Digital Strategist Agnes Mazur wins a lot of free stuff. Her biggest contest-winning asset isn't luck — it's her experience advising companies that run contests. Contest results aren't necessarily random — and if you understand how they work, you can boost your chances of winning. Full story:
  1. Think like a contest planner
    Say you have a brand to promote and a big pile of something — like concert tickets or band merchandise — to give away. The goal is to use the giveaway to get the brand in front of as many people as possible. For brands that are still building a social media following, that's not easy. But it's an opportunity for fans, because it means that you have a pretty good chance of winning the prize — if you play your cards right.
  2. Exploit social media, email lists, and hashtags
    For email, you just have to sign up with companies whose products you like, and contest opportunities will start pouring into your inbox. If you're on Facebook, have a list of local accounts you check in on regularly, especially if you see a record of them posting contests on a regular schedule. On Twitter, find lists of local businesses or influential accounts that you can follow in columns using apps like Tweetdeck or Hootsuite.
  3. Set up smart searches for contests you might actually care about
    Create pings for keywords that will help filter your tweets and emails. When running a search in Tweetdeck, I generally include terms such as "giveaway," "RT to win," or "win tickets" that are most likely to be included in a social media manager's promotion message. Some contest enthusiasts have taken automating their entries to the next level, with bots that automatically retweet or enter anything with a contest ask.
  4. Consider creating separate, contest-specific accounts
    You could make separate accounts that you use only for contests and check once or twice a day. You can also take advantage of filtering technologies, such as Google's promotions tab or Tweetdeck's filters. In some cases it might be worth using your real account, because contest promoters are more likely to choose winners with an active social media presence and more online followers.
  5. Be the kind of person who gets picked
    Contest managers want a winner who promotes the brand, is excited, and will spread the word to his or her followers after winning. For social media contests especially, there's a big benefit to choosing a winner who has a decent personal following. Often the rules favor those who best represent the brand by meeting some arbitrary criteria for the "best" comment or entry.
  6. Bet big on openings, first-time festivals, or up-and-coming acts
    Follow local venues, artists coming to town, or first-time festivals to reap the easiest rewards. Promoters are eager to fill up shows, and throwing a contest is an easy way to get buzz for the band or venue. Bands and authors will also likely count on the types of swag that are easiest for them to distribute, from digital downloads of books or music to signed hard copies and merchandise. Just make sure it's something you'd actually want to own.