How to Run an Effective Instagram Photo Contest

As social media becomes increasingly visual, photo contests have become an effective way for brands to reach out to their online communities in fun and creative ways. Instagram, the popular photo sharing app for iPhone and Android, is emerging as the primary means to run these campaigns.

With fun filters and a devoted mobile community, the app has become a favorite of teens and young adults. With over 100 million users, Instagram is still growing and having 27% of Internet users between ages 18-29 makes it a hot market for brands hoping to reach younger demographics. Also, Instagram does a remarkable job of integrating into other social networks (partly due to its purchase by Facebook in April 2012).

The Obama campaign staff has recognized these benefits and took to Instagram to launch its “For All” campaign aimed at young voters. To take part, Obama supporters are asked to upload photos of themselves with a message written on their hand and that hand placed over their heart, and to tag that photo with #forall. The goal was to highlight the Democratic party’s platform and also sending a moral, emotional message. The campaign brought in over 2,400 photos within its first week.

Now, most of us don’t have the star power or following of the POTUS; however, running a photo contest can help get a brand’s audience involved, interested, and ultimately grow your community. Here’s how to ensure an engaging and successful photo contest.

Getting Started

Hopefully your company is a part of the 40% of brands already harnessing the visually-engaging power of Instagram. If not, joining the community is very easy. While there are no brand pages, a social media manager can simply download the  app and open an account like a regular user, and start uploading photos right away. Some of the most popular brands already on Instagram are Red Bull, Burberry, Nike and Starbucks.

Uploading Content

Like any other social media platform, a solid following requires quality content and active participation. That is why it is important to have a base to run your contest off of, giving users a peek at your brand to later drive content. Visuals are what Instagram is all about, not necessarily branding and marketing. That’s why you need to other networks like YouTube to advertise your Instragram content. Campaigns like The Next GE Instagrapher are a good example of playing off the content the brand already provides, specifically aimed at showing their products but in a more subtle, artsy way. Who knew jet engines could look so beautiful?

Conceptualizing Your Contest

Instagram is an extremely accessible medium, making us all feel like professional photographers with just a cell phone and a hot filter. Your contest should reflect that ease. Make rules that are easy to understand and follow. Users should need to follow your account, only submit original photos and, of course, employ the appropriate hashtags (see below).

Depending on your campaign goals, you can decide whether or not to offer a prize. Offering an incentive can increase motivation and participation and kickstart your campaign. Do you have a new product? Maybe give one away like designer Michael Kors. Are you a rock star? Maybe offer your contest winner to appear in your new video like singer Alicia Keys.

If you need help organizing your contest, Statigram, an online site for viewing Instagram photos, offers a fairly easy-to-use contest toolkit that can help you get going. Statigram and web.stagram are also great online resources for viewing those mobile photos while monitoring your contest.


Just like with Twitter, the hashtag (#) symbol is used to pair a term relevant with your campaign. It is an extremely effective way of bringing in an audience that otherwise might not be able to find you. By simply searching for a specific hashtag, the conversation becomes a two-way street: your users can find you and your brand photos, and you can also find your users’ uploaded photos tagged with your brand or contest-specific hashtag.

Using hashtags is not only a good way to track your contest entries, but also to organize themes. You may want to use just one theme and hashtag, or you may want to break up your campaign in a series of hashtags. Take the aforementioned GE campaign launched last year, offering the chance for one winner to “Be The Next GE Instagrapher” and fly to the UK to shoot photos at a world-class GE Aviation Facility. They required one main hashtag – #GEinspiredME – with 4 sub-categories (#Moving, #Curing, #Powering, and #Building) that each reflect GE’s products and/or message. As specific as this might sound, it still provides participants with a great deal of freedom as you can see below.

Instagram offers an RSS Feed to track the hashtags and monitor your brand, as well as interact with contestants. So for the Obama Campaign, you could search, subscribe to, and track #ForAll, #Obama2012, or #campaigntrail to follow the campaign.

Promoting Your Instagram Contest

One of Instagram’s main benefits, thanks to its new owner, is its integrated social media capabilities. Contest participants can help you promote even more, by easily sharing photo entries to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr and more.

Some brands are also taking to Pinterest to pin images and encourage a following across various social mediums. Pinterest can be especially effective as it is a very visual platform. Create a board and upload your favorite photos from the contest, just like the board GE created for their campaign.

Instagram’s API allows you to aggregate contest photos in one place – like your website or Facebook page – in order to display entries and encourage more participation. The Obama campaign, for example, has the images go straight to his website.

Judging a Winner

Based on your time frame and entry criteria, you (or your audience) can pick the winner(s) of your contest. If you do choose a winner through audience votes, you can curate the top photos beforehand and allow users to pick from the finalists in order to control the direction of the campaign. Be sure to announce them on your blog and other social networks so others can celebrate and be involved with the end of the contest. The winner should clearly mirror your brand and campaign goals, like this InCase and VICE’s Picture Perfect web series campaign celebrating night life.

Like the Obama camp shows us, Instagram is best used to inspire and be inspired. Tell a visual story through your brand and engage others with a photo contest tailored for your social media communities. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that visual social media isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Ignite Social Media