Social Media Contests: A Cautionary Tale

By Brad Woodward

Yes, it is possible to use Instagram as a platform for contests. And yes, several successful contests have been executed on it. But before you choose Instagram as your contest platform, let me share a cautionary tale.

McKee Wallwork executed the most amazing booth at the HOW design conference in Boston. The premise was simple: Combine thousands of designers, one of the largest paper companies in the world, and a robot from Tokyo named “Senseless 1” that whiled away its time creating random-yet-stunning works of art on beautiful archival paper. Encourage attendees to take photos or video of the robot in action and post them to Instagram. Then select 25 lucky winners who would be randomly awarded one of the magnificent original pieces of robot art.

This all sounded great – use a medium (Instagram) that the designer community has embraced, create great user-generated content, offer a compelling incentive, and Boom! – instant social media presence.

There was just one problem. When we generated the award messages they all, naturally, were worded the same way (example: “You won, thanks for taking this rad photo of Senseless 1, pick up your art anytime after 5pm at booth #….”). Instagram, unthinking software that it is, mistook our messages for spam and Bam!—shut our account down. That hurt.

This is what Instagram has to say about how we broke the rules:

“Community Guidelines -

Section 4:

Instagram is a place where people can share beautiful moments from their lives, and when you engage in self-promotional behavior of any kind on Instagram it makes people who have shared that moment with you feel sad inside. This guideline includes repetitive comments, as well as service manipulation in order to self-promote, and extends to commercial spam comments, such as discount codes or URLs to websites. We ask that you keep your interactions on Instagram meaningful and genuine.”

Fair enough. But nowhere does Instagram mention the definition of what “repetitive” means. We’ve seen contests with ten, twenty or even thirty+ winners, so we naturally assumed we would be fine with 25 per day. Not the case.

The good news is we had a backup plan. Ours was good old Twitter. Instagram shut us down on day one of three of the show. So on day two we moved on to Twitter. Same format, same structure, although we did tailor our tweets a bit to ensure we wouldn’t be locked out of Twitter as well.

The moral of the story? If you host an Instagram contest, partner with MW—we’ve learned the hard way. If you’re not going to partner with us, here are a few tips:

  • Keep your winner count low, to two or three per day. If this isn’t possible, use Twitter or another platform;
  • Don’t forget #hashtags, the most important asset for viewing and archival;
  • Make sure your Instagram account features activity prior to the day of the event so it doesn’t appear to be a spambot;
  • Check out these additional tips from Instagram so you don’t step in it in some other way.

No one was hurt by our Instagram snafu, although it did cause some shortness of breath. That’s how the new world of social media and content marketing is—it’s so new, we’re all still learning. But better to learn the hard way than to sit on the sidelines and wait. Just remember to always have a backup plan.

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