Jumpstart Guide: Everything You Wanted to Know About Hashtags on Instagram
Hashtags are a smart, strategic way to attract new followers, gain exposure, and grow your account with targeted followers on Instagram. In fact, beyond posting excellent, consistent content, they’re one of the best non-shady ways* to grow your account on Instagram.
*(Many people buy followers, use bots, and engage in lame ass tactics like follow/unfollow and "like for like". Because I find these tactics to be a useless way to grow a sustainable business you'll never hear me discussing them.)
Once considered overly spammy by most (not me!), hashtags have become a mainstay to help you improve your engagement, grow your following, and build a robust feed.
Yet, there are still many people holding out on using them due to feeling like as the kids say they're afraid of looking "thirsty" or because they simply don't know how to use them.
Hashtags are legit, trust me
If you're holding yourself back for fear of "being spammy" you're missing out on an organic and very easy tactic to help you grow your business online.
By adding targeted hashtags to your images you're creating the opportunity to get in front of new followers, get better known within your industry, and build better engagement.
How is that a bad thing?
Why wouldn't you want to use a tool that helps you build your social media in a deeper, meaningful way?
Trust me when I say hashtags work, and they're an acceptable way of building your social media strategy.
Don't have time to read the whole post? Grab a downloadable PDF below!
But I still feel like they're spammy, am I wrong?
Yes. You are. Hashtags are a tool. And they should be treated like one.
Of course, like anything they can be abused and be spammy and there are always going to be people trying to game the system. That happens. But that doesn't have to be you.
And if you use them as they're intended - getting your content in front of a targeted audience - there's nothing spammy or gross about them.
Here's one of the biggest indications that hashtags are not spammy. Instagram now encourages the idea of following and using hashtags too!
Instagram has added new features to make it easy
Allowing you to follow hashtags within your feed. (Once you follow a hashtag, the images with that hashtag appear in your feed. This allows you to follow a hashtag without having to follow any account.)
If you engage with multiple photos in a hashtag pool, Instagram will alert you in your notifications and prompt you to follow that hashtag.
Instagram encourages you to follow specific hashtags by showing up in a vertical slide carousel in your feed.
You can look at anyone's account that's public and see not only who they follow but the hashtags they follow (this feels like a privacy breach to me, but who am I.)
They encourage you to use hashtags when you haven't.
As with anything they should be used in a way that follows best practices, and not abused or overused. Below I'll share a few facts, tips, and ways to help you make the most of your Instagram hashtag game and keep it right and tight.
I hope this jumpstart guide will help you grow your business further.
Let's get started!
What are hashtags
Put simply, hashtags are an easy way to group content and find content around a specific topic. They're used throughout social media as a way to group topics, conversations, happenings, etc.
By putting the pound sign (#) in front of a keyword it creates a hyperlink that then links to a pool of all of the content with that hashtag connected to it.
Fun fact: Hashtags were created on Twitter by a user, back when social media sites allowed users to build features. Boy, do I miss those days!
Hashtags today are used in all sorts of ways online: from creating branded content to following a political discussion to keeping tabs on a conference taking place. These are just some of the ways you can use hashtags.
Why use hashtags?
If your goals for Instagram are to build community, increase your reach, find new followers, network, and improve engagement, then hashtags are your answer.
Obviously, organic engagement is the best way to build a following, but it's OK to use tools to help you. And that's where hashtags come in, by using hashtags they can help you boost all of the above and they shouldn't be overlooked.
Hashtags make it easy to find specific content
Hashtags make it easier for people to find and identify solid content that interests them.
Hashtags allow a more focused way to find content. Instagram's search is basically broken, and by using or searching hashtags it makes it a little easier to find content that represents the topics one is interested in.
By using targeted hashtags as service-based businesses, this allows us to zero in on specific users on Instagram and get our content in front of them.
Hashtags allow you to get in front of targeted followers
By using distinct hashtags that speak to your industry and your ideal audience you can target groups of people that aren't following you. The goal here is to get in front of those followers with the intent that they'll engage with your content and follow you.
We'll go over how to find specific hashtags for your niche below.
