The Ultimate Guide to Hashtag Contests [2018]

The Ultimate Guide to Hashtags and Instagram Hashtag Contests

The Ultimate Guide to Hashtag Contests [2018]

Hashtags can help people discover brands, and help brands to connect with people who are searching for specific content, products and/or services. Hashtags are searchable and clickable, and people use them to find conversations and content relevant to their interests. The key to making your brand discoverable, especially on Twitter and Instagram, is using the right hashtags.


Hashtags are fundamental to the Instagram and Twitter experience.

Are you wondering if social media is “over,” and trying to decide if promoting your business on Twitter and Instagram is even worth your time? Or are you worried that these platforms will soon go the way of Facebook? Overrun with self-promotional, or worse — political — posts?

Well, we’ve got a little bit of bad news and lots of good news for you. First, the bad news. Twitter’s growth has slowed a bit, but 330 million people were using the network by the end of 2017 (up from 318 million in 2016).  Instagram, however, is growing like crazy — adding about 100 million users a month, and now closing in on a billion users. So why is that bad? Instagram’s massive growth means there are bound to be more branded posts vying for eyeballs. The good news? There’s still plenty of opportunity to build a following of people who like what you’re sharing. And even more opportunity to turn those Instagram and Twitter followers into customers.

Now, we’d also be remiss if we didn’t share our point of view about the risks of focusing too much attention on any social network. That’s why we always recommend finding ways to keep more attention, more traffic and more ways to collect leads, on your own website. And then use social networks for promotion.

Ready to explore how hashtags, and hashtag contests, can help your brand gain the kinds of Twitter and Instagram followers who are most likely to be customers?

Here we go.

I. How Hashtags Work

Hashtags are the “common areas” of the internet. There’s a hashtag for virtually every product, every industry, every hobby, every emotion, every city, every style, every category of food…you name it and there’s a good chance someone, somewhere has posted an image of it, bearing a hashtag. The key to making hashtags work for you, is finding the right hashtags so you can reach the right people.

The role of hashtags in social media marketing

The first use of a hashtag in social media is thought to be from Chris Messina, a former Google employee, who was trying to figure out how to organize groups of messages on Twitter. His tweet asked other Twitter users how they felt about using # for groups.

Tweet by Chris Messina

Chris Messina’s tweet asked other Twitter users how they felt about using # for groups.

Little did Messina know his suggestion would catch on in a big way, and become a huge part of the social media experience, first on Twitter, then on Instagram. In simple terms, just as Messina envisioned, hashtags index content so it’s searchable and discoverable. Most people know that.

But knowing isn’t the same as understanding — or at least understanding the “risk” of using hashtags incorrectly. When used inappropriately, hashtags can frustrate people if they have to dig through miscategorized content, and worse — they can link your brand to inappropriate or controversial material that results in PR nightmares (we’ll cover this in detail later).

Hashtags 101

One of the search terms that brings people to the ShortStack blog is “what are the best hashtags to use on Instagram?” In fact, that term leads thousands of people to our blog every day. One thing this fact tells us is that people want to know more about hashtags, and how to use them. So if you’re using hashtags as a marketing tool, here are a few things to remember:

  • Use hashtags for their intended purpose — categorization and discovery.
  • Don’t string too many words together — it makes hashtags hard to read.
  • Don’t crowd your posts with too many hashtags — it looks spammy. Instagram allows 30, but you’ll likely get better results with 9-11. Twitter limits tweets to 280 characters, including hashtags. Twitter recommends no more than two hashtags per post.
  • When appropriate, use hashtags to join conversations about events relevant to your business, including conferences (#SXSW or #SMMW); holidays/celebrations (#shopsmall or #thanksgivingrecipe); popular culture (#modernart or #sneakerhead); general business topics (#digitalmarketing or #saas).
  • Use hashtags when they are relevant to your brand and your content — more on this below.
  • Think about creating hashtags that are unique to your business.

Built by Masonry uses #sxsw to share a useful statistic about events. This was a creative way to get themselves in on the conversation.

