# How to divide prize money?November 15, 2011 11:26 PM   Subscribe

How should prize money be divided in order to generate the most high-quality submissions to a contest?

Suppose you are putting on an essay contest, and your goal is to generate the most good essays as possible. Second, suppose there is some test to determine whether an essay is good or not, and that when you test 1000 school exam essays from the same pool of contestants, 50 pass.

You are given a chunk of money to give away as a prize, and told you can divide it however you like: One big prize, many equally-sized small prizes, 1st 2nd 3rd split, and so on. How do you decide to split it up to maximize the number of good essays? Any good essay is worth as much as any other good essay, and any bad essay is worth nothing.

Any parts of the problem that aren't specified (for example, how the probability of any single essay writer producing a good essay varies with the overall amount of prize money), are left up to you to assume, and should be stated.

(This is a simplified description of a real-world contest that I'm putting on for work and having trouble thinking about. Thanks!)
posted by nnevvinn to Work & Money (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

when you test 1000 school exam essays from the same pool of contestants, 50 pass.
So you just want the maximum number of submissions possible, since "good essays" is always "essays/20".

Any good essay is worth as much as any other good essay, and any bad essay is worth nothing.
Then how on earth can you do things like award 1st, 2nd and 3rd place? Are there two separate judging criteria, "pass/fail" for your own purposes, and a much more granular scale for participants?
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:41 PM on November 15, 2011

I think what most people look at in a contest is the top prize, not the lesser prizes. On the other hand, it'd be nice to reward all the effort for the other good quality submissions. I might divide the money so that the best essay gets \$500, and then \$25 to twenty honorable mentions. That's still a nice score for the winner, and pretty good odds of getting a nice prize if you put some work into it is still pretty darn good, better than most contests.
posted by Garm at 12:01 AM on November 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would think it depends on the amount of money you have, and how much it's worth to your contestants to write an essay. Can you survey some people in your target audience to find out what amount of money it would take to spur people into action? Divide your total prize money up into prizes of that amount.
posted by springbound at 12:02 AM on November 16, 2011

just don't do it like NASCAR

Make winning worth something
posted by philip-random at 12:02 AM on November 16, 2011

The top prize amount is clearly the most important factor.

There'll be a threshold at which participation becomes attractive. The top prize needs to be worth significantly more than the value the writer would place on the time and energy it takes to write an essay. So that's the first threshold, the one that gets you lots of entries.

Other factors that determine number of entries may be your deadline and any restrictions on the topic of the essay.

A second threshold might be one of 'making a supreme effort'. If the top prize is a really meaningful amount of money, participants will be encouraged to put a lot more thought, effort and time into the essay. A smaller prize would tend to lead to such behaviours as just tidying up an old essay or rushing something off in the hope that it stands a chance. So this second threshold is the one that gets you quality.

Other factors that may influence quality are the nature of the pool of entrants for your contest, other rewards associated with the contest, such as publication or esteem within the group, and so on.

You're right to consider whether people will be thinking about anything other than the top prize when they decide to enter; my gut says it won't be part of their decision.

Offering lots and lots of smaller prizes may result in lots of entries, but I don't think you'd get more than you would with a single, large prize. And I don't think the average quality would be nearly as high. Of course, your division of prize money may involve more factors than just quality of submissions. Having a second or third prize can be beneficial for other reasons - less pressure on judges to make the right choice, less antagonism between competitors, and so on.

If you're looking for a formula, I'd imagine that the only way to get one would be by running a series of real-world studies. There's no purely mathematical way to derive anything useful from your list of requirements.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 1:51 AM on November 16, 2011

Do the contestants know each other and have some sense of each others' abilities? In a school essay situation, I'd imagine there would be a handful of individuals that knew they were among the best writers in the school or class, and that handful of students might each try very hard to win a large top prize while everyone else participates half-heartedly (if at all) because they think the effort is futile. In a case like this, I think you'd be better off with a bunch of smaller prizes so long as each prize was large enough to be worth having.

