How to Run a (Flawless) Photo Contest: The Complete Guide


Looking for a foolproof way to drive user engagement, acquire some user-generated content (UGC), and promote your brand with stunning visuals and consumer support? A well run photo contest can help boost visibility and broaden your reach, as online users participate and do a great job of helping promote you in a positive light.

What’s the point of a photo contest?

Whether you’re looking to engage your audience, build your base, acquire a rich source of data, or leverage consumers to do a little marketing for you, photo contests can sometimes be a little more challenging than others types of contests. Why? You might be asking entrants to share images that can be very personal, versus content created specifically with a contest entry in mind. However, these kinds of images will be the most likely to generate interest when shared online and can stand as authentic marketing photos, un-staged, and free from any hint of self-serving agenda. Instead, people will see their peers sharing original photos and will see your brand as more trustworthy.

Why you should run your photo contest online

Conducting an online photo contest can help you achieve a lot of goals. When you run a highly visual interactive campaign, people are more likely to engage with it and share out the images (and with them, your brand name, community message, or social call to action.) A post with an image on social media can get more than double the amount of attention it gets over a post without an image.

Combining people’s love with images with their love of attention can mean giving your current supporters (and potential supporters) a platform where they share their ideas and artistic passions. A photo contest can help you create community, interact with current and potential customers, and gain access to a massive base of UGC you can leverage for months to come.

Running a photo contest – a step-by-step guide

Now that you’ve decided to run a photo contest, it’s time to lay the groundwork. Making sure all of your ducks are in a row before you announce your contest will allow things to run smoothly helping you generate more entries.

Photo Contest Guide

Define the goal

Your photo contest goal could be one or more of the following:

  • Create community
  • Acquire photos which can form a library of UGC
  • Gather feedback about your brand
  • Boost user engagement
  • Discover new market demographics
  • Increase brand awareness
  • Launch or promote a product or service
  • Create brand ambassadors
  • Develop new partnerships with brands or influencers

Define the theme

Creating a theme for your contest can help steer users in the right direction, which can be important if your primary goal is UGC. Creating a theme can also help you get more creative and higher-quality submissions.

Consider the following options for a theme:

  • Seasonal or holiday themes can allow you to get great casual shots. Think vacations, road trips, beaches, snowy scenes, fall leaves, spring flowers, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, and so on.
  • Related events can allow you to directly target people in your niche, and promote your contest on the back of trending hashtags.
  • Collaborating with another brand can double your reach and bring in cross-promotion. Think of a handbag launch and a shoe line, or an athletics gear company and an energy drink brand.

You can have subcategories to your contest, such as a family section (a terrific way to get candid snaps), a pet category (pictures of animals are among the most interacted with on social media), and “captioned” images, which allow for contestants to create memes (that can potentially go viral).

Choose a giveaway

While a TV, iPad, cruise or big cash prize can generate lots of entries, consider giving away your company’s own products or services if you can, to keep the contest centered on your brand. You can combine giveaway items if it makes sense. Consider having tiers of giveaways, with the big item going to the contest winner and then ten other sweet, smaller giveaways going to randomly selected entrants.

Choose a platform

Different platforms have different advantages when it comes to photo contests. The smartest, most efficient thing to do is to use a centralized approach that gathers all entries together in one place and then allows you to share them and tag the image owner in different social platforms, on your blog, and elsewhere.

By using a single submissions platform to funnel all images through, you can collect entrant information at the same time as the photo. From there you can disseminate the photos across various channels while keeping entrants engaged and looped in.

Filtering and search options help voters find favorite submissions quickly. Having entries that are publicly searchable by submitter name, title, or label means voters can select and search in a way that is comfortable for them. Engagement increases when you provide an opportunity for voting according to personal preference.

Anonymous voting can be another excellent tool for increasing engagement with your photo contest audience. Providing interested readers an opportunity to vote without signing in or creating a free account reduces potential barriers, encouraging broader audience participation.

Create a unique hashtag for the contest

You should select a unique, relatable, and easy to type hashtag to use as a promotional tool. This can help you measure engagement and reach as you can then simply search your hashtag on different social platforms and review posts. Anyone in the contest can also search the hashtag and see how fast and far the contest is spreading.

This helps increase brand awareness and grow your social media following. It can also potentially give you a high-quality tag to use long term. Not feeling creative? You can use a hashtag generator to help you develop a contest hashtag. Don’t forget to check online and make sure someone else isn’t already using it. It’s also a good idea to type your hashtag out in all lowercase letters and divide it into different letter groupings to make sure there’s not an accidental alternate meaning. Then, capitalize the first letter of each word when using your hashtag online.