Why You Must Use Relevant Hashtags

On Twitter, trending hashtags and daily hashtags (e.g., #MotivationMonday, #TravelTuesday, #WoofWednesday) make tweets more easily discoverable by people who don’t already follow your account. Of course you should only use hashtags that make sense for your brand; Twitter’s research has shown that hashtags boost retweets by 16 percent.

Over on Instagram, now that the platform has rolled out the option to follow hashtags, and add hashtags to a bio, hashtags are even more powerful. But before you start adding hashtags everywhere, pause for a minute. Instagram’s algorithm seems to prefer the use of relevant hashtags, which is one reason you never want to use hashtags that have nothing to do with your brand. Why? Because people can mark your hashtagged content as something they don’t want to see and then your efforts will backfire.


You never want to use hashtags that have nothing to do with your brand.

Here’s what can happen: As soon as someone starts following a hashtag, relevant posts begin to appear in their feed. Once they click on the post, they can choose to share it and/or copy the link. Or they can choose “Don’t show this hashtag.”

The ability for users to choose not to see specific hashtags is why using relevant hashtags is important.

By keeping tabs on what people choose to share, copy or “hide,” Instagram is able to fine tune what people see. Let’s say you own a marketing agency but you’re hoping to reach companies in San Francisco who might need your services. You decide to start tagging your posts with #SFfoodie because it’s a popular tag.

However, if too many people who see your #SFfoodie post wonder why your agency is using that particular hashtag and then choose to hide your post, Instagram may very well hide your posts that have that hashtag and your other posts as well. In other words, slapping irrelevant hashtags on your posts might get your account in front of a few extra people but it’s not worth it.

II. Hashtags and Your Brand

Finding the best existing hashtags

Just like you do keyword planning for content and advertising as a way to improve search engine rankings, you should do research to find the hashtags that will best amplify the reach of your content. We’ve written a number of posts about the best hashtags to use for Instagram, contests, holidays, marketing, etc., but you can also use free tools like RiteTag for Twitter and Display Purposes for Instagram, to find hashtags. On Instagram you can also use Instagram’s own search bar’s autocomplete feature to get ideas for your posts, and to see how popular various hashtags are.

On Instagram and Twitter, think about things you could build hashtags around, like:

  • What are your customers interested in?
  • What are some brands that are similar to you, but are not competitors?
  • What are some locations where your customers are, or where you hope to find them?
  • What problems do your products and services solve?

Now, let’s say you own a travel agency called “Sea Life Travel,” and you specialize in booking cruises. You’d build a list of hashtags that look something like this:

Interest: #cruise #cruiselife

Similar brands: #Viking #RoyalCaribbean

Locations: #Floridacruise #Mexicocruise

Problem: #lastminutevacation #vacationdeal

Finding relevant hashtags

Researching the most relevant hashtags for Sea Life Travel.

Creating your own, branded hashtags

Creating hashtags that aren’t too long, too hard to remember, or too difficult to spell, is easier said than done. While there are plenty of generic hashtags that can help bring attention to your contest, at least for a few minutes, you also want one or two that will set your brand apart. Start by browsing this list to find the most popular hashtags and include one or two of them in your posts. Then think about building your own.

On Instagram, you might experiment with adding the word “insta” to your brand. So in the case of the cruising travel agency, your hashtag might be #InstaSeaLife. You could also play with any of the other popular conventions like “gram” or “ofInstagram” or “ofig” so you’d end up with #sealifegram or #sealifeofinstagram or #sealifeofig. There’s a good chance that if you play around with some of these ideas, you’ll settle on something that looks and feels right for your brand.

BHandcrafted uses a mix of popular hashtags plus a couple of local hashtags and their own, which they encourage their customers to use.

Many brands use hashtags haphazardly, so when there’s someone doing it right, it stands out. In this example, BHandcrafted, a coffee and wine bar in St. Louis, Missouri, uses a mix of popular hashtags (#contest) with a couple of local hashtags (#stlouis) and their own (#bhandcrafted) which they encourage their customers to use.

