5 Steps to Running an Instagram Hashtag Contest

by Julie Foley Second Street

Pick a theme

Instagram contests are great for reaching a niche audience, so make sure your theme appeals to your target demographic. If your theme is too general, it will be irrelevant for your brand and the brand you are trying to promote. When you are planning Instagram contests, begin by identifying the audience you are trying to reach. Then come up with a theme and a prize tailored to reach that audience.

A great place to start is a selfie-based contest. People love taking and sharing pictures of themselves, and with a low barrier to entry,  they can drive lots of participation.

Plus, selfie contests can be adapted to suit almost any advertiser. For example, the selfie could be taken at the advertiser’s location, like #SDBurgerWeek, or with the advertiser’s product, like this case study for #PepsiSelfie. For more ideas check out Top Audiences and Advertisers to Target for Instagram Contests.

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Compared to other social platforms, Instagram doesn’t have as many rules governing the use of promotions on the platform. However, you do need to acknowledge that the promotion isn’t sponsored, endorsed, administered by, or associated with Instagram. You also need to make sure you are not inaccurately tagging content or encouraging users to inaccurately tag content.

It’s also a good idea to create a landing page for your contest where you can post the contest rules and display a gallery of submissions.

BONUS TIP: Add a link to that landing page in your Instagram bio, since that’s the only place you can put a clickable link on Instagram.

Pick a Prize

Your goal should be to attract the right followers, not just any followers. The best way to do that is to a offer a prize that’s relevant to your business.


Giving away an iPad might attract a lot of attention, but you’re more likely to attract users who will actually use your product if you give away something that’s related to your products and services. If you’re an audiology company, giving away hearing aids is going to attract potential customers versus giving away a gift card that could appeal to anyone.

Your prize also needs to be valuable enough for people to take the time to enter. This means the desirability of the prize should be directly correlated with the barrier to entry for the contest. If your contest requires people to make a purchase or visit a specific location in order to enter, you need to offer a more valuable prize in order to make it worth the extra effort.

Pick a hashtag

You can run into problems if you choose a hashtag that is too general (like #cool). People may inadvertently enter without realizing the hashtag they are using is connected to a contest. More importantly – you will have to spend a lot of time moderating your contest to weed out irrelevant entries.

Your first step is to search existing hashtags to find out what is being used and what is popular. You can use the “Explore” tab on the Instagram app for insights into popularity of hashtags, Iconosquare is a favorite tool to search existing hashtags.

Here are some more tips to keep in mind when picking a hashtag:

  • Make it concise and catchy. Long phrases can be tough to remember (and to type on a mobile device), so keep it simple.
  • Align with your brand. If appropriate, try to abbreviate your brand’s name or slogan to incorporate in the hashtag.
  • Align with your contest. In other cases, it makes more sense to incorporate the name of your contest with your hashtag.
  • Make it clear it’s a contest. Try to include a word like “sweeps,” “win,” “contest,” or “giveaway” on your posts to make sure people know they are entering a contest when they use your hashtag.
  • Include dates and places. If your contest is tied to a live event, make that clear with your hashtag, like #MySoundersGame6.


A successful contest isn’t an “if you built it, they will come” situation – it’s got to be marketed! You want to make sure your Instagram contest is as discoverable as possible, so you should promote using all of your assets. Here are a few ideas for ways to promote your Instagram contests:

  1. Post to Instagram. Post photos promoting the contest to your Instagram profile, using relevant hashtags to make your post visible to your target audience.

    SteamboatBesides featuring your own hashtag prominently, you should use other hashtags in the caption of your photos as well. Examples can be: #nameofyourbrand, #contest, #giveaway, #instagramcontest and #instagramgiveaway. If there’s a popular hashtag that your target audience is already using, consider adding it to your caption so your contest can be discovered.

  2. Put the link in your bio. Be sure to direct people to your Instagram bio to see the link to the contest landing page. This is the only place to have a clickable hyperlink on Instagram. Repeat: this is the only place to have a clickable hyperlink on Instagram. This is really important!


  3. Utilize email marketing. Include the contest in a dedicated email or email newsletter.


  4. Cross promote. Put the contest on your other social networks, like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.
  5. Use mobile. Send a message to your text database promoting the contest (this is an especially good contest type to promote on mobile, since Instagram is primarily a mobile app).
  6. Don’t forget your traditional assets. Mention the contest on air or include a link with relevant content in print.
  7. Create signage. Put signage promoting the contest up at your advertiser’s location.

Pick a winner

How to Contact a Winner

  • Post a photo to your brand’s Instagram account and @tag that winner’s Instagram username.
  • It could either be re-posting their winning entry or some kind of more generic “winner” graphic, and @tag that person’s Instagram username in the caption of the photo so they will be notified through the app they have won.
  • It is guaranteed they will see this notification – this should be your first choice when contacting a winner.
  • Include instructions on what they need to do to claim the prize – whether they need to email you, call you, or come to your media company.


As a backup, you can also Direct Message the User on Instagram. You will need to take a photo and send it to them to make this happen. It is NOT guaranteed they will see this Direct Message so use this as your second line of defense when it comes to contacting winners.

Prior to contacting the winner you can go to their Instagram profile and see if they have made their location public. This is one way to verify if they meet your eligibility requirements. Otherwise, you will need to simply ask them to confirm their location and verify this when they come in to pick up the prize. If they end up being ineligible, you will need to pick a new winner.

And there you have it! You are well on your way to running your first successful Instagram contest.

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