful Database: You can build a solid list of users, but most don’t want to receive promotion messages by text. A text is more intrusive than email and is more likely to be considered unwelcome spam, which damages your brand reputation and limits future promotional potential to previous participants.


If ratings are important to you (and they are), contests should be considered a valuable tool to motivate (manipulate) the audience. However, radio stations must innovate and grow. Use contests to deliver results by adopting new techniques for success. For proof that it works, check out this case study.

Consumers are enthusiastic to enter online and by text. Turn their interest into rating gains by updating your methods for giving away prizes.

Pic generated by AI for Freepik.

Tracy Johnson is a talent coach and programming consultant. He’s the President/CEO of Tracy Johnson Media Group. His book Morning Radio has been described as The Bible of Personality Radio and has been used by personalities worldwide.

1 thought on “Call In To Win Contests Don’t Work”

  1. Agree with what has been said here. HOWEVER, there are some giveaways, like Seattle Mariner’s tickets (and other professional sports) that we cannot give away tickets online or thru texting due to MLB’s digital restrictions. Basically they don’t allow you to give away the tickets they’ve given you for giveaway thru digital means. I would say that’s really dumb and shortsighted in more than one way by the MLB but for those giveaways, if we’re going to do them on-air and not at an event, we have to use the phone.

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