Hashtags are a key piece of the Instagram marketing puzzle, but it takes some skill and knowledge to identify trends and fine-tune your technique for optimum results. You can poke around all you want on Instagram, but how do you actually know what you’re looking for?
Businesses often tend to choose the most popular and most general hashtags possible, but that’s not always the right way to boost your brand’s Instagram visibility. Selecting a mix of less popular hashtags works just as well.
Choosing a hashtag that’s been used 1,000 times rather than 100,000 for example, means that if people are searching for something more specific, and your content is visual, powerful and engaging, they’re much more likely to see it, follow you, like your posts, and even get in touch.
The trick is to find just the right hashtags with just the right amounts of activity in order to serve your brand best. That’s exactly what I’m going to show you how to do here.
There are many great articles out there that tell you how to set up your Instagram page for maximum results, but we wanted to dive a little deeper into just the hashtag piece, as it’s one of your most powerful tools on the platform. So, without further ado, let’s get to it. Here’s how to use hashtags on Instagram:
The Ultimate Goal of Your Instagram Hashtag Use
Using hashtags on Instagram, the right way, is the single best tool you have to gain exposure, followers, and the attention of the more than 800 million active users currently on the platform. Think of hashtags as the Google keywords of Instagram—you search a hashtag so you can post and see other people’s related posts, pictures, videos, and experiences. You can even use Instagram’s search function to check on your favorite hashtag for inspiration.
Ultimately, the goal when using hashtags is to get featured in the first nine posts in the recent or top tabs. That means, for example, when you search a hashtag (keyword) like Bali, millions of posts pop up, but the first thing people see on their computer or mobile screen without scrolling is the top nine most popular and recent posts. Instagram displays the most engaging recent pictures of the hashtag feed. It’s similar to being featured on the first page of Google’s search results, except on Instagram, these posts are rotated and replaced every few hours.
How do you get in the top and most recent nine posts for your hashtags? Use some of these tips below to get featured at the top and also get more exposure for your brand. Let’s dive in!
Finding the Best Hashtags for Your Brand
Let’s first discuss how to find the right hashtags for your Instagram profile.
One of the best ways to start finding the right hashtags is by manually searching for them. In short, this involves seeing which tags regular Instagram users and your competitors are using, researching hashtags in niches related to your content, and breaking them down by the number of posts that these hashtags are already attached to.
Let’s dive into some specifics of how to do this.
Identify Existing Hashtags
You don’t necessarily need to make your hashtags from scratch (although you might end up creating branded hashtags at some point, which I’ll get to later). You can look up hashtags that have been used before, and get a sense of how popular they are. An easy way to do this is by using the systems already built into Instagram.
Remember, you don’t want to jump straight to the most popular hashtags, because everyone else is already using those, and following suit will practically ensure that your brand will get lost in the crowd. Instead, the trick is to find the lesser known hashtags that will allow you to really stand out to your target audience.
Start by going to one of your existing posts or by creating a test post and giving it a popular and very generic hashtag that is attached to millions of posts and then using that to find other related hashtags with a smaller number of posts.
For example, this is a post featuring some hand weights that uses the very popular hashtag #weights.
When you click on the #weights hashtag, you see that it has been used on over eight million posts. Underneath that information, you are presented with other similar hashtags.
Click on #upperbody, and you can see that it has only been used on about 390,000 posts. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Want to cut that down even lower? Click on #superset, and you see it has activity on half as many posts. Later on, we’ll get into how you can find what your sweet spot is in terms of the amount of activity on the hashtags you use. But the key here is experimentation and variety, and again, avoiding the really big ones.
Keep messing around with different hashtags, finding 20 to 25 that will work with your post but have not been used a billion times. There’s a fine line to walk when deciding how many hashtags to use. Anything over 25 can look spammy (30 is the maximum you can use), and using under 10 tags means you’re not making the most of your posts.
In terms of dividing hashtags up between posts, I recommend creating three sets of 25 hashtags, and using a different set each time you post. Create new sets of hashtags each month to mix things up. Look at the average engagement in the top nine posts, and the different hashtags used that are related to your niche. This will help give you an idea of the amount of engagement needed to feature in the top nine posts. We will talk more about hashtag quantity and how to post them in later sections of this article.
Research Your Competitor’s Hashtags
It’s good practice to spend a lot of time researching your competitor’s hashtags, and a great way to learn which of them work and how well they perform. While on the competitor’s page, seek out posts with high engagement and see which hashtags they are using to give you an idea of their effectiveness. This also helps you define your own niche and its related hashtags.