Hyundai Veloster contest

Automaker Hyundai used the hashtag #myhyundaiveloster on Instagram and Twitter as a way for fans of the brand to enter to win the chance to test drive a new model of the Veloster. Veloster drivers also tag their posts with #velosternation on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Understanding Instagram’s “Top Posts” and “Recent Posts”

Every hashtag used on Instagram has its own gallery. What does that mean? If you type #travelcontest into the Instagram search bar, every post with that tag will show up in the Instagram grid. When people use hashtags to discover content they might be interested in, they often browse the galleries.

Hashtagged images are displayed in two categories: “Top posts” and “Most recent.” A top post is one that is recent and has received lots of likes and/or comments. A recent post is one that bears the searched hashtag, but if the image isn’t receiving much engagement, it will quickly be pushed down in the gallery.

Hashtags can be followed on Instagram

Hashtagged images are displayed in two categories: “Top posts” and “Most recent.”

It’s a best practice to use a mix of popular hashtags and less popular hashtags. Popular hashtags — like #love, #beautiful, #fashion, #nature — are so popular that unless you get a lot of likes and comments that help push your image into the “top post” category, the post will also be pushed down in the gallery pretty quickly. With less popular hashtags, you have a better chance of standing out in the crowd and perhaps finding high-quality followers who are genuinely interested in what you’re creating and sharing.

While there’s no perfect recipe for hashtags, we see our users have the most success when they use 2-4 popular hashtags (those that appear at the top of the search list), 5-7 hashtags in the mid-range of popularity and 1-3 niche hashtags — including your branded hashtags. Instagram posts with 9-11 hashtags seem to have the best reach these days.

Of course, like on any social channel, attracting high-quality followers is dependent upon creating and sharing high-quality content.


Add hashtags to your Instagram bio

You can place clickable hashtags in your bio — a new option on Instagram — and you can put them in your caption and in a comment on your post. If you’re using several hashtags, the post will look cleaner if you put the hashtags in the comment. Start the comment with a series of dots, each on its own line. This way Instagram collapses the comment, helping you maintain that clean look.

Using a series of dots can help your post look clean

A few more things to think about as you create your own Instagram hashtags:

  • Will the hashtag appeal to your target customer?
  • Will your content be a natural fit with the hashtag?
  • Is the hashtag spammy?
  • Has the hashtag been banned?

Understanding Twitter’s “Trending” hashtags

On Twitter, posts bearing the same hashtag will appear in a gallery. Here’s what the Hyundai contest looked like on Twitter:

If you look to the “Trends for you” column on the left of your feed, you’ll see trending hashtags that might be relevant for your brand.

Most of the best practices that apply to Instagram also apply to Twitter. It’s a best practice to use a mix of popular hashtags and less popular hashtags. Popular daily Twitter hashtags — like #mcm and #tbt — are so widespread that they’ll get pushed down in the feed pretty quickly. With less popular hashtags, you have a better chance of standing out in the crowd and perhaps finding high-quality followers who are genuinely interested in what you’re creating and sharing.

A few more things to think about as you create your own Twitter hashtags:

  • Will the hashtag appeal to your target customer?
  • Will your content be a natural fit with the hashtag?
  • Is the hashtag spammy?
  • Has the hashtag been banned?

Avoiding hashtag mishaps

Now that you’ve learned how to create and use hashtags to your benefit, take a moment to consider how NOT to use hashtags. At least once a quarter, year after year, some brand makes a mistake on Instagram or Twitter and finds itself in the middle of a hashtag firestorm.

While some people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, we’re going to argue that the last thing you want your business associated with a hashtag like #susanalbumparty. This particular tag was created for British singer Susan Boyle as part of an effort to promote a forthcoming album. If her PR agency had just thought it through, or used #SusanAlbumParty, with uppercase letters, they could have avoided all the online mocking.

To avoid hashtag mishaps:

  1. Test the hashtags using a combination of upper and lowercase letters. Make sure the words you’ve strung together can’t be misconstrued.
  2. Check Urban Dictionary to ensure there are no alternative meanings for the tags you plan to use.
  3. Double-check acronyms to make sure there aren’t double meanings.
  4. Have several people read the hashtags to ensure there are no unsavory interpretations.
  5. Never, ever try to capitalize on a tragedy or the misfortune of others. Examples? An uprising, a protest, a natural disaster. This will backfire 100 percent of the time.

