9 Mistakes to Avoid When Running a Holiday Contest on Instagram (and How to Fix Them)

Mistakes to Avoid When Running a Holiday Contest on Instagram

Instagram is the best platform for marketers this holiday. Why? Engagement is 10 times higher than it is on Facebook, and there’s not as much competition, either. Only about seventy percent of U.S. businesses are on Instagram as of 2017, so whether you’re a B2C or a B2B there’s less competition than on Facebook, where 96 percent of businesses have a presence.

Instagram’s “algorithm” means there’s no guarantee your posts will be seen by all of your followers, but there are a few things you can do increase the likelihood they will be. For starters, host a holiday contest on Instagram! Contests entice users to engage with your posts, and hosting one is the easiest ways to increase the reach of your posts and exposure to your brand.

When I was looking around for great examples of Instagram holiday contests, I had a revelation: it’s much easier to find bloggers, brands and businesses doing contests wrong than it is to find well-executed contests.

If you’re ready to do some holiday marketing, here are nine mistakes to avoid when running a contest on Instagram, plus tips on how to fix them.

#1 Using the the wrong hashtags

Hashtags help your posts get found by the people most likely to be interested in your products and services. The biggest mistake businesses make when running a holiday contest on Instagram include: using obscure hashtags; using hashtags that are too broad; and using hashtags that are unrelated to their product (the hashtag equivalent of clickbait). If you rely on generic hashtags, like #contest and #giveaway, your contest will be easy to discover — at least for a little while: Posts relying on popular tags get pushed down in feeds pretty quickly.

A better tactic is to think about how you can use a combination of hashtags to get your post seen, and some that will help it be seen by the people you’re targeting.”

If you’re a brick-and-mortar business — whether a retailer, a restaurant or any other kind of business with a physical location you’d like people to visit — start with location. Hashtags like #sanfrancisco, #nashville, #miami will make your business easy to find for people who are looking for a business in a certain location. From there, add a tag that’s “industry” related, like #petboutique  or #glutenfreebakery. If you’re an ecommerce fashion business, you might play around with #styleinspo, #whatiwore and #flatlay.


AskDerm hosted a holiday contest with several valuable prizes, but the number of entries and overall engagement was pretty weak. Their hashtags included #contest #sweepstakes #giveaway #freebies #freestuff, but notice how none of the tags are related to AskDerm’s industry, nor are they specific to the company. Adding hashtags like #skincare and #beauty would have given the giveaway more exposure and increased the number of people who entered. Since AskDerm didn’t ask people to use a branded hashtag, like #askderm or #askdermcontest, it’s also difficult for AskDerm to see all the entries at once.

Askderm Example

The Fix

Do hashtag research using tools like Hashtagify and Ritetag to see trending or industry-relevant hashtags that might be appropriate for you, the way we outline in this holiday hashtags post. And look at major brands in your industry and study what they’re doing. If I had worked with AskDerm on their giveaway, I’d have suggested they look at the tactics brands like PerriconeMD (example below) and Arbonne use to promote their products and I’d make sure AskDerm included a branded hashtag in all of their posts.

Perriconemd Example


On Instagram, the magic number for hashtags is …. nine or 11. For several years posts with 11 hashtags had the most engagement, but as of 2016 it looks like posts with 9 hashtags get the most engagement on Instagram (source: TrackMaven). And believe it or not, hashtags with 21-24 characters perform the best.

#2 Not posting rules

Whether you’re giving away a $25 giftcard or a $2500 trip to DisneyWorld, it’s a best practice to post rules so people know from the get-go how long your contest will run, exactly what they need to do in order to enter, whether you’ll award extra entries if they share your contest, how to collect the prize, and so on.

Yes, on Instagram you could post the rules with your caption, but that can make the post look kind of sloppy.


BoardingPassNYC is a luggage company with a big following. They recently hosted a giveaway featuring a piece of luggage but the instructions for entry are pretty vague, and there are no details about the duration or other terms of the contest

Boarding Pass NYC Example

The Fix

Post your rules on a landing page and link to the landing page from your bio. Spell out eligibility requirements, the duration of the contest, how the prize will be delivered, etc. Consider using a third-party tool that would also allow you to add a form to your rules landing page, and then encourage people to share their email address with you so you can let them know when your next contest will run, and send them special offers in the meantime.

