9 steps to running a successful Instagram photo contest

Today I want to talk to you about my experience with running an Instagram photo contest, and how I gained almost 1.500 new followers in only 4 weeks. I’m sure you’ve seen these so called “shoutout contests” on the App, and maybe you’ve even participated in some, but have you ever considered running one yourself? To be honest, I never really thought about it, but I’m always looking for new ways to gain followers and to increase my engagement, so when I was approached by @helenarawandlifestyle a few months ago, I was up for the challenge and excited to see what it would do for my account. And let me tell you - the results were amazing: Apart from it being fun and inspiring, my engagement went through the roof and within 4 weeks I gained almost 1500 new followers! We just launched our second contest (#sweetbrakfastnov), and I can’t wait to see the results.

So, what’s the idea behind an Instagram photo contest? 

Basically, you pick a topic for your contest, create a hashtag specifically for it, and get other accounts to use it. Every week you’ll announce the winners of the best photos by giving them a shoutout. Simple, right?

Why does it work? 

As part of the rules of your contest, you’ll ask the participants to mention and tag you in their photos. By doing this you’re increasing your engagement and you’re being exposed to their followers, who then might enter your contest as well. It’s a snowball system that can quickly gain you a lot of new followers and engagement. It’s easy to run, and it’s fun! So, are you ready to learn the steps to run your own contest? 

Read on to learn how...

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1. Define your objectives.

Like with any marketing strategy or campaign you should first outline your goals and objectives. What do you want to achieve with this competition? How many new followers are you hoping to gain? How many photo entries or @mentions of your account name would you be happy with? Don’t set yourself unrealistic goals - remember you can always start small and then raise your objectives in the next contest. 

2. Partner up with other accounts in your industry.

Find 1 or 2 other accounts in your niche who have a similar or slightly bigger following than you and ask them if they want to collaborate with you in running a shoutout competition. You don’t want to have too many hosts in your competition, as that can complicate things. A total of 2-3 is recommended.
I know it can be scary to contact complete strangers, especially if you’re starting out, but to be honest, the Instagram community is so supportive and positive, and in the end, most users want to grow their following, so you’ll easily be able to find someone. Before you contact your potential partners, you want to start a relationship with them: make sure you’re following them and engage with their account by liking their pictures and leaving comments. If they’re active, engaged users they’ll notice you and will return the favor. So once you’ve started this dialogue, send them a direct message, tell them about your idea of running a contest and ask them if they’d like to participate.

I’ve put together a document with the exact steps and examples of how we put together our contests, including a pitch to a potential partner. You can download it below and feel free to use it for your own contest ;)

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    See what they say! They might not be interested, for whatever reason, or they might love the idea! Also, keep in mind that they might not exactly know what a shoutout competition is, so you want to make sure you explain to them how it works.
    Tip: You could also partner up with a company and ask them if they would donate some of their products for your contest. However, keep in mind that it’s more likely for them to agree to a partnership if you already have a rather large following. 

    3. Choose a hashtag.

    Next, you need to pick a theme for your Instagram photo contest and choose a relevant hashtag for it. Don’t choose anything too specific. You want to make it easy for people to participate and give them enough creative freedom so that they can come up with a lot of different entries. Choose a popular topic, something that people are passionate about. 
    The idea for our first competition was to inspire people to eat healthily; we ran the challenge for the whole month of September, and the hashtag we can up with was #myhealthysept. For our second contest for the month of November, our theme was breakfasts and we chose the hashtag #sweetbreakfastnov.

    2 things are important when you choosing your hashtag:
    1. You want to make sure that it doesn’t already exist - you’re going to be choosing your winner(s) through the hashtag, so make sure there are currently no photos attached to it. The way you can check if a hashtag is already taken is by going into the search bar, go to “Tags” and start typing your ideas. You’ll see a list of hashtags appear with the number of photos attached to them like you can see below (or if it’s a new hashtag, it’ll say “No hashtags found”, so you’re good to go!): 

    2. You want to choose a hashtag that’s relevant to your contest, easy to remember and easy to spell. Don’t choose or make up a random word - you want it to make sense so that people who read it for the first time get what it’s about straight away.
    Tip: If you decide to run your challenge for a whole month it’s a good idea to include the name of the month (or an abbreviation of it) in the hashtag like we did for #myhealthysept and #sweetbreakfastnov.


