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The Secrets Behind Four Successful Instagram Contests

The Secrets Behind Four Successful Instagram Contests

People love pictures, and they really love sharing pictures of themselves, their families, pets, food, favorite clothing items, sunsets, and a host of other random things. I’m no exception.

This would explain the success Instagram has seen. In April of 2012, Instagram launched its app for Android. In less than one day, more than a million people downloaded the app, and in February 2013, less than three years after its launch, Instagram announced 100 million monthly users on all devices.

A business would have to be crazy not to take advantage of this opportunity, right? It would certainly explain the boom we’ve seen in brands hosting Instagram contests. I’m not a huge fan of the selfie phenomenon (more than 16 million photos have been tagged with #selfie — seriously),  but I see the opportunity it presents for brands to capitalize on.

Instagram and photo contests are genius. Social media contests allow brands to:

  • make a personal connection with their customers;
  • receive a ton of buzz and PR for the cost of giving away some merchandise, or in many instances, at no cost at all;
  • build a loyal and engaged online community; and
  • most importantly, drive sales.

So, do they work? I know I’ve started following a brand because I saw they were hosting a contest on Instagram, which later led to me buying a product from them. Have you?

Some businesses have had great success with Instagram campaigns, which they executed flawlessly.

T.J. Maxx

What’s better than showing off your fabulous new outfit? Bragging about the deal you got on it.

T.J. Maxx hosted a contest that encouraged its fans to ““pick up a few amazing designer treasures for less on your next trip to T.J.Maxx, whip up a killer outfit, and Instagram or tweet your perfect spring look with the hashtag #MaxxStyle, and include the designer and price you paid for it.” Hello free advertising. They also allowed the option for participants to upload their photos directly to a campaign-specific tab on their Facebook page.

In addition to having their photo on the Facebook page, participants had the chance to win a $50 gift card each week ,or a $500 gift card each month if their ““pic grabbed the attention of the public and T.J. Maxx’s official Style Scout fashion experts.”

Their secrets?

In addition to approximately $600 a month for gift cards and staff time (which is a very low-budget campaign), the company clearly invested some advertising budget with the popular fashion and lifestyle blog, Refinery29 — where our team at BlueGlass learned about this campaign. R29 posted an announcement with the tag ““dedicated feature,” and you’ll notice the post is wrapped with T.J. Maxx banner ads. I’ve spotted T.J. Maxx’s Maxx Style in other sponsored posts on blogs such as Daily Disguise and Pop of Style, among others.

Those ““Official T.J. Maxx Style Scouts” mentioned — well-known fashion bloggers, of course! Naturally, they’re going to share the contest and their involvement with their followers via blog posts and social media, and encourage them to participate. It’s a win-win-win situation. They also earned some press for the contest, including in New York Magazine.

T.J. Maxx knows their target audience — style-conscious women on a budget — and have found a way to not only reach them, but engage with them on a personal basis.

H&M, Refinery29, and Coachella

Talk about a branding trifecta. H&M partnered with Refinery29 for social media contests around Coachella in 2012 and 2013, and have seen success with both pre- and post-festival contests. Their 2013 contest was as simple as prompting followers to share photos of what they would wear to the festival, using the hashtag #HMCoachella on Instagram and Twitter, for the chance to win two passes. The contest judges were from Refinery29. Instagram alone hosted more than 2,750 submitted photos with the branded hashtag in less than a month.


In 2012, the contest was specific to Instagram and prompted fans to share photos that captured the outdoor fun and fashion of summer festivals in one shot. The winner received two general-admission tickets to Coachella, two VIP passes, travel fare to the festival, and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to serve as a festival photographer. This was another great example of knowing an audience and finding a way to tap their interests and build a connection.

Their secrets?

Official partnership, and once again, knowing their audience. Not only did H&M and Refinery29 promote the contest to their massive followings, but Coachella also promoted the contest to festival-goers via social media. Aside from hosting the giveaway, H&M is also a vendor at the festival — further leveraging the event for additional exposure. It’s no secret that partnerships are the most successful when they’re logical, and this one definitely makes sense. It also helps that H&M capitalized on a huge event that already draws a ton of buzz.


The American Institute of Architects

For National Architecture Week 2013, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) ran an ““Architecture is Awesome” photo contest on Instagram and Twitter, where five winners would be randomly selected to win a $50 American Express gift card. All the participants had to do was take a photo of their favorite or most inspirational architectural site, and upload it to Twitter or Instagram with the tag #ArchWeek13 between April 7th and 13th.