Contest Rules Template


If you don’t want to use the link in your bio for your rules, and you’re an Agency, Brand or enterprise ShortStack user, you can brand your URL making it easy to find, and then include the link in your caption. It would appear to be something like: www.rights.shortstack.com/xyzxy8.

#3 Collecting UGC, but not securing rights to use it

Brands can require consumers to use a unique hashtag as the means to enter a contest or giveaway.  When consumers post a photo or video using a brand-sanctioned hashtag, they are giving their implied consent that the brand can repost or use their content for other marketing efforts. However, as UGC become even more valuable, brands should obtain explicit consent so as to make it easier for them to use the content across all of their marketing channels.


Pet brand Lilly and Abbie hosted an Instagram UGC contest where they asked people to upload photos using their (cute) branded hashtag #joytothewoof2015. It’s a safe bet that out of the hundreds of people who entered, there are a handful of images the company could use for marketing. Yet without securing explicit rights to the images, it’d be unwise for Lilly and Abbie to use them.

Lilly and Debbie Example

The Fix

Ask for explicit permission from users whose content you would like to use. Make sure to keep a list of requests you’ve made and replies from users.

#4 Not collecting contact or other useful information

Collecting fans and followers on Instagram, and likes on posts, is great for your ego. But these so-called vanity metrics aren’t necessarily useful for marketing. If you’re using an Instagram contest as a way to build an email list, you’re better off making the giveaway announcement with a post, but then directing people to a form where they’re entered to win if they share their email address with you.


Blogger Neon.be obviously has an engaged audience — within two days of launching this cookware giveaway, her post had more than 5000 likes. But what are those likes good for?  She probably could have collected hundreds or maybe even thousands of email addresses from her fans so she’d have a way to get in touch about her next giveaway and to share other announcements with her followers.

Neon Be Example

The Fix

Use the link in your bio to collect email addresses in exchange for a chance to win your prize.

Giveaway Template

#5 Not moderating content

Idiots abound on the internet! Shocking, I know. But if you’re hoping to amass a following, and collect useful information — like user-generated content or email addresses — use a third-party tool that will protect your brand. If you use a tool like ShortStack, you can collect photos, video and other content on a landing page (simply link to it from your bio) you control. People upload their content using your branded hashtag(s) and then you decide what shows up in public.


Calphalon hosted a giveaway with a prize that you’d think would attract lots of entries. To enter, Calphalon asked people to share a photo tagged with #calphalonambassador. But within a few days of the launch, only nine posts with the hashtag were viewable because apparently some people posted inappropriate photos, and Instagram blocked posts bearing that hashtag. If Calphalon had used a third-party tool that allowed them to collect images off of Instagram by directing people to the link in the bio, the company would be able to exclude inappropriate images, collect the hashtagged entries and display them on a moderated feed.

Calphalon Example

The Fix

Use a third-party provider to collect, moderate and display content. ShortStack’s Instagram Photo Upload Contest template so you can have more control over what’s displayed.

Hashtag Contest Example

#6 Not offering a relevant prize

At the risk of offering obvious advice: if you’re hosting a giveaway, the prize should be relevant to your brand. If you offer an iPad or a wad of cash, of course you’ll get a gazillion entries. But if you’re hoping your contest will expose your business to new customers, then the prize should be one of your products, or something closely related to your business.


Kathy Davis is a small business that makes dish towels. The brand is hosting a giveaway featuring…an ipad. That’s likely why the giveaway had more than 7500 views within a few days of launching. By giving away an iPad any business will attract lots and lots of attention. But is it the right attention? Are the people who entered Kathy Davis’ contest good leads for this brand? I’d venture not.

Kathy Davis Example

The Fix

Give away something that’s relevant to your business. If you’re a CPA and giving away a free tax return service, your target audience is more likely to share the contest with other interested people, like other business owners. If the prize you offer is something your company offers, new people will be interested in learning more about your brand.

#7 Hosting an Instagram Loop Giveaway

A “loop giveaway” is a giveaway for which several bloggers or brands team up to offer a big prize. They create a loop of steps people have to follow in order to enter. If a typical Instagram giveaway has entrants tag one friend and/or comment, a loop might ask entrants to follow as many as 25 other accounts.