    4. Plan your Instagram photo contest.

    1. Define the duration of your contest. Keep in mind that it’ll take you a few days or even up to a week to promote your competition and to get people to participate. So in order for it to take off, you want to keep it going for long enough. My recommendation? Run it for a month. It’s long enough to keep people dedicated and excited, but it’s not too long, so people won’t get bored of it and drop out. I’ve seen competitions that are ongoing, but personally I think it kind of takes away the excitement and the novelty, so I would recommend limiting your contest to a certain amount of time.

    2. Define what the contestants have to do in order to participate. Generally, you’ll want to ask them to follow you and your partner(s), to post a picture with your hashtag and to mention you in their caption. You can also take it further if you wanted to: for example, ask them to invite 3 of their friends to play by mentioning them in their caption. You can be creative here! Just remember to keep it simple and don’t ask them to do too many things.

    3. By what criteria are you judging the winners? Will it be the most beautiful photo, the most creative one, or the one with the funniest caption? This is completely up to you, but make sure your contestants know what they’re being judged by.

    5. Define your prizes and when you’ll announce the winner(s).

    1. What will the winner receive? Of course the shoutout by you and your partner(s), which will give the winner exposure to all of your combined followers. But maybe you’ll also invite them to be a co-host for the following week? Or maybe you even have physical prizes for the winners? You can be creative here! But remember, you don’t need to spend any money on prizes in order for the contest to become popular! People love a competition, and even a simple shoutout can really mean a lot to someone! 

    2. How many winners will there be and when will you announce them? Will you only announce one winner on the last day of your contest? Or will there be weekly winners? The choice is yours but make sure you let your contestants know the details! 

    For our challenges, we decided to choose 2 winners each Friday for the whole month of September/November. 


    6. Promote your challenge! 

    This is hugely important, especially if you don’t have many followers yet. You need to invite people to play, remind them over and over again, and make an effort to spread the word.
    Here’s what I recommend: 

    1. Create 2 flyers to promote your contest. Make sure they include the words “Shoutout Contest/Competition” and your hashtag. Post one of the flyers a week before the start date to announce your contest, and post the other one on day 1 of the contest to announce the official start of it. Get your partner(s) to do the same. In your caption, let people know what the contest is all about, and tell them how they can enter. You want to get people excited so that they’ll share your competition with their followers. You can download the flyers and captions we used for our competitions here:


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    2. Promote your contest in every single post you publish for the duration of it!I know this might sound repetitive, but you need to remember that not all of your followers will see each and every single one of your posts. Plus, with every new post you have the chance of reaching new followers!

    3. Cross-promote your contest on your other social media platforms and to your email list. Get your partner(s) to do the same.

    4. Invite people to play. You can invite your current followers, or go into any hashtags related to your contest and invite new accounts by commenting on their photos. We’ve seen amazing results doing this. Yes, it’s a bit time-consuming, but it’s definitely worth it.
    You can see exact examples of how we invited other users to play in the document!


    7. Choosing and announcing the winner(s).

    Together with your partner(s) decide who the winner(s) will be a day before you announce them. 
    On the day of the announcement share the winning entries, tag the winners in them, and mention them in your caption to congratulate them. If you’re announcing more than one winner, make sure you space your announcements out throughout the day - keep it exciting!
    If you have a physical prize, make sure you contact the winner(s) directly to arrange shipping.


    8. Evaluate.

    At the end of your contest evaluate what went well and what you might do differently the next time around. Use an analytics tool like “Analytics for Instagram” to measure your following and engagement over the period of the contest. Did you achieve your objectives? 


    9. Have fun!

    And let me know when you decide to run your first contest! I’d love to participate :)


    Now let me know in the comments below, are you ready to run your first contest?

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