III. Hashtag Contests

Why Contests?

One of the best ways to amplify the reach of your brand and hashtags you want to catch on with your target audience is to run a contest or giveaway. If you spend even five minutes on Instagram, you see “tag a friend to enter” or “like this post to enter” giveaways, which are the most popular kind of giveaway you’ll see. Contests aren’t quite as popular on Twitter as they are on Instagram, but there are still plenty of contests and giveaways running on Twitter all the time.

The reason hashtag contests are so popular is because they’re so easy to enter. But there’s a catch. Actually, there are a couple of catches.

First, Instagram’s algorithm can punish the brand that’s running the giveaway if too many people who ultimately get tagged report the post as spam.

Second, when you run a “tag,” “like”  or “follow and retweet,” giveaway, you might collect a few more followers, but they might just as easily unfollow you when the giveaway is over.

Third, when you run a “tag” or “like” or “follow” type of giveaway you don’t collect contact information that will help you stay in touch with the people who want to win your prize.

A better practice is to create and use hashtags to get your giveaway in front of the audience you want. All you have to do is ask people to enter using #yourhashtag and/or your brand’s @handle, and all hashtagged contest entries are automatically collected in a gallery that shows the photo and caption.

If you also want to add voting and  reward extra votes/chances to win, direct entrants to fill out a brief form you link to from your Instagram bio or add the link to your tweet.  If you collect email addresses, you’ll able to send follow-up and scheduled emails for the duration of your giveaway and beyond.

ShortStack's Instagram Hashtag Giveaway template

Built with ShortStack’s Instagram Hashtag Giveaway + Form template

You can also send follow-up and scheduled emails for the duration of the giveaway and beyond. Just like that, you’ve started to build lists you can use for years to come.

Built using ShortStack’s ‘Entry Reminder’ and ‘Exclusive Discount’ email templates

Planning a Hashtag Contest Starts with Objectives and Goals

Like with any other marketing initiative, a successful Instagram and Twitter hashtag contest starts with goals. If you don’t know what you want to accomplish with your contest or giveaway, you’ll have a hard time knowing if the campaign was a success. We advise setting a “S.M.A.R.T.” goal from the very beginning. What’s a SMART goal? One that is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.

Examples of S.M.A.R.T. goals

Here are a couple of examples of smart goals:

  • Add Instagram or Twitter followers
  • Collect email addresses
  • Collect user-generated content
  • Get feedback about new product and service ideas
  • Announce new products, services or events
  • Increase traffic to your website or store

Deciding on the type of contest/entry method

The type of contest or giveaway you run will depend on your top one or two goals.

    • Photo Contest (to collect UGC and email addresses)
    • Photo Vote + Instagram Follow (to add followers and/or get feedback about new products)
    • Instagram Hashtag Giveaway (to collect UGC, add followers)
    • Instagram Video Hashtag Contest (collect UGC and moderate before displaying)
    • Twitter Hashtag Giveaway (collect UGC)
    • Twitter Hashtag Giveaway + Form (collect UGC and email addresses)

Decide how a winner will be chosen

There are a variety of ways you can choose a winner for your hashtag contest or giveaway — each has pros and cons. Here are four options:

    1. Choose the post with the most votes. If you use contest software (like ShortStack) you’re able to add a voting element to your contest. Voting contests are ideal for brand awareness since people are likely to share their entry, and the contest, with their friends so they can collect votes. Using software also allows you to verify voters, set restrictions and you can also make sure participants, and winners, are abiding by local and state laws. If you don’t use software, you’ll have to manage the whole process manually.
    2. Choose a winner “manually.” For this method, you simply choose the entry you like the most, or that best meets the criteria you laid out. On the one hand, you may end up with better quality user-generated content since people will be trying hard to impress you, but there is always a risk that participants who don’t win will accuse you of choosing a friend or family member as the winner.
    3. Choose a winner from among everyone who achieves “X” requirements. For this method, you tell entrants that the first person to correctly complete a task, or a series of tasks, will be entered to win. For example: first person to answer a question correctly; first person to visit your store in person and mention the contest; first person to complete a series of events (like a scavenger hunt).If you’re using software to manage the contest, the final step could be that people have to fill out a form, which you link to from your bio. If you’re not using software, you’ll have to manage the process manually and will not be able to build a useful email list.
    4. Choose a winner randomly. The benefit of this method is simplicity. Everyone who meets your participation requirements is entered to win. You can require people to like your post or tag a friend, or whatever other action you’d like them to take And while this method might increase the number of people who participate, simply because the only thing needed to win is luck. The main drawback, similar to the “manual” method, is being accused of choosing a friend or family member as the winner.