There are several different approaches that you can take to research a competitor’s hashtags. The first is just to keep your eyes open for industry-wide trending topics and use those as hashtags. One way to do this is to use the Talkwalker app. This app uses keyword research to analyze what is fading and rising in your industry as well as any new themes.
In addition to tracking trends, you can also find out how well your competitors are doing on Instagram, which can be a good indicator of the effectiveness of their hashtags. Talkwalker can do this as well. See how many times a company posted each day, what hashtags they used, and how much engagement each post received, simply by searching the relevant social media handle.
This is a search for “American Airlines” on Talkwalker
You can also create a personal Instagram account just for testing purposes. Use it to follow some of your competitors and take notice of their effective hashtags, along with how they engage with their followers. Take the lessons learned and try to apply it to your company.
Now, if you think that “spying” on your competitors is a sketchy way of strengthening your hashtag use, then turn it into a friend-making opportunity.
The great thing about studying your competitors is that once you identify them, you may actually be able to use them as allies in the future. Doing so is as easy as sending them a direct message and proposing the idea of working together. This can be as simple as giving each other shoutouts in posts and comments, running an account takeover, or getting more sophisticated with a joint giveaway or contest.
It may sound counter-intuitive to team up with a competitor, but on Instagram, teamwork is king. Explain to the competitor that combining your efforts could increase visibility for both of you, but also let them know that it would not be a free for all.
Make some ground rules for everyone to agree on, such as which companies should post on which pages and at what times. With millions of accounts out there, a new business can quickly be forgotten if they try to go it alone.
Working with other companies with similar hashtags can do wonders to improve your engagement while also drawing in more customers, impressions, and increasing exposure.
Hashtag rotation is a tactic you can use to ensure your posts achieve the maximum reach possible, among the most relevant audiences. Rotating hashtags is just as essential as researching them.
You want to make a routine out of using hashtags, so followers know what to expect from you. But changing up which tags you use when can give you a serious boost in visibility and help your audience find you. It also helps you systematically pin down your best hashtags, in terms of both topic and size.
Organizing your hashtags allows you to categorize your posts and help users find you based on specific topics and trends. To do so, start by categorizing hashtags by the volume of posts and topic/niche.
So for example, if you are a travel brand, you could organize groups of hashtags by the number of posts and the type of holiday you’re posting about (e.g beach or adventure) and use colors to separate these into groups. Aim for 20 or more hashtags in each color group and classification so you can reach a diverse audience. You can then use these groups of hashtags at the end of each individual post to match the subject matter, rotating which groups you use throughout the week.
In the image below, we put together a small grouping of hashtags as an example. You could use all the hashtags in pink in the morning and the green hashtags in the evening or the following day. Use the blue ones on the weekend. Keep experimenting for a few weeks to see which ones perform best.
After a week or so, review which posts get the most engagement. Are these hashtags bringing any new customers or users? If so, are these new followers engaging and commenting on your post? If they are engaging, is the engagement level enough for your needs? If so, you may have some hashtags that are working for your company.
There is no exact science to finding viral hashtags. The best you can do is rotate them until something works. Just because a hashtag has been used 25 million times doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t work for you. On the flip side, just because a hashtag has rarely been used ever before, it doesn’t mean that it will catch on. It’s all about testing and analyzing until you get the right fit for your audience.
A trick you can try is breaking your hashtags down by the number of posts they are already attached to and then rotating them throughout the week to find your sweet spot. Try breaking them down like this:
Hashtags used on:
● Monday: 0-10K posts
● Tuesday: 10K-25K posts
● Wednesday: 25K-50K posts
● Thursday: 50K-100K posts
● Friday: 100K+ posts
If at first, you don’t succeed, try and try again until you are finding the desired results or at least something close to it. And keep in mind that your work with hashtags is never done. There will always be room to improve the engagement of potential followers or customers.
Creating Your Own Instagram Hashtags
Don’t want to be a follower? You can also create your own branded hashtags on Instagram from scratch. This is all about branding your account and your content in the right way. Use these branded hashtags in your captions, so your followers start seeing them on a regular basis and hopefully using them in their own posts and sharing them with their peers, like a digital form of word-of-mouth advertising.
These days, hashtags are discussed in almost every form of media. Every snappy commercial and television show has a hashtag associated with it. The trick is to create a catchy hashtag but also one that has a clear call-to-action.
When coming up with your first brand new hashtag, you want to consider your end goal. What do you want to do with your hashtag? Do you want to increase total clicks? Increase mentions? Think about what you want to achieve and then go from there.
Basic rules for new hashtags include keeping them on the shorter side, making them easy to remember, keeping them exclusive to your brand, and making them unique but not too obscure. Hashtags that result in an emotional response are best. You want them to incite urgency, play on emotions, and encourage engagement.