According to a press release, National Architecture Week is a public awareness campaign from AIA dedicated to increasing attention to the role architects play as a force for positive change in our communities and to elevate the public’s appreciation of design. The intent of the contest was to showcase architects’ good designs and encourage architecture fans to share their thoughts and engage with like-minded professionals during the week. Within four days, more than 700 photos were uploaded to Instagram alone.

Their secrets?

They saw an opportunity to gain awareness of Architecture Week and tapped into a widely popular subject on Instagram. The hashtag #architecture has more than four million photos on Instagram. The organization recognized that their membership is very passionate about their careers and decided to use Instagram to bring them closer together. As ““the voice of the architecture profession,” the organization saw a timely opportunity to create a bonding experience over a social network, while potentially gaining followers and awareness for the organization itself.


Ben & Jerry’s

Ice cream mega-brand Ben & Jerry’s captured the essence of its product with an Instagram contest. They asked their followers to share their Instagram photos of euphoria and tag them with #captureeuphoria. They then picked their favorite users from around the world to feature them in an advertisement in their own neighborhood. Launched in November of 2012, the campaign has resulted in nearly more than 17,000 tagged with #captureeuphoria to date. I’m unsure of how many followers the company has gained since launching the campaign, but it currently has more than 165,000 followers on Instagram — not bad.

Their secrets?

Knowing their own product, embracing it, and leveraging their existing cult-like following. Ben & Jerry’s has a strong identity, and they did a great job of carrying it through this campaign. Not only did the campaign give a select group of fans their 15 minutes of fame, it also demonstrated the company’s pride in its fans by featuring them in advertisements for the brand itself. This is a pretty smart way to connect with an audience.

Have you noticed a common theme among all of these? They all know their audiences, developed a relevant campaign that would resonate with them, and gave something away as a prize — whether it was of monetary value, recognition, or their 15 minutes of fame.

If you’re thinking about hosting a photo contest for your brand, keep in mind some things that can help make your campaign a success.

  • Find a theme that relates to your brand and product or service you offer and stick with it through the entire campaign.
  • Make it easy and fun to enter.
  • Find a way to filter entries (hashtags usually work well for this; you can then choose which photos to report from your account and don’t have to bog down your inbox).
  • Find a partner brand with a strong and relevant following.
  • Promote everywhere relevant: your website, all social channels, at events, etc.
  • Measure results.

With all of these elements in place, your campaign is bound to convert new followers into loyal fans.

What are some fun and effective photo contests that you’ve seen? Please share in the comments below.

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Join the Discussion


  1. Felipe Jose says:

    Wow, great tips here. I didn’t know how to use instagram for that purpose but when you put together these real examples it makes easier to follow them and get better results.
    Thanks for the heads up!!
    Take care.

  2. Hi Shanon,
    I use this application every day and I almost became addicted… :)
    In any case, thank you for sharing with us your article. Your analysis is very relevant and I’ve never seen it like this.
    Pleasure to read you ;)

  3. I wonder how I can do the same with computer repair and computer services. Lol. Have people take photos of their computers or maybe something they do on their computers.

  4. Alam Smith says:

    Great tips. Instagram is a popular and widely used application. Your examples are really awesome. Thanks for sharing a nice article.

  5. John says:

    Im currently trying to develop a strategy for my web design web site via social media advertising, I come across your post in a google search.

    You’ve given me some new inspiration, which i will take away and rethink my marketing idea.

  6. Integrating Instagram (or any other social platform) into a viable SEO and marketing plan is one tricky business. For one thing, leaving a link is very limited. For another, there is simply countless competition that the thought of starting out gives instantaneous intimidation.

    I guess visually-driven products have a great chance to stand-out. And as Cathie said, what if it’s services like computer repairs or services? Much more Real Estate?

    Anyways, great Instagram insight. I use it as a private creative person, not with my SEO persona. Cheers!

  7. Chery says:

    I love this idea. I’m gonna use these tips for promotions on my clients Instagram accounts :)

    • Leigh Jeffery says:

      Oh me too Cheryl! Great stuff here:)

  8. Riya Mathur says:

    Well instagram has build its success on simple foundation of give and take, Simply run contest to give away and in return get all the needed buzz, attention and branding via traffic , Its nothing but barter system concept now taking online approach, ofcourse here you get more then you give

  9. Really great case studies of companies embracing new social media technologies! I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to Instagram just yet. Looks like it’s time to dig in. Thanks for putting this together!

  10. Hector says:

    Hi, awesome post i will be sure to use this info in a future campaign. This is probably not the place to write this, but i try to get more info on the SEO services in your main site but i cant seem to be able to load any contact forms, i tried the “contact” tab but no form in there either. How can i contact you?


  11. Well done instagram, Really great thoughts applied, I could never imagine that such a simple giveaway concept make instagram so “BIG”, Thanks for info, I am going to try it out