Case Study: How to Run a Successful Hashtag Contest and Collect 106K Entries

Learn how Cruise Lines International Association used a month-long hashtag contest to promote cruising to a new audience.

By Dana Kilroy ・5 min read
Customer Data & Engagement
Customer Stories
Social Media

Whether you’re an adventure seeker, solo traveler, family, or foodie, Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) wants you to know there is a cruise line or ship that’s perfect for you. This was the purpose of their month-long October initiative: “Plan a Cruise Month.” CLIA, the world’s largest cruise industry trade organization, used a month-long hashtag contest to promote cruising to a new audience. It was a huge success.Cruise Line International Association members are well-known brands like Royal Caribbean International and Holland America Line, as well as more “boutique” lines like Seabourn and Tauck. “Most people hear ‘cruise’ and they think ‘Caribbean,’” says Sarah Todd-Evans, CLIA’s social media and digital content manager. “We wanted to use a giveaway to show travelers there are many options available all around the world.”With that in mind, when CLIA set out to plan their annual fall promotion, they decided to use hashtags to gain traction on Instagram and Twitter. “The primary goal was to reach people who hadn’t considered cruising before,” says Todd-Evans, “so we settled on a hashtag giveaway.” Posting a hashtag as a way to enter the giveaway would help CLIA meet its goal of at least 100,000 entries, says Todd-Evans. “All we asked people to do was take a selfie and post it to Instagram or Twitter using the hashtags #CruiseSmile and #Sweepstakes, and share the photo with their friends and family,” said Todd-Evans. People who did not use Instagram or Twitter could also enter the sweepstakes by filling out a form on a landing page (also called a microsite) designed by The landing page featured a full calendar showing where visitors could learn about the variety of cruise vacations participating CLIA members have to offer, watch cruise videos, and see all the sweepstakes entries. People could also entering by mailing a photo to CLIA’s headquarters.


Easy to Enter = 106K Entries

“Our instincts about hashtags being an ‘easy’ way to enter were right on,” says Todd-Evans. During the 31 days the giveaway was live, more than 83,000 people entered on Instagram and Twitter; an additional 23,000 entered via the form on the microsite. “We far surpassed the benchmarks we’d set,” says Todd-Evans.The CruiseSmile Sweepstakes may have been simple to enter, but due to its many moving parts, it was complicated to build. CLIA used ShortStack’s custom design services team to build the contest. “Our hashtag-to-enter feature is new, and CLIA’s campaign was definitely a good test of our capabilities right of the gate,” says Ryan Walker, ShortStack’s lead designer.“We designed the CruiseSmile campaign to showcase one cruise line each day, but visitors could also browse and get information about additional cruises,” says Walker. “Then visitors could submit their entry for the cruise they hoped to win.”  Even though it had so many components -- photos, video and text -- the campaign loaded to phones and tablets in seconds. “We were even able to incorporate promotional videos into each week’s theme,” adds CLIA’s Todd-Evans.It’s worth noting that even small businesses can use simple hashtag contests to attract attention from a coveted audience. “One thing that makes hashtag contests so appealing is they have such a low barrier to entry,” says Jim Belosic, ShortStack’s CEO. “If your primary goal is brand awareness, like CLIA’s was, you don’t even need to ask people to fill out a form or go to your website.” People who want the chance to win your prize just have to follow your Instagram or Twitter account and post a photo and include your hashtag in the caption. If your secondary goal is to collect email addresses, then you’ll also want to build a landing page where you incentivize people with extra entries if they share their contact information.


Multiple Prizes Motivated Return Visits

Each week of October, CLIA promoted a different category of cruise:  Family Friendly; Cultural Exploration; Fun in the Sun, and Exploring Nature. Within those weekly themes, each day of the month featured a different cruise line and itinerary.People could enter throughout the month, and a new winner was announced each week. Once the winner for each theme week was randomly selected using ShortStack’s Random Entry Picker tool, he or she was allowed to pick their itinerary from the week’s featured cruises.  The prizes ran the gamut from a transatlantic-crossing, a sailboat cruise through Tahiti and an Alaskan cruise, to a cruise through Italy and the Dalmatian Coast.


Multi-Pronged Promotion to Get Maximum Attention

Using ShortStack to build a campaign was just step one for the #CruiseSmile #Sweepstakes. CLIA also had a comprehensive promotion plan that relied on four efforts: paid advertising on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; email messaging to travel agents and other CLIA members, digital influencers who promoted #CruiseSmile to their followers and fans, and weekly Twitter chats with the growing #CruiseSmile community.  Here’s a breakdown of where CLIA dedicated their marketing efforts.


Advertising on Social Media Platforms

Since the #CruiseSmile #Sweepstakes focused on using hashtags, CLIA focused their advertising on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. “With the Twitter ads, we kept the focus on driving hashtag entries,” says Todd-Evans. “Facebook and Instagram advertising was bundled as a joint campaign, and people were encouraged to enter using both the hashtag or microsite.”


Ready-Made Content for CLIA’s Individual Agent Members (Travel Agents)

“Our first priority was activating our members,” says Todd-Evans. In fact, CLIA gave their affiliated travel agents content packages that included tweets and Facebook posts, emails and other assets they could share with their clients. Many CLIA affiliated travel agents are small business owners who don’t have staff to create and manage social media efforts or advertising for them. “By providing them with ready-made content, we made it easy for them to share the contest,” Todd-Evans says. Agents were also motivated by research surveys showing, “Once people take a cruise, 90 percent of them will take another one,” says Todd-Evans.


Daily Paid Digital Influencers

Since influencers play such a big role in online promotions these days, CLIA hired 31 of them -- travel bloggers, mommy bloggers, etc. -- one for each day of the month. The influencers talked about the day’s featured itinerary and cruise line, as well as the various activities cruise guests are able to partake in during the vacations.“Throughout the campaign, our travel agents and CruiseSmile community let us know that they are excited and, most important, they are booking more cruises,” says Todd-Evans. “Ultimately our goal was to showcase that there truly is a cruise vacation for every travel style and budget, and it’s wonderful to hear that our efforts paid off. ”Here's a glimpse at the #CruiseSmile gallery:

If you're interested in having the ShortStack team build a hashtag contest for your business, just email

About the author

By Dana Kilroy ・5 min read

Dana Sullivan Kilroy is a communications professional with more than 20 years of experience delivering compelling content. Her work has appeared in national, award-winning publications and sites, including: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Fast Company, Inc.

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