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Lars Hasselblad Torres and Kate Mytty 15 min read

Online Competitions: Lessons from MIT’s Service Innovation Challenge

For the last three years we’ve worked at the MIT Public Service Center – in collaboration with the MIT Alumni Association, MIT150, and numerous stakeholders - to translate a campus-based innovation competition into an online platform that engages the worldwide MIT community. We’ve cracked the competition process open, leveraging a combination of workflows and social tools to produce a compelling experience of real participation in key activities.

We’d like to share a few of our major aims and reflect a bit on some lessons learned that we hope will guide our approach in the future and prove helpful to others designing competitions, challenges, and prize giveaways online – in particular those focused on social benefit and public service. We are indebted to our partners at Idea Couture for their thoughtful, patient, imaginative, and generous work with us.


Our Goals

Our efforts were aimed at achieving several outcomes, all of which aimed at increasing our overall capacity to engage more participants – student teams, volunteers, and alumni users:

1.    Increase efficiency and transparency. Coordinating the annual competition used to be a pretty intensive, manually-driven and email-heavy process. Little information about the community of teams formed during a particular year was available – to teams or to the public. This made it difficult to foster a strong sense of long-term community and build a durable support network.

2.    Build momentum and enthusiasm. MIT is a special place with a lot of talent being directed toward public service and social entrepreneurship. We wanted to create a window into invention as public service at the Institute as reflected by the teams that enter the competition each year and enable anyone to make the window bigger – through social tools, etc.

3.    Foster community-mindedness and collaboration. The MIT alumni network is more than 130,000 strong across 120 countries. That’s a powerful community of support for our students who, historically, represent on average projects in around 30 of those countries.  We asked, what if we could connect students with the passion and talent to change the world with the experience and resources of the MIT alumni community?

4.    Decentralize decision-making. Historically our proposal feedback and judging processes have relied almost exclusively on face-to-face, local mechanisms. With the opportunities for pushing real work out to the edge of networks made possible on the web, we decided to make our processes as decentralized as possible.


Platform Tools

To achieve these aims, we developed several specific tools that we hope form the beginnings of a robust, engaging, and effective platform:

1.    Team profiles with a “follow” feature, embeddable video, location information, comments, and feedback.

2.    Social media aggregation and promotion hooks including RSS feeds, Facebook “Like”, inbound and outbound Twitter posts, and ShareThis.

3.    Individual profiles with “my updates” feature and user roles, including volunteer “Reviewer,” “Community Manager” and “Judge” status.

4.    “Help Wanted” and “Help Offered” tools to create a connection marketplace that enabled anonymous, private messaging.

5.    Iterative proposal entry, review, and comment features that enable volunteer reviewers and judges to evaluate projects and provide feedback to teams.

6.    A community voting tool enabling registered users to cast up to five votes for teams.



Since innovative brand and cause marketing are as important to nonprofits as they are to startups we thought we’d share three reflections from our first six months since launching the Global Challenge at MIT.

First, with the right content, structure, and process, online competitions can be powerful engines of community growth and involvement – more powerful even than some conventional modes of organizing. This is true for several reasons. The time-bound nature of competition demands discipline. At the same time, incentives help structure certain behavior in ways traditional programs might not – for example, participants’ attention to detail.

A good example of this “participation structuration” (ack!) is the proposal entry process. Most teams focused on optimizing their performance in the MIT Global Challenge took advantage of our “submit early, submit often” rule, which encouraged teams to get feedback from our volunteer reviewers. This helped them button up their case for the innovation, feasibility, and impact of their projects. By and large, we think teams really valued the feedback they received on their proposals, while users looking to get involved in the MIT Global Challenge valued the opportunity to sign up for a chance to review nascent project proposals. Both felt rewarded by the process in different ways. This was important also in increasing the pool of resources teams had access to – expertise, connections, and information.

A critical stress point here will be scalability – to what degree will we be able to manage the growing rates of interest and participation in a way that keeps pace with users’ expectation of benefit or reward?

Second, getting the economics of voting right is difficult. By the end of our 20-day Community Choice voting period we received just north of 14,000 votes from 77 percent of registered users. Although each user had the opportunity to vote for up to 5 teams – allocating a total of $25,000 in implementation grants – in reality few users cast more than a single vote. This begs several questions: are the motivations to vote the right motivations for growing a supportive, service-oriented online community? Is there a balance to steward here and how can be ‘brighten’ that message? Alternatively, is casting votes for up to 5 of 45 teams simply an unreasonable expectation – is the transaction burden on a user is simply too high?

These questions aside, it is clear that rolling in incentives for contestants to “get out the vote” is a great way to raise awareness of your efforts and the values that underlay a program like the MIT Global Challenge. Incentives served to dramatically increase the number of people reaching out to our team to learn more about volunteer opportunities and even generated a few sponsorship leads.

Finally, with the right structure – incentives, tools, and timing – online competitions can be a terrific “go to market” strategy for teams. By entering a competition like the Global Challenge and leveraging the promotion tools available, teams have an opportunity to build excitement among their potential customers for their products or services.

During the Community Choice voting at least two of the top teams did an incredible job activating partner networks to support their work, promoting a real sense of excitement and value for their work to an external audience – in the end garnering 2711 votes, or nearly 20 percent of total votes cast across 45 teams. It will be interesting to see how potential customers take more ownership and responsibility to ensure the successful implementation of projects that they helped bring to their communities through their participation in these kinds of competitions.


Closing Observations

It’s important to consider what aspects of your competition structure can be manipulated by participants. Make an effort to understand and consider the impact of the ways your competition structure may be gamed, and adopt an open attitude toward them. For a example, what behaviors can you allow and easily account for down the line? What behaviors must absolutely be discouraged?

A few observations:

  • Students quickly learned to game the “default” leaderboard, which – though sortable by most votes – by default showed teams that had most recently updated their profiles. This was fine by us, as long as the information portrayed remained accurate and complete. Begs the question, should we “freeze” team profiles during voting?
  • We struggled with ways to make the process open yet fair. At heart, we are a platform aimed at engaging a specific community – the global MIT community. Beyond that community our platform also appealed to anyone concerned with technological, social, and service innovation. Even with open registration and an SMS voting verification system there were many, many efforts made to “stuff” the ballot box, most of which are pretty easy to catch. More work to do to tighten that up.
  • Competitions create non-winners and we have work to do to figure out greater benefits of participation. We recognize substantive benefits to all teams (proposals receive feedback from judges that can be used to improve the proposals for other application processes), social benefits (teams expand the network of support around them, thereby widening their pool of potential resources), and some direct benefits (for example, a sponsor kicked in workshop fees for three teams to participate in a start-up strategy workshop). How can we increase these benefits to participants.


Overall, we remain incredibly enthusiastic about the potential for online competitions to benefit participants. Whether these benefits will translate into measurable community impact is the rub that remains to be seen. And that’s a subject of a very different (and exciting!) discussion around improving impact assessment out of competition processes.

Thank you! Please check out the MIT Global Challenge learn more – we’re eager to look for ways to share the platform, and certainly value the Frogloop community’s insights on ways to healthily grow the platform.

*Lars Hasselblad Torres is the Program Administrator for the MIT Global Challenge Kate Mytty, Program Coordinator for the MIT Global Challenge.