Wait? What?!

Unless you vet potential grand prize winners, or all potential winners for that matter, you have no idea who your products, services, brand or company is aligning itself with.

I am not kidding.

It is especially important to vet potential winners if you plan to use them in future marketing campaigns.

Cringe Worthy

This is a perfect cringe-worthy example of why you want to build-in team members (legal, investigation, design, viral sweepstakes marketing, etc.) when creating a sweepstakes. It’s also what a licenced, experienced private investigator would find that an inexpensive Internet search wouldn’t.

NOTE: Those involved have been made generic to protect identities.

Shannon Tulloss has been a private investigator for over 30 years and has owned her own firm for over 20. (Shannon Tulloss Investigations)

Ms. Tulloss was contacted by a large corporation to vet a potential grand prize winner. The contest was to win a mentorship with a successful, high profile entrepreneur such as those found on Shark Tank or Dragon’s Den. The potential winner owned an auto body shop and would greatly benefit from such a grand prize. It could literally take his business to a new level of success.

On the surface, and this is the key, the potential winner was the perfect candidate and aligned well with the sponsor. However, during the course of the investigation, there were minor red flags. There were hints on his social media posts that things were ‘off’. A cursory look would lead one to believe he was an upstanding citizen, but using her sixth sense, something you can’t buy online, down the rabbit hole the investigators went. One link leads to another, and another, and another. After a thorough investigation, the end result was the discovery the potential winner had a website where he was posting and sharing child pornography.

To make matters worse, the sponsor did not schedule enough time into the rules to allow for alternates to be selected and vetted before awarding the grand prize. In the end, the potential winner became the official grand prize winner and met his mentor. Everyone knew he was a poor choice, but the brand went ahead anyway. Luckily, the meeting passed without incident, but it could have turned into a public relations disaster. Just ask Subway …

Do you want a robber, molester, or murderer representing your brand?

It’s possible if you do not take preventative measures.

Magnum PI

Just as the promotional lawyers should be the second step in the creative process of designing a sweepstakes, hiring a private investigator should be the third. It’s far easier, and cheaper, to take pre-emptive measures, versus trying to repair the damage. Usually the damage snowballs into a viral PR disaster. Do not be the company that only begins to implement proper sweepstakes procedures after a sweepstakes has gone awry. It’s akin to shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted.

Unfortunately, too many of Ms. Tuloss’ clients come to her to repair a promotion or to prevent being burnt again versus hiring her in the beginning as part of the creative team ensuring a smooth contest from beginning to end.

You Get What You Pay For

Many people think they can save money by either using Google or an inexpensive online service that promises a complete background check to get information on potential winners. They watch CSI on TV or have seen banner ads for a cheap criminal checks and think they can do it themselves.

Do you write your own legal documents? Code your own website? Cut your own hair? Perform your own abdominal surgery?


You hire a professional. The old adage sell your strengths and hire your weaknesses can not be more true. So what can a professional private investigator do for you that a Google search can’t?

Firstly, investigators like Ms. Tulloss are licenced. They must be vetted and be certified to have access to specific data sources. Those licences must also be renewed

Secondly, licenced investigator pay for access to those data sources. The cheap background check services only have access to data sources that are months, or worse, years out of date. You need to most current information available if you are seeking to use a winner in a marketing campaign now.

Thirdly, as technologies advance, so must her skill sets. Investigative techniques have greatly advanced in the past 30 years and Ms. Tulloss ensures she and her team are up-to-date with all the latest technologies ensuring her firm provides their clients with the most current data on the people being vetted.

There is also the gross misperception that investigators like Ms. Tulloss break or skirt the law to garner the information they obtain. It’s not Hollywood. Real-life is not Magnum PI. He got a slap on the wrist if he stepped out of line. Ms. Tulloss would lose her licence and lively hood if she did anything that wasn’t 100% above board.

Hurdles to Entry?

Another misperception of vetting a potential prize winner is that adding a clause requiring winners to undergo a background check would reduce the number of entries received.

Not true.

This clause is found in the HGTV annual house giveaway:

Sponsor reserves the right to conduct a background check on any potential Grand Prize Winner (as defined below) and reserves the right in its sole discretion to disqualify any person based on such background check if Sponsor determines in its sole discretion that awarding the prize to such potential Grand Prize Winner might reflect negatively on Sponsor or any of the Participating Parties.

With nearly 100 million entries in 2016, that clause doesn’t deter anyone from trying to win.

What deters entrants is:

  • Unreasonable barriers to entry. Asking for too many hoops to be jumped through. Such as an Instagram loop with over 40 bloggers participating.
  • Entry forms that do not work properly. If you don’t enter your own contest, how do you know if it works or not? You can always delete your entries from the backend.
  • Confusing entry requirements. If a seasoned sweeper is confused, you have lost Joe Average.
  • Lack of professionalism. Does your contest look like a scam? Have proper rules for every contest and respond to comments and questions on social media. Real sponsors engage.

Potential Winner to Winner

Note earlier I said, potential winner and not winner. No one should ever be declared an official winner until all steps have been taken to ensure the official winner will only shine a favourable light on your brand.

What are those steps? Assume for this example one grand prize and several secondary prizes.

  • All potential winners should be drawn along with back-ups. Yes, back-ups.
    Enough time has to be built into the contest design process to allow for proper vetting of all potential winners. A minimum of two weeks. More time is better. Especially if the grand prize is public. Back again to the example of HGTV announcing their winner live on national TV.
  • The sweepstakes budget must be created with ALL team members in mind. Not just website, prize and fulfillment, but legal, vetting, viral marketing, etc.

Being proactive is far less costly than being reactive. Never put the cart before the horse.

  • The first names drawn as potential winners for each prize should be sent both an affidavit and release form. The first to be in compliance with contest rules and should be written by the same lawyers who wrote the official rules. The second to be in compliance with the background check and should be written by the private investigator who is executing the vetting to ensure all checks follow the letter of the law.
    All back-up potential winners should be sent the background release form. Many sweepstakes have specific timelines built into the official rules with regards to drawings, declarations and announcements, it is far easier and less time-consuming to vet everyone at once.

The Hurdle

The biggest hurdle to success in every sweepstakes is the budget. Let me ask you this when you say, “It’s not in the budget.

What if the sponsor:

  • was sued because the rules were not vetted by a promotional lawyer and a loophole was found.
  • found themselves on national TV explaining why a woman with warrants in three states was awarded the grand prize.
  • fired you or your agency because no one tested the entry form and the sweepstakes far underperformed?

Think those examples can’t happen?

They already have. I have heard or experienced those stories first hand. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now let me ask you, “How much would cleaning up a massive problem if the sweepstakes goes awry?

Still no room in the budget for a promotional lawyer, a private investigator or sweepstakes marketer?

Think Like Flo

You do not have house insurance because you think your house will be robbed, flooded or burned down. You have it as a preventative measure. Just in case. Think of hiring a private investigator as part of your sweepstakes marketing team like insurance for your company and brand against future public relations catastrophes.

Who is on your sweepstakes marketing team?

NOTE: This post was originally written for Neal Schaffer’s social media marketing blog