Creative Challenge Contests

Oct 31, 2013

Challenge and prize competitions are one path that federal agencies take to drive innovation and solve mission-centric problems—whether technical, scientific, or creative. Creative competitions include multimedia, photo, poster, and design competitions.

Here you’ll find tips on running a creative challenge, resources, examples, and information about online platforms you can use to host your competition.


Creative competitions and challenges are about (1) seeking professional, high-quality products, (2) aimed at driving mass citizen awareness and engagement around the message in the challenge, or (3) both. Agencies use this approach to get solvers to create videos, take photographs, make posters, or submit a design concept. A creative video challenge should not be confused with another type of challenge that allows solvers to submit a video of their technical or scientific concepts (please see Software and Apps Challenges).

Tips for Challenge Managers

  • Clearly define the problem: For creative challenges, use plain language to tell the entrants what you are looking for and any parameters you expect them to follow.
  • Go pro or amateur: Decide whether you are in need of a professional-quality solution or if the goal is to have amateur content with a mission to share a message with a large audience. That will help you decide which platform will work best for your goals.
  • Define your mission statement: A clear mission statement helps direct the participants and the evaluating entity throughout the process. The same applies to the evaluation criteria; these should be outlined at the beginning to focus submissions toward a usable solution.
  • Outline legal and policy guidelines: Policies should be clearly defined—those to which the creative challenge must comply, as well as those that govern the kinds of submissions allowed, copyright, intellectual property rights, and Terms of Use.
  • Track program metrics: Have a clear plan of how you will evaluate the challenge. Depending on the mission, the number of submissions, attention on social media, popularity of submissions, etc., are useful measures of challenge success.
  • Plan communication strategy: Consider how you will communicate with your community and how often. Be prepared to invest staff time in reading and responding to competition entrants, especially in the few days leading up to the competition deadline. Updating the community frequently helps to engage the participants as part of the process. The more engagement you have with people, the better opportunity for solid and increasingly innovative results.
  • Define the evaluation process: It can vary depending on the overall goals of the challenge. For stronger community engagement, you might consider more peer-centered judging. To lend greater authority to the decision, you might want to have expert judges or internal representatives lead the evaluation process.
  • Plan for implementation: In order for people to participate in current and future efforts, you must invest time to provide feedback and actually implement winning ideas.
  • Know what motivates entrants: Research shows that prizes or money are not key motivators for entrants. People want to feel like they helped, made a difference, or improved something.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has run a number of creative challenges, including: Healthy Swimming video competition, Veto Violence Public Service Announcement competition, and Heads Up poster design competition.

Department of the Interior photo challenges include national and natural landmarks, as well as challenges for military families.

U.S. Mint used a design challenge to create a new Baseball Hall of Fame commemorative coin.

NASA received professional quality video and worldwide attention for its two multimedia challenges: video time capsules and to promote the zero robotics challenge.

Criteria for Choosing a Platform

Here are some criteria for choosing a multimedia platform. Add or subtract to tailor this list to your needs.


  • Does this tool have (or has it had) any federal government clients?
  • Is the tool 508 compliant?
  • How many solvers visit the site? How does the site reach out to the community?
  • How much does it cost per challenge? For an enterprise license? Is a free trial available?


  • Does this tool have the ability to display submissions in a gallery for public viewing?
  • Is there the ability to keep submissions private?

Citizens can:

  • Easily create an account with an email address
  • Share the challenge or their submission with friends and family via social media
  • Receive email updates on the challenge
  • Ask the agency questions and receive feedback

Federal agencies can:

  • Brand the challenge with agency seal, photos, video, etc.
  • Keep submissions private, make them all public, or a mix of the two
  • Easily receive and answer questions from entrants
  • Conduct judging online, or easily download submissions
  • Have a public voting component
  • Offer a prize at the end for best app and publicize

Platforms and Tools for Creative Challenges

The following list of tools and challenge platforms is provided as a resource and is not an endorsement for any company or technology. Those companies that are on the GSA Schedule 541-4G for Challenges & Competition Services are noted with (GS) next to the company name. Those that have a federal-compatible terms of service are noted with a (ToS) next to the company name.

YouTube (ToS)

Millions of people are already creating video and posting on YouTube, so this is a prime spot for finding contestants. The platform has Contest Policies & Guidelines and Contest Best Practices for you to consult. Or reach out to a live person who works with federal clients, One tool with this platform is YouTube Direct, a gadget with an API feed that goes on your main contest page (agency site, blog, etc.) to collect and organize video submissions. This gadget helps the video creator choose what they want to submit, the video then goes to your admin file where you can screen, filter, and manage the videos that will show up on your site.

Facebook (ToS)

This social site now allows page administrators to manage promotions and contests without using an app. This blog post explains how it can be done and provides for a set of platform and contest guidelines. This is entirely a self-serve platform where page administrators are responsible for knowing how to use the tools, reach the target audience, and manage the community.

Pinterest (ToS)

Pinterest is an interactive social site where users share images on their boards and “pin” things they like for themselves and others. See Contests on Pinterest for examples and information about hosting a challenge on the site. Buick’s design challenge on this platform impacted interior and exterior design for one of the company’s cars. See more examples and analysis in HubSpot’s 8 Real-Life Examples of Engaging Pinterest Contests.

Flickr (ToS)

A social photo sharing site, Flickr is home to dozens of photo contests on any given day and boasts millions of users worldwide. Pro photo bloggers talk about the ease of use and community on this platform: Flickr Makes Photo Contests Easier.

Instagram (ToS)

Beyond being known for its easy-to-use image filters, this active photo sharing community now has video capability, too. Challenges are popular and easy to manage with a few basic tools, plus an API for materials so you can have a feed go right to your website, and social tools to post images on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Read the IG blog, How to Host a Photo Contest on Instagram for more details, including a community contact for any of your questions.

Tongal (GS partner via TopCoder)

Tongal is a worldwide, professional creative crowdsourcing platform. Whether you want concepts, CGI, animation, voice overs, or live actors, this site lets you choose from among the pitches and talent that fits your challenge goals. The platform provides tutorial videos (also crowdsourced), a community forum, and gamification (win points!) for participants. Major brands are using the platform as an alternative to traditional advertising creative development. In government, NASA received professional quality video and worldwide attention for its two multimedia challenges produced through Tongal: Video time capsules and video to promote the Zero Robotics challenge.