Truthfully, I’m the least photogenic person around. (Even my husband agrees.) I have two pictures where I look human, and I use those for everything. I’m also terrible at taking pictures. Looking at my camera roll, you’d probably think I see the world at a permanent five-degree tilt.

Yet I love Instagram photo challenges. I’m constantly amazed at the magic that others can create with their phones, and running them doesn’t require me to be all that good with a camera. Plus, I’m particularly qualified to get even the photo-averse involved.

An Instagram photo challenge is a great way to increase engagement with your current followers, broaden your reach, and generate loads of awesome user-generated content. And if you’re anything like me, that last one is compelling as heck. Let your brand benefit from the pictures others provide.

So let’s dig into one of the most effective ways to use Instagram for your business.

The power of Instagram photo challenges in brand building

An Instagram photo challenge is an event where users post photos on specific themes over a set period. For instance, a fitness brand might host a 30-day yoga challenge, asking followers to share their yoga poses.

Whether you’re an Insta vet or just getting started on Instagram, challenges let you build your community, deepening your connection to your followers and growing your base. They can also help you define your brand by sharing your values, sense of humor, or creativity, inviting your followers to join the fun and spread the message.

User-generated content is also powerful marketing material. Millennials find it “35% more memorable than brand content and 50% more trusted.” In some cases, a lack of polish can even help. That awkward selfie has an authenticity your perfectly lit studio shot can’t match.

Plan your Instagram photo challenge

First things first, you need an Instagram business account. If you haven’t yet set one up or switched over from a personal account, creating a business profile is easily accomplished with a few clicks. Then you can start planning your first Instagram challenge.

Define the theme and purpose of the challenge

Themes make challenges (and parties) more memorable and fun. Choose challenge ideas that align with your brand and resonate with your audience. The theme should also fit your purpose.

The purpose is your “why” — why you’re hosting the challenge. It could be anything from increasing brand awareness, launching a new product, or simply engaging with your audience. A clear purpose helps you create a challenge that’s effective for your business as well as fun.

Here are a few examples of photo challenge ideas with their “whats” and “whys”:

  • A marketing agency could ask followers to share photos of their most creative campaigns, enhancing their reputation for creativity (and potentially snagging some ideas to borrow).
  • A salon could run a before-and-after challenge to showcase its services and build social proof.
  • An ecommerce business could focus a challenge around photos of followers using a new product — or an old one that would pair nicely with it — to build awareness of their latest offerings.
  • An organization connected to the arts could invite people to submit photos of their personal workspaces or studios to foster connection and community.

Don’t be afraid to get creative, but aim for photos that followers can easily snap and share willingly. You can encourage artistry but only make it the center of your campaign if it suits your brand. For most, the focus should be on the shot’s content rather than the composition, making the challenge accessible to all.

The #30daysofcomposition Instagram photo challenge image shows an example of a creative challenge theme.
The exception proves the rule. A Year With My Camera is an online beginner’s photography class that runs an annual #30daysofcomposition Instagram photo challenge. In this case, the composition is the product, so the campaign makes sense. Image source: Instagram.

Set clear goals and objectives

Goals and objectives give form to more general purposes. It’s all well and good to try to build community, but what does that look like in concrete challenge-related results? You need a way to measure your success.

You could aim to increase your follower count by a specific number, boost your engagement rate, or develop a library of user-generated content you’ve received permission to reuse (get that permission).

So, consider what you want to achieve with the challenge and set your business goal accordingly. And keep them realistic; you can’t expect to double your followers overnight. Remember to align them with your overall strategy for marketing with Instagram, too. Use the Instagram photo challenge as a stepping stone toward bigger marketing goals.

Determine the duration and frequency of the challenge

Finally, let’s talk about timing.

For a social media challenge, the duration and frequency should inform one another. You can run long campaigns or keep things short and sweet with a one-day photo challenge. The key is to keep the momentum going without overwhelming your audience. You may need to experiment to find what works best for your brand — and your audience.

You should also consider how often to run challenges. Don’t burn out your followers with constant demands for new photos. After running a month-long campaign with daily countdown images, give your audience a moment to breathe.

The Halloween Instagram photo challenge image shows an example of using a set duration and frequency for your Instagram photo challenge.
@awitcheshouse runs an annual Halloween Instagram photo challenge with 31 countdown images. They get great participation and engagement with a single high-volume campaign. Image source: Instagram.

Create engaging and relevant hashtags for the challenge

Instagram hashtags are crucial to a successful challenge. They help people find your challenge and connect entries. Think of them as the address for your digital party, assembling everyone in one location.

A great hashtag is unique and easy to remember. It should be specific to your brand and challenge and simple enough that people won’t struggle to add it to their posts. Feel free to get creative, but the easiest win here is your brand name and your challenge’s name —assuming both elements are pretty simple.

Finally, always double-check your hashtag before you launch your challenge. You don’t want any typos or awkward auto-correct situations.

