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This is the story of Burbot Brown Ale and how its name came to be. It is also a story about the pitfalls of online contests. While it sounds like a story that occurred well in the past, as of this writing, it has just come to a close.

Leech Lake Brewing, a small specialty beer brewing company in Walker, Minnesota, decided to have a beer naming contest in advance of the Eelpout Festival, which is held each year in Walker. (We Minnesotans tend to have some crazy celebrations. Blame this one on the February winter doldrums.) The company wanted to create a brown ale specifically for this year’s event and solicited name suggestions from followers on Facebook.

My husband Erik is a fan of Leech Lake Brewing’s beer and had recently become a fan of the company on Facebook. He saw an announcement for the naming contest and submitted two names, Burbot Brown Ale and Chin Whisker Brown Ale. Burbot is a name used for the eelpout.

Once Erik had submitted these names, he drummed up support for them, soliciting the help of friends and family on Facebook when the list of potential names was posted for a public vote. Having recently gone through the public voting process for his Soul Patch Community Garden idea during the Minnesota Idea Open, he knew that this tactic gave contestants the best chance of winning an online contest.

This past week was the last week of voting, with the winner to be announced via Facebook over the weekend. Seven of the twelve people who voted for Burbot Brown on the Facebook comment we saw were related to Erik in some way, having all voted after he suggested they do so. Imagine our surprise when the winner of the naming contest was announced this morning and it wasn’t Erik. It was Travis Bowers, a person we didn’t recognize as having submitted a name.

We tried to think of where this contest had gone awry. Had Travis submitted the name via email prior to Erik’s having submitted it via Facebook? If Erik had seen the name Burbot Brown within the Facebook suggestions, he never would have submitted it.

I couldn’t let this rest without finding out what had happened, even though Erik wasn’t concerned in the least. While Erik didn’t care, I did because of all those who had voted for what they thought was Erik’s name. They had a vested interest in the contest because of their votes, so I left this comment on Facebook for Leech Lake Brewing under the company’s announcement of the winner:

I’m confused. My husband, Erik Warner, suggested the name Burbot Brown, along with the name Chin Whisker Brown Ale. Did Travis Bowers submit the name Burbot Brown through a different channel? We’ve been following the contest through Facebook and that’s where I voted for Burbot Brown.

Leech Lake Brewing replied with the following:

Travis was the first to submit that name (copied below)…
Travis Bowers Burbot Brown
October 14, 2010 at 9:30am

Ah! Now it made sense. Travis had submitted Burbot Brown at the beginning of the contest and Erik submitted the same name at the end of the contest, on December 11, 2010, at 9:01 p.m., without ever having seen the original entries.

Travis most obviously was the winner. (Congrats to him! 🙂 )

However, there are a number of things to be learned about online contests from this example.

When we first saw a different person credited with Erik’s name suggestion, we immediately assumed the contest was being run through different online channels, which would mean not everyone would get to see all the names submitted. While this isn’t what happened, if you do run an internet contest using a variety of submission channels (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, your blog, email, etc.), make sure to keep everyone updated about the contest’s progress on every channel you are using.

If, as happened with Leech Lake Brewing, the contest takes place over several months, be sure to bring everyone up to date each time you discuss the contest. Late entrants shouldn’t be expected to scroll back through several months’ worth of blog posts, tweets, or Facebook status updates to see where the contest is at.

Because internet contests tend to be run for the purposes of marketing, don’t be surprised if, when public voting is part of the contest, the contestants promote the contest and their entries to friends and family and urge them to vote. While some may think this is an unfair stuffing-of-the-ballot-box, it’s actually the best way to promote a product or service. People trust brands when a friend or family member recommends them. Leech Lake Brewing now has at least seven new followers because Erik promoted his contest entry.

Finally, when running an online contest, expect that there will be some sort of confusion or SNAFU and be prepared to remedy the situation in whatever way necessary. The last thing you want to do with an online contest is create ill will. Kudos to Leech Lake Brewing for responding quickly to my query about the original submission of Burbot Brown.

Like Leech Lake Brewing, you’ll want to be transparent about your remedy, which means making it public on whatever channels you’re using for the contest. The internet has a massive mouth and an even larger set of ears and you really want them to be on your side if any discussion develops.