For instance, Purina once created the hashtag #PetsAtWork which encouraged people to show pictures of their pets in the workplace.
Denny’s hit a slam dunk when they created the hashtag #CollegeIn5Words, which encouraged fans to write humorous short stories of their college experience in only five words.
Hashtags like these are meant to be creative and fun, but they also don’t shove products or services in the consumer’s face. Instead, they add some finesse to the situation by subtly engaging the user to join in with their campaign. But really, it’s a form of free advertising, because the customer now has the company in the back of their mind.
Using this strategy, both Purina and Denny’s have over 64,000 and 260,000 followers, respectively. More followers often translates to more customers.
So, what do you want your hashtags to do? If you simply want to draw new attention to your business then play with hashtags that include your company’s name. If you are having a public event that you want to bring attention to, then combine your company name with the event, e.g., something like #walmartblackfriday, and see if that draws attention.
You could also use your company’s slogan, the name of one of your most popular products or anything that is topical or humorous.
If you’re a smaller company, it may be easier to stick with pre-made hashtags, but you should consider at least trying a call-to-action hashtag like Purina or Denny’s once in a while. Call-to-action hashtags create and encourage engagement, and the more engagement you get, the greater your position and importance in Instagram’s feed.
They’re also great for encouraging user-generated content. For example, Purina created #petsatwork to encourage pet owners to share their pets’ photos. There was an action associated with the hashtags, one that produced lots of engagement.
Making your own hashtags on Instagram can sometimes be easier said than done, so combining your own with some that already exist is a perfectly acceptable, and usually, preferable option.
Instagram Hashtag Practices to Avoid
While any person or company should find their own method of reaching Instagram hashtag success, there are a few methods that should generally be avoided.
For one, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the more hashtags you have, the merrier. There are a lot of people and companies out there that believe they will get the attention they seek by using every hashtag they come across, but in reality, more hashtags do not always result in more customer engagement. It comes down to a classic case of quality over quantity.
Too many hashtags can sometimes come off as spammy
In most cases, less is more. Currently, Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags for a post, but you don’t need to go to the max when it comes to hashtags. Try using around 25 instead, or even fewer in rotating batches. Consider Instagram to be like Google. If you write a blog post and oversaturate it with the same keyword 50 times in an attempt to get a first-page listing, Google will catch on, and your blog may never see the light of day.
Instead, use keywords strategically in the hopes that Google will take notice. It’s the same on Instagram. If you use 30 of the same hashtags on every post, the powers that be can clearly see that you are trying too hard and the availability of your posts may end up being limited.
In addition to potentially getting on Instagram’s bad side, when you have a paragraph of 30 hashtags, it can be very difficult for the viewer to differentiate and read them. If the point is to have people understand, enjoy, and share your hashtags, you want them to be readable.
Also, keep in mind that Instagram is not a free-for-all, it does have rules, especially with hashtags. Instagram can detect hashtags that do not adhere to its community guidelines, including posting unoriginal photos, copyrighted photos, graphic images, hate speech, or threats and discrimination against other Instagram members.
There are also some hashtags that Instagram doesn’t allow, and they include any that involve bad taste, including those related to racism, sex, violence and so on. You wouldn’t want to use hashtags like those for your business anyway. The point is not to shock someone into looking at your product once and then never returning. Instead, you want to create quality posts with quality hashtags.
Hashtag Success Stories
Those still skeptical about the effectiveness of using hashtags on Instagram should take notice of a growing group of companies that have taken the hashtag game to a whole new level.
A few years back, Calvin Klein started a cultural frenzy when they launched the hashtag: #mycalvins. The hashtag encouraged Instagram users of all ages to post photos of themselves in their favorite Calvin Klein underwear. The tag took off in a big way and is still used today, leading to over 560,000 uses of the hashtag.
Coca-Cola struck gold when it came up with the #shareacoke hashtag. The whole idea involved having Coke bottles with the traditional logo replaced by popular names and locations. The hashtag became an instant smash with people posting photographs of sharing Cokes with their buddies, making pregnancy announcements, and taking pictures of Coke bottles in places all over the world.
These hashtag campaigns are excellent examples of companies using finesse to promote their products without really making a big deal out of it. In both cases, people were buying the products left and right without realizing that they had been lured in by brilliant hashtag marketing.
In the end, there is no denying the incredible usefulness of having well-placed hashtags in your Instagram strategy. Of course, the platform is always evolving, and you may have your own remarkable hashtag success stories. Don’t keep them to yourself. Share your experiences in the comments below. And if you have any questions, feel free to let me know in the comments!