Entrants have to follow every account on the list in order to be entered — the thinking is every participating account will gain hundreds or even thousands of new followers. I’ll just say it: Loops are annoying. What’s more, they’re likely not going to bring you loyal followers because it’s a safe bet that many of your new followers will unfollow you just as soon as the giveaway is over.


In this example, a group of home-decor bloggers teamed up for a giveaway featuring kitchen canisters. I followed the first eight accounts and then said, “forget it.” And went back and unfollowed all of them. I didn’t even bother to browse through any of the bloggers’ feed because I was only interested in entering to win. So how useful is this for these bloggers? Not very!

Loop Example


The Fix

Award extra points to people who share your contest. Instead of asking people to follow a gazillion accounts, you could ask people to follow you and then send them to a form where they’d share their email address and then get extra chances to win if they share the contest form with their friends. It’s a win-win because your fans get more chances to win and you get your brand in front of more people and collect contact information.

Earn Extra Points Example

#8 Requiring people to make a purchase to enter

If you’re hosting a contest or giveaway and requiring people to purchase anything in order to have a chance to win, you’re technically hosting a lottery — and lotteries are illegal. Will you be arrested? Probably not, but practices like this could get you in trouble with the platform you’re hosting the giveaway on and, depending on the cost to enter and the value of the prize, could bring your business some unwanted attention.


Meier Skis is giving away a pair of skis, but the catch is that only people who purchase a ticket to the “Suds and Soul” event are eligible to win. That means their giveaway is a lottery.

Meier Skis Example

The Fix

Take photos of two of your top products and post them to Instagram. Instruct people to follow the link in your bio where they can then vote for the prize they’d most like to win. Include a form where you collect entrants’ name and email address. After they vote use ShortStack’s email autoresponder feature to confirm their entry and perhaps include a discount code with the email. Even people who don’t win your prize might just be motivated to make a purchase.

Vote to Enter Template

#9 Using an image that looks out of place on Instagram

When you’re scrolling through your Instagram feed, the last thing you want to see is a blatant ad, or image that looks like it belongs on a billboard. One of the best things about using Instagram for marketing, is that it’s pretty easy to take high-quality pictures with your phone, and then use the app’s filtering options to make the images look beautiful.


Cruise World Example

Cruise World hosted a pretty valuable contest in October (which happens to be “Plan a Cruise month”) — a one-week cruise — but look at the low number of likes they got on this post announcing the contest period was extended for a week. I’m guessing the lackluster response was because people who follow the account saw this image in their Instagram feed and weren’t too inspired to click on it because it looks like an ad.

The Fix

Take photos that blend in on Instagram!

Here are a few tips that’ll help:

  1. Get close, and position the main subject to one side or the other. Most photos feature the main subject in the center of the photo, leaving lots of dead space everywhere else. For a more creative set-up, move the camera until your main subject is off to one side. The main subject should fill most of the frame and then a second image can fill the space in the background.
  2. Don’t use flash indoors (whenever possible). The burst of flash that emerges from a smartphone tends to bathe a subject in flat, cold — i.e., unflattering — light. This is especially unflattering to people, but it also applies to objects. When possible, use lamps to illuminate the subject of your photo. A Beautiful Mess, has lots more helpful photo tips.
  3. Do use flash outdoors. If you are shooting outdoors during the day, flash can minimize shadows and even out contrast. Try forcing the flash on next the time you’re taking photos, and look at how much better the images are.

Bonus: Tips from Instagram

  1. Have a distinct visual presence: Include your logo, an iconic brand element, a brand color or even a product you’re known for to make your content distinct and easily recognizable for the community.
  2. Be a storyteller: Tell a story that supports your business goal. Whether you want to raise awareness or increase sales of a specific product, make sure the imagery and copy ladder up to your main goal.
  3. Put thought into your creative: Be well crafted to stand out. This doesn’t mean you need to build additional content for Instagram. It just means you need to put as much love and care into the content to inspire as you do into your business.

If you’re going to run a holiday contest on Instagram, make sure you avoid these common mistakes. You’ll get the engagement and sales you’re after!

See how easy it is to create your first Instagram contest or promotion.

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Mistakes to Avoid When Running a Holiday Contest on Instagram
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