If the contestants don't know each other then a large prize might be more effective as more of them can fantasize that they are good enough to win.
posted by jon1270 at 2:12 AM on November 16, 2011

I run a large online cake contest every year that gets about 400,000 visitors and usually around 300-600 submissions. Since baking a cake is no small undertaking, I have to combat the constant sense that there's no chance you could win, especially with how great some of the entries are. That's enough of a struggle. With the prize budget I was given, I decided to go with no more than 5 prize positions in each of the two categories, with a few extra prizes for "honorable mentions" and such.

In this case, the drop off is pretty significant: \$1,000 for the 3D grand prize, going down to \$500 for 2nd prize. 2D starts at \$600 and goes down to \$300.

The allure of grand prize is there, and it needs to be impressive. People will participate if they're interested in the concept and even more so if they look at it as a way to practice an ability. For me, they're practicing cake baking. My motto is, "even if you lose, you get to eat cake!"

In your case, even if they lose, they get to spend some time on a creative outlet. Since nearly everyone is going to lose, it makes more sense to distribute the prizes a bit more top-heavy and to make it something people really shoot for. You can create a lot more places of trinket prizes, for balance, and hope that people enter with an eye for "maybe I'll at least place", but I think the overall quality might suffer a bit. It's hard to say.

It also depends on your audience. For work people, do you think they'll care if the prize is potentially \$20? Maybe not. If it's potentially \$500 and they start to feel competitive about it, then I think it matters more.

My point is, I could easily divvy up the prizes with my contest in a more egalitarian way. I could give \$20 to the top 500 entries. But I certainly wouldn't get people putting the time and effort this year's winners put into their entries. Those are impressive, and people do it for fun, but frankly, they do it because they want to win, and \$1,000 is a pretty sweet prize. Take from that what you will, but I'd lean more towards top-heavy, fewer prizes, then lower-value prizes given to more places.
posted by disillusioned at 2:22 AM on November 16, 2011

I would agree that a substantial top prize would be best. After that, in something that's fairly subjective, like an essay contest, I would probably have a second tier of three places, all equal, who get a nice sum, and maybe a bottom tier of six who get the equivalent of a free lunch. That said, I would even just consider awarding the top four.

So if you had \$1000, I would do 6 x \$25, 3 x \$100 and 1 x \$500, with a special \$50 "spirit" or similar award which you use to reward someone who put a huge effort in but also clearly isn't very good, but whose contribution you want/need to recognize.

jon1270 had an excellent point, this does not work well for a small group who know each other well enough to gauge how well they will do before the contest even starts. In that situation, I would figure out how many people of the group would be considered good enough that their presence would discourage the others, and have twice that many prizes, all of equal value...unless that number is so large the prizes become meaningless.
posted by maxwelton at 3:27 AM on November 16, 2011

When I was a kid doing contests like these, I definitely saw them on an effort to rational expected gain basis. I would have been more attracted to a more, but definitely not entirely, distributed prize structure.

Keep in mind that, during education, a lot of the kinds of students who will be writing good, as in solid and well put together,* essays will be at least as interested in the title as the cash prize. Engaging in title inflation by doing things like awarding first places in categories will go a much longer way. I'd have been more likely to put in a meaningful submission if there were ten possible outcomes I could put on college applications than if there were three with one "first". First in category X has a better ring to it than third place anyway. Honorable mentions or "spirit" awards will mean as little to your more organized students as they will to their reach colleges. I saw contests with four or five more impressive titles before "first" was listed. Its fucked up and unfair, but I submitted good stuff to them because that is how the rich and upperclass fuckers who work that way out-compete kids who were like me.

That said, it still applies if this is a contest aimed at adults to whom the title would be meaningful, like ones looking for publishers. If its aimed at old and established folks just go with the irrational high first prize.