IV. Rights Management and Hashtag Contests

Hashtag contests, as noted earlier, present a terrific opportunity for marketers to collect user-generated content they can use for marketing. In the past, marketers have relied on a creator’s (customer’s) use of a brand hashtag in a caption or comment to indicate the creator’s approval for a brand to use the content. But given current concerns about data and privacy, brands would be wise to obtain explicit permission to use any UGC they collect.

There is no way to automate rights approval on Instagram (as of April 4, 2018), but when people enter your hashtag contest using UGC you think you might like to use in the future, you can simply ask them in a comment if they will grant you permission to use their content, and ask them to reply publicly that they have your permission.

Request rights for images you would like to use in a comment

Keep your request and their replies in a spreadsheet so you have a record, just in case.

V. Terms and Conditions for Instagram Hashtag Contests

If you want to use an Instagram contest to collect new followers — and keep them — follow the rules laid out by Instagram. This is important, since not following them could result in your Instagram account being suspended, or even shut down.

The Instagram promotion rule you’ll see broken more often than any of the others is the one stating you can’t “inaccurately tag content or encourage users to inaccurately tag content,” such as tagging someone who doesn’t appear in the photo. Plenty of brands and bloggers run “tag a friend” contests where people are asked to leave a friend’s name in the comments. Even if this isn’t obviously against the rules, it’s not a best practice and you run the risk of annoying people.

What to include in rules:

  • Offer terms and eligibility requirements, including age and residency restrictions.

Promotions must include:

  • A complete release of Instagram by each entrant or participant.
  • Acknowledgement that the promotion is in no way sponsored, endorsed or administered by, or associated with, Instagram.

Promotion must not include:

  • Inaccurate tags, nor should you encourage users to inaccurately tag content. In other words: don’t encourage people to tag themselves or others in photos they’re not in.

Where to publish rules

Your Website

Create a rules page on your website and make it easy for contestants to find.

Contest Host

ShortStack makes it easy to create a landing page for your Instagram contest. From your Instagram bio, link to the page where your contest is hosted.

Use a link in your bio to link to your giveaway

You can link to your contest or giveaway page from your bio

VI. Terms and Conditions for Twitter Hashtag Contests

If you want to use a Twitter contest to collect new followers — and keep them — follow the rules laid out by Twitter.

The Twitter promotion rule you’ll see broken more often than any of the others is the one stating you can’t “create a lot of accounts in order to enter a contest more than once.” If users do this, they risk having all of their accounts suspended by Twitter.

What to include in rules:

  • Offer terms and eligibility requirements, including age and residency restrictions.
  • State that anyone found to use multiple accounts to enter will be ineligible.
  • Discourage posting duplicate or near duplicate updates or links — it’s a violation of  Twitter rules and jeopardizes search quality.

Where to publish rules

Your Website

Create a rules page on your website and make it easy for contestants to find.

Contest Host

ShortStack makes it easy to create a landing page for your Twitter contest. From your Twitter bio or in your tweet, include a link to the page where your contest is hosted.

If you’ve been thinking about running a hashtag contest but have questions about how to build one that’ll help you meet your goals, hit us up.

Create your first hashtag contest now

It’s free and we don’t need your credit card.

 

Dana Kilroy
dana@shortstacklab.com

Dana Sullivan Kilroy is ShortStack's Director of Communications and Social Media Marketing. Before joining the ShortStack team she was a writer whose work appeared in publications and sites including The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Inc. and many other lifestyle publications. Reach her on Twitter @dsullyk. Read more articles by Dana Kilroy.