Did you know contests are one of the best ways to survey your audience & get new email subscribers?

There are many contest tools & apps out there and I’ve tried a good amount of them without problems. The catch? They often end up costing a lot, especially if you run contests over a few months.

No, what if I told you that you can create your own free referral contest app with tools you already know and use like Google Spreadsheets, MailChimp & Zapier? That’s what I though!

If you want to see it in action, it’s the exact same system I used in my current contest which lasts until May 30th. If you want to see it in action, just participate!

I spent a good amount of hours to figure out how to make it work. There was no info online, but with patience and some perseverance, I could make it work and so can you!


Step 1: Create your Google Survey/Form

Usually, marketers consider that they are two main goals to organising contests: gather info about your participants (email addresses, names, etc.) and have them take specific actions (complete a survey to enter, like a Facebook Page, download a mobile app and so on).

Why not take the best of both world?

Whether you decide your contest will be just a form to gather emails or a survey (which I chose for obvious reasons), you will be setting up your Google Form different ways. In fact, this will determine how many pages/sections you have.

Google Forms is Google’s really simple-to-use survey and form tool. It’s easy to set up and design (yes, you can add cats everywhere), easy to share as well as consult and organize the answers you collect. Plus, as it works with Google Spreadsheets, you can create some cool automations (more on that later!).

Back to the our survey/contest!

For my contest, I chose to do a 4-pages, 7 question survey about how people use digital marketing in 2017 and uncover problems they’re struggling with.

This will help me find blog post topics and know my readers better as well as find MTL+ECOMMERCE speakers to cover those topics live at our events.

With a contest/survey like that, as you also have to ask for the email address to announce the winners and add them to your email list, you need to make it clear. See the text I added at the last step.

Here are some good practices to follow when creating a survey.

These are the first and last page of the survey (it will all make sense soon!).

Step 1

Step 4 (Last step & email opt-in)


Important: you will have to leave one blank “short-answer” question somewhere in your form for the referral part of this contest to work. It’s the last one on my Google Form example above.


Step 2: Setup your Results Spreadsheet

If you’re not familiar with Google Forms, you will be happy to find out that you can view your results in a Google Spreadsheet. This will allow for all the magic automation that follows in this post!

To create the spreadsheet containing your precious form answers, here over to the “Responses” tab and create on the spreadsheet icon to create it!

Google Form create spreadsheet


This will give you access to the spreadsheet (it will be added to the same folder where you form is located).

Click it and select “create a new spreadsheet”.

In this spreadsheet, you will notice that each question from your Google Form is represented by a column and each answer will be one line. Everything is well organized and makes it easy to process and play with!

Now as you might have understood, the whole referral system depends on this very spreadsheet which we will link to Zapier.

What we will do is create a unique link for each of the participants of the contest so that they can share their “referral link”. In fact, this will fill the blank allowing us to know who referred each participant.

Are you still with me? Awesome, it’ll be worth it 🙂

We will have to create that referral link ourselves. So to pre-fill this field, we will have to have the referrer email added to each user’s “referral link” URL. I chose to use the email address because it’s a good “unique identifier” and a useful info!

How we do that is by finding the parameter of the blank field we’ve added to our form earlier (bear with me!). With that, we will be able to create a unique link for each contest participant that will, in fact, fill in their email address in the blank field so that you know who referred each contest participant!

To find it:

  1. Click “send” on your form to get its share link and open it in an anonymous window (CMD or CTRL + SHIFT + N).
  2. Go to the page with the blank field (you might have to fill your form)
  3. Click right on the answer field (of the blank field) and select “inspect” or “inspect element”
  4. Find and copy-paste the “entry.XXXXXXX” value. This is the value of your URL parameter.


Inspect element google form parameter


With that information, we’ll be able to create each participant’s referral link! We’ll take care of this in MailChimp at step 3.