*Won't necessarily hold true for awesome
posted by Blasdelb at 6:14 AM on November 16, 2011

If you want to increase submissions using prize money as the motivator, I think you need to give potential submitters the idea that they have a decent chance at getting a payoff. If you are splitting \$1000, maybe:

1st - \$350
2nd - \$150
3rd - \$125
4th - \$100
5th - \$75
6th - \$50

And then four \$25 prizes.
posted by gjc at 7:01 AM on November 16, 2011

Maybe multiple categories of top prizes? Best overall 500, best written in crayon 300, best without using the letter 'E' 300. People might think they can get a specialty prize
posted by shothotbot at 7:41 AM on November 16, 2011

OK, I should be working but here is some input from professionals:
The results of the model show that the sweepstakes reward structure should be based on three factors: the objectives of the firm, the risk aversion of the customers, and the level of sub-additivity of probability weighting. The results of the model prescribes that the firm should begin by setting sweepstake objectives in terms of either attracting switchers or targeting current users. If the objective is to target current users, then the number of prizes awarded should be lower than in the case where the targets are switchers. If the current users are risk neutral, then the consumer value-maximizing award is a single grand prize. If the current users are risk averse, then the award should consist of multiple "large" prizes. When the firm's objective is to draw sales away from competitors, the value-maximizing strategy is to distribute the award money over more prizes. If the non-current user segment is risk neutral with respect to gains but sufficiently risk averse in the domain of losses, then the prescribed reward structure is to have a single grand prize but also include several small prizes which ideally should be close to the opportunity cost of the customers. If the non-loyal customers are risk averse in gain and loss averse, then the best prize allocation is to have both multiple large prizes as well as several small prizes.

Another recommendation from the model analysis is that the firm should minimize the number of prizes at each level. In practice, the costs of implementing and communicating such a prize structure could be high. To trade-off between the logistical and communication costs and the theoretically value-maximizing approach, firms could increase the number of prizes at each level for easier implementation. A trade-off is involved between increasing the attractiveness of the sweepstake and the implementation costs of administering several levels of prizes. Often, when the prizes are products rather than cash, the firm may obtain quantity discounts for the products but the value of the products will be the same for the sweepstake participants.

Consumer Value-Maximizing Sweepstakes & Contests: A Theoretical and Experimental Investigation

posted by shothotbot at 7:44 AM on November 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do you decide to split it up to maximize the number of good essays?

I just keep coming back to this. I simply don't think that the prize split has all that much to do with how many good essays you're going to get.

If the objective is "more good essays", the best way to do that is to maximize the audience. I would also submit that a potentially even better way would be a prestigious panel of judges or something else that is going to motivate the better essay writers.

I suppose a secondary goal could be discouraging the submission of bad essays, and something like the judges, or something hifalutin' about the ceremony (think WordFest in the movie Wonder Boys) would do much for that. Probably topic selection (or if there is any topic) would have a lot to do with how many bad essays people submit. The more general the topic, the more people will mistakenly think they have something worth saying about it </mockcynical> "What does freedom mean to you?", for instance, might bring in a lot of silly responses, whereas "What is the meaning of liberty in the 21st century?" might generate a few that are more thoughtful.

Frankly, I don't think many people go into a contest of any sort with a lot of thought about the non-first prizes.
posted by dhartung at 9:37 AM on November 16, 2011

Thanks for the analysis everyone!
posted by nnevvinn at 4:50 PM on November 16, 2011

Any good essay is worth as much as any other good essay, and any bad essay is worth nothing.

My gut instinct is to just pay for good essays (an even split among winners), and if you want to give a recognition for best of show, go nuts. If the expected value of writing a good essay is greater than the costs, you'll get em in spades. Which is where things might fall apart if those essays are arbitrarily assigned a value by your firm as people redeem their essays until you're bankrupt.

But really, if you want to get a lot of essays, I suggest good old loss aversion. Maybe a bit Machiavellian, so check you moral compass, but the general idea is that people are more motivated by losing something than gaining something. So gift them something and threaten to taken it away if their essay doesn't pass your criteria. Cruel, manipulative and effective.
posted by pwnguin at 8:26 PM on November 17, 2011

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