Promote your Instagram photo challenge

Now that you’ve planned your party, it’s time to get people to come. Create a thriving scene everyone wants to join.

Leverage your existing social media platforms

Of course, you’ll post the photo prompt and challenge on Instagram, but don’t leave your other social accounts out of the mix. This is a great way to get people who follow you on a different account to join your Instagram community, exposing them to different types of posts.

You should also think beyond your feed on Instagram. Get those Stories engaged. If you’ve struggled to generate creative content for your Instagram Stories, you can focus your campaign on a Story challenge, getting people to connect with you there.

Consider creating a Facebook event for the day your challenge begins. Facebook will remind people who indicate interest, and the event page is a dedicated space for people to ask related questions or otherwise engage. You could also create a TikTok video explaining the contest rules and showcasing examples of what you’re looking for.

Collaborate with influencers or brand ambassadors

I love the term “brand ambassador.” It’s a fancy phrase for someone who likes and promotes your brand, but it sounds so official and dignified. If you already have brand ambassadors, your challenge is an opportunity to put them to work.

You can also use the campaign to engage new content creators. Influencer marketing can boost your social accounts. Instagram influencers have an average engagement rate of 1.9%, and the right partnership could be your ticket to a viral challenge. Influencers’ fans also trust them, so when they promote your challenge, it’s like getting a stamp of approval from a trusted friend.

Consider inviting them to participate in your challenge or asking them to judge entries. Better yet, collaborate with them on the theme. This way, they’ll feel invested in the challenge and will be more likely to promote it to their followers. Just make sure you’re offering fair compensation in return.

This image shows an example of collaborating with influencers or brand ambassadors for an Instagram photo challenge.
There’s no rule saying you have to do everything yourself. This yoga challenge features six hosts and is sponsored by six brands. Image source: Instagram.

Use email lists to reach your audience

Social media is incredible, but emails are your secret weapon.

Why? As any content manager knows, email marketing lets you reach your audience directly. So, use your email list to invite each recipient to become a challenge participant.

Make the email fun and interactive. You could include a sneak peek of the challenge, share tips for great photos, or even feature entries from past challenges. Get your audience excited.

Another idea is to use email segmentation to further enhance your outreach. For instance, engage with people who have previously shown interest in similar challenges with personalized invitations or ignite the curiosity of new subscribers with a custom welcome message that mentions the photo challenge.

Run the Instagram photo challenge

You’ve got your party theme, venue, and guest list. It’s time to start dancing.

Launch the challenge and make the announcement

Your official announcement should be fun and functional. You need to include all the essential details:

  • What is the challenge?
  • How can people participate?
  • What is up for grabs?

People may be eager to participate for the chance to be featured on your account, increasing their exposure, but never underestimate the power of bribery. Offer challenge-exclusive discounts or enter participants into a raffle. Ensure any giveaway is relevant to your brand and the challenge’s theme, and clearly outline entry requirements and rules to ensure transparency and fairness.

You can add Instagram stickers to your announcement, too. The Add Yours sticker makes it easy for people to share related content in a Story challenge.

Engage with participants and encourage user-generated content

Continuing with the party theme, your duty as the party’s host is to mingle with the participants. Respond to their posts, answer their questions, and keep the excitement going.

Active engagement encourages more user-generated content, both now and in the future.

While you’ll naturally gravitate to the high-quality posts, engage with everyone (even the shaky tilters like me). Each entry is someone taking time out of their day to engage with you. Demonstrate your gratitude with enthusiasm and praise.

Feature top entries and winners to boost engagement

Thirty-six percent of U.S. internet users have shared a post by another user. Join their ranks, featuring the best of your submissions as the contest progresses.

The grand finale comes when you display the top entries of the entire campaign and announce any winners. You could create a highlight reel of the top challenge photos or create a Story with a virtual awards ceremony.

Spotlight the winner on other channels. Post about them in other social accounts, and add an item to your next newsletter. You can even post a related blog entry on your website.

This image shows an example of showcasing your Instagram photo challenge winner to boost brand engagement.
Encourage the winner to post their own hurrah, too. In this post, the winner of a phone case decorating challenge posted an unboxing video of their prize package. Image source: Instagram.

Take the first step and plan your own challenge

Here’s a recap of all you need to run a successful Instagram photo challenge:

  • Choose themes related to your business or industry and set your objectives.
  • Create a unique hashtag and clear rules.
  • Promote your challenge on other social networks, in email, and with any influencers you’ve engaged.
  • Connect with participants by liking/commenting on photos using the hashtag.
  • Showcase the best user-generated content that emerges.

You’ll notice that nowhere on the list does it suggest you have to take great pictures.

Start by creating a list of several possible themes. Try to include both evergreen ideas and limited-time countdown ones. The ideas you don’t select may inspire feed posts or other content.It can be hard to stand out on social media, and an Instagram challenge is a great way to make some noise. Even better, it’s a way to get others to make noise on your behalf.