Your referral link should look something like this:





The hardest part is done, bravo 🙂



Step 3: Build your Referral Email with MailChimp

Now we’ll want to send participants a “thank you email” along with their referral link and remind them that they have a lot more chance to win if they share their referral link and have people participate via their link.

For my contest, I give 5x chances to contestants for each new participant they referred!

What we will need to do for this is set a new email list in MailChimp with an Automation and create the email that will get sent.

  1. First, create a new email list in MailChimp (we wouldn’t want any interference with your current lists)
  2. Go to that list and make sure it has a first name field
  3. Create a new “Welcome Message” type automation for that list. Set it to send immediately when a user is added to list.


MailChimp Automation Contest


Then, you will have the fun to design your confirmation email, the one that will be sent to each participant when they fill your form. In that email, I encourage you to congratulate the contestants for participating, remind them of the potential prizes they could win as well as make it easy for them to share their referral link with clickable buttons!

Here is how mine looks:

Email confirmation contest


Of course, you will want to personalize your email both with the person’s name and make sure to give them their referral link! Luckily for us, as we chose the referrer’s email as the parameter, we can easily add the *|EMAIL|* MailChimp merge tag as a variable.

Here is the raw email I send to people who enter my contest:

Hello *|FNAME|*!!

Really awesome that you’ve participated in the “State of Digital Marketing in 2017” contest!

As a reminder, you could win:

  • 1 year of MTL+ECOMMERCE tickets
  • 1 hour of consultation with Ambroise Debret about anything you like!

Now, the last step to make sure you have the maximum chances of winning is sharing the link below. For each person who enters the contest through your link, you will get 5 additional entries in this contest!!!

This is the referral link made variable with MailChimp’s merge tags. Same format as here:
And to create that last part to facilitate the sharing, I played a lot with Facebook & Twitter’s share intents to find the perfect ones!
Share referral link Twitter Facebook Email
In fact, the Facebook & Twitter shares are just images with a link (below), and the email is a classic “mailto” on a button.
Here is how to do the same for your confirmation email (a lot of personalization to do!):









Step 4: Connect everything with Zapier

Now that we have our spreadsheet and email automation ready, we need to link the two together. The goal is that when someone enters your contest (it adds a row to your Google Spreadsheet of answers), he/she is added to your contest email list and thus receives the automatic email confirmation and referral.

That’s where Zapier is useful.

Without going into too much detail, here is what the Zap you’ll have to setup looks like:

Zapier workflow Spreadsheet to MailChimp


For the “new spreadsheet row” part, you will have to select which Google Spreadsheet Zapier will verify.

And for the MailChimp part, you will need to grab the participant’s email & first name from the Google Spreadsheet.

Easy no?

Note that depending on your plan, Zapier might check only every 15 minutes for new row entries, which is fine.

Now, once that’s done, it’s time to test your whole process! Go ahead and fill your survey until the end with a real email, go check that your answers appear in the Google Spreadsheet, that your Zap is working and that you receive your MailChimp email!

Adjust a few things and Hourra: here is your own referral contest built for free!


Step 5: Promote & Enjoy!

Next, as every marketing initiative and no matter how much virality is built in, everything depends on promotion! 

I gave a lot of contest promotion tactics in my How to Grow with Virals Contests (use case with +28’000 participants) article; this one is huge!

Here are the main promotion methods (detailed in the blog post):

  • Send your contest to your email list
  • Showcase your contest on your website
  • Share your contest everywhere on your social media accounts
  • Have your contest featured in contests directories
  • Post your contest in contests forums
  • Share your contest in Facebook Groups
  • Collaborate with influencers
  • Run some advertising on Adwords, Facebook and/or Adsense


Here you go, I believe you have every tool & information needed to build your own (hopefully) viral contest, all for free!

Here are the five steps we’ve seen:

  •  Step 1: Create your Google Survey/Form
  • Step 2: Setup your Results Spreadsheet
  • Step 3: Build your Referral Email with MailChimp
  • Step 4: Connect everything with Zapier
  • Step 5: Promote & Enjoy!



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