Something for nothing: How to take advantage of free online competitions

Luxury holidays, cash prizes, computers… Can you really win valuable prizes by entering free competitions?

The media analysts call it “dual screening”, which basically means watching television with a laptop or tablet on your knee or the coffee table. But could you be doing something more productive than browsing the internet or refreshing Facebook and Twitter?

Growing numbers of Brits are using the internet to enter every competition they can find. Because they enter so many, they’re more likely to occasionally win the odd thing – from iPads and exotic holidays to a free dog wash.

Some competition addicts keep their spoils, some sell them, some give them to family and friends. And some, of course, never win a thing.

For the last three nights, I’ve been earnestly entering everything I can – here’s what I’ve learnt and how I did…

How to be a “comper”

Perhaps the first thing I discovered is that no one is giving anything away absolutely free. Most competition providers want information, such as your email address or other contact information so that they can market to you. They also ask for your time and opinions.

Occasionally, they simply want to draw attention to their product or service and are using a competition with a prize because it’s cheaper than advertising.

Some people also answer paid surveys in order to be entered into a prize draw. I decided to stick to straightforward competitions and spent around an hour a night searching and entering.

Seven golden rules for safe surveying

Before starting to enter online competitions, it makes sense to stick to a few rules to keep you safe and on track. Here’s I’ve found to be most important:

1. Use a dedicated email account
I set up a separate email account for my new hobby and, after just three evenings of filling in forms, I’m glad I did. My inbox is already receiving about 15 junky emails a day and that’s bound to rise if I carry on.

2. Keep track of what you enter
There are so many competitions out there and after a short time they all start looking the same. I decided to keep a spreadsheet of which competitions I’d already entered, so that I didn’t waste time or risk disqualification by re-entering the same competitions.

3. Create a draft email
Most competitions want the same information – your name, email address and a contact number. Rather than waste time re-typing these endlessly, I created an email template that already had the information. That saved me a little time, giving me longer to look for other competitions.

4. Join a community
Even though a higher number of entrants makes it less likely any one person will win, “compers” are a surprisingly sociable bunch. There are hundreds of online communities where people share stories of their wins and swap information on new competitions. For a newbie, these forums are goldmines of tips and information.

5. Check your spam folder regularly
Because so many spam and phishing emails include words like ‘congratulations’ (ie “Congratulations, beloved, you’ve won the Nigerian lottery”), many email accounts filter similar messages straight into your spam folder. Check yours regularly and update your address book with the details of any websites you regularly enter competitions through.

6. Opt out
When you fill out any online competition forms, you’ll almost always be invited to sign up to a newsletter or mailing list. Sometimes that’s the price of entering the competition, but often you can opt out. Always opt out – it will help you keep some control of your new inbox.

7. Be careful
As with everything in life, if the deal looks too good to be true then it probably is. Check that a company is legit before you enter its competition; you don’t want to walk into the net of a phishing attack. Run an internet search if you’re unsure and see what other competition regulars have to say.

Where to find your competitions

Finding competitions isn’t as easy as I thought; internet searches don’t help you find the best contests to enter.

I found that competition communities were the best resources. In particular, the comping forum on MoneySavingExpert and Loquax seem like good resources, although you have to use your own judgement about the competitions listed there.

Finally, the website Frugal.org.uk also has a good list of competitions, although most are paid surveys and other market research opportunities.

What did I win?

In the three days that I’ve been entering competitions, I have won nothing so far. But this doesn’t cast me down into despair.

Regular competition users don’t expect a steady stream of prizes, they’re just holding out for the ones that are really worthwhile. It’s a bit like entering the lottery, but without the cost.

Carry on comping?

So, having spent just a few evenings furiously filling in forms, am I likely to continue?

I think probably not. I went into this thinking it was going to be an easy way to potentially earn some rewards and even make some money. But it turns out finding competitions and filling in forms is quite hard.

There are a lot of sites to keep track of and the very best competitions with the top prizes want a bit too much information. I get the feeling that if I continued entering competitions at this rate I’d soon be swallowed by an avalanche of junk mail.

But I might be a bit more willing to enter the odd competition – you have to be in it to win it, after all.

Are you a competition addict? Have you won anything good? Share your stories and tips with other readers using the comments below.