Decide your winning strategy

Decide your winning strategy

There are several ways to identify a winner for your photo contest, and you should be clear in the contest promotions what that process will entail. You can:

  • Set up an impartial judging panel. This can be expensive but can often be the best way to determine a winner. It gives you some leeway in that you can immediately discard inappropriate or non-qualifying photos, and elevate high-quality submissions quickly to the top of the list.
  • Allow voters to choose a winner. This is more interactive but leaves the door open for gaming the system. It could also result in a ridiculous photo gaining the favor of the masses (note the trend of asking the internet to name things inevitably ends in “something-mc-something-face.“) You can avoid fraud by having multiple grading systems that evaluate submissions based on several characteristics–with the number of votes being just one piece of the decision-making process, and choosing an app vendor that identifies participants and voters by IP address limiting the number of votes per day from user or locations.
  • Randomly draw a winner. This is entirely impartial, but the pitfall of a substandard photo being drawn still exists. You could institute a round of filtering to help raise the bar and randomly draw from the pool of top candidates, however.
  • Choose the photo you like best. This can be open to personal bias, but as long as you don’t select a photo submitted by a friend, family member, or co-worker, it’s another viable option.

Set up the campaign

While you can always run a photo campaign on your own, it’s worth noting that doing so will require significant effort. Using a centralized platform can make the entire process so much simpler. A photo contest management platform can:

  • Make it easy to enter your contest. You’ll need a platform that includes a simple photo upload option and the ability to create a short form that collects the information you need – a contact email, the user’s “handles” on social media, a caption if needed, and the entrant’s name (and age if required in your state for contests.) Don’t forget that social media users spend 80% of their time on a mobile device. Whatever platform you choose should be easy and intuitive to use on mobile.
  • Keep things organized. If your contest has subcategories, include a drop-down field so they can select the correct one. Sorting photos will be easier that way. If multiple submissions are allowed, decide if you want users to be able to submit more than one photo at a time. If so, you’ll need to manage your fields and uploads accordingly.
  • Obtain acknowledgment and consent. Don’t forget to have rules, regulations, and consent that participants must check off before an entry is submitted. Otherwise, you can be in hot water legally, especially if you then use the photos in future campaigns. Have a lawyer help you draft your contest rules and require that entrants check a box giving you permission to use their images (as well as affirming the images are their own) to shield you from liability.

Promote your contest

You can easily promote your contest by leveraging your online social channels, your blog, your email list, and any partnerships you may have with other brands or social influencers. Share top quality photos daily and tag the entrant so they will share to their own networks. Post on as many platforms as possible and if you are using a voting system, remind people often to vote, via social posts and email. If your submission platform offers marketing services, it can be an excellent addition to your own efforts extending your reach and engaging your base.

You may wish to run a simultaneous promotion for your product or service during the contest. Have a specific call to actions and a specific link to click on for the promotion, or promo code to use so that you can track sales to the contest efforts.

Promote your contest

Announce the winner

Make sure you close submissions precisely at the deadline and then send out an email informing all entrants that the selection of the winner(s) is in progress. Whatever selection method you use, make it as swift as possible, and then get ready for the winner announcement. Reach out privately to the winner(s) to ensure you have the right contact information, then immediately release the winner name(s) and tag them on social media in a post that includes their photo(s).

Send out the giveaway immediately, and ask the user to post a picture of themselves with their prize on one of your social media pages, if applicable. This can provide proof that your contest was legitimate and help you run a more successful contest in the future. Don’t forget to ask winners if they would like to be brand ambassadors as well. You can also release a discount code as a thank-you to all participants who entered or interacted with your contest, further extending your photo contest reach.

Track Results

Measure the impact of your campaign using the following metrics:

  • The gross number of submissions
  • Adherence of submissions to guidelines
  • Total number of eligible entries
  • Total number of unique participants if you allow multiple submissions
  • Votes per submission if using voting as a scoring metric
  • Engagement per submission to identify images that resonate with your audience
  • Growth during the campaign (new social media followers/email list subscribers)

Rinse and repeat

The best thing to do after a photo contest is to start planning your next one. Use what you learned from your first contest to make the next one even better. When you use a platform like Submittable to accept, organize, and manage entries and entrants, collecting UGC can be an easy, fun experience for everyone involved. Find out more about Submittable and how we can help you successfully manage your next flawless photo contest today.

Freedom Ahn
Freedom Ahn

Freedom Ahn, MBA, is an expert business and technology writer; a self-professed supply-chain geek; and an award-winning short-fiction author and playwright. She is also a freelance American-Japanese translation/transcreation consultant.