Not to mention, using hashtags increases activity around a post (impressions, likes, comments, follows) and all social media algorithms are on the look out for content that’s being engaged with. This offers your content the opportunity to be pushed out higher into your native feed if it’s getting a lot of action.
How to use hashtags
The biggest question you most likely have beyond WHY you should use hashtags is HOW. So let's knock that down shall we? There are so many questions around this specific topic, and I'd like to give a shout out to those that submitted questions to my IG poll and FB Group!
How often should you use hashtags?
This is entirely up to you. But there's been a lot of research that shows that the more hashtags you use the more your engagement goes up. My own rule of thumb when creating content online is to always be consistent in whatever you do.
Not only is this a good experience for your followers, but it allows you to see if what you're doing actually works.
Pro-Tip: I've found that when I use hashtags consistently I'm actively growing my audience, my follower count continues to rise, my images get in front of more people, and my engagement goes way up as opposed to when I’m not using them.
Should you use them on every single photo?
The only time I tend to opt out of using hashtags on Instagram is for personal photos. I have a business account on IG, but part of my brand strategy is being personal. So there are a few personal pics week to week. These feel like they can stand on their own, but there are times when I do add them, honestly.
It's really up to you, what your subject matter is, and what you're trying to achieve in your strategy.
How many hashtags can/should I use?
Instagram limits 30 hashtags to each image. If you try and add any more the comment or caption will not load.
Should you use all 30?
Totally up to you! I say yes, though.
I find when I mix up my hashtags (we'll discuss further below) with different groups I can hit that 30 mark easily without even trying. But sometimes I don't, and that's OK too.
I find that I just pay attention to what the hashtags I'm using are conveying. If I happen to not hit the 30 hashtag limit, I don't try and find other hashtags to smoosh in there, you know? That feels a little disingenuous to me. But again, this is up to you.
Research fact: QuickSprout found in 2015 that 11 or more hashtags receive 80% more engagement while using less the engagement ratio drops.
Where should I use hashtags?
You can use hashtags on all of your images.
You can also use them in Stories too, there's a specific sticker you can use or you can just type it out. Using hashtags in Stories will push your Stories into the hashtag pool your using,
Another way to use them is in your bio! If you are involved in a branded hashtag, this is where to use it!
Should you add hashtags in the caption or as a comment?
This again, is your personal preference.
I have added hashtags as a comment, because I didn't want to add a lot of noise to my caption. But now I almost always schedule my content, and adding as a comment is just a waste of time and would cancel out the luxury of scheduling (I'd have to add that comment as soon as the post went up - which kind of defeats the purpose of scheduling).
Some people like to hide hashtags (more on this below), so if that's your preference you may want to add them as a comment.
If you're using a scheduler, you can line break a few times and add the hashtags below your caption so it doesn't take away from your copy.
Pro-Tip: The thing to keep in mind though, is that if you add them as a comment you have to do it literally within seconds of posting otherwise your image will not appear at the top of the hashtag pool. Images appear in the pool at the time they were uploaded.
Can I add hashtags to older photos
You can, but keep in mind that if you’re using hashtags that have 10’s of thousands of images it won't make much of a difference. Images show up chronologically in the hashtag pool.
If you’re using your own branded hashtags (more on this below), and you have older photos you'd like to include, you can and should go back and add your hashtag.
I don't like the look of hashtags, is there a way to hide them?
If you want to hide your hashtags in a comment you can do so by adding 5 dots and line breaking between them:
The image below by @itchban shows how this looks, and you can follow their tutorial here.
How to get the most of your hashtag use
Be specific and relevant
Use hashtags that describe the image and what's in it, as well as what you're trying to convey. When using hashtags it's important to stick to best practices, and utilize hashtags that are specific to what the viewer is looking at or discussing.
Spamming hashtag pools with images that don't relate to the image is just lame. Don't do it.
Example: I share content about growing a business online so all of my hashtags relate to that on some level. But when I post about the podcast, I add the small business hashtags I use AND I also add podcast related hashtags.
Use Macro & Micro Hashtags
There are over 40 billion photos on Instagram as of today. Some hashtag pools have hundreds of thousands of images, leaving the images that get tagged to be swallowed up almost immediately.
While it's important to use popular hashtags, as there's no way around it, it's also important to use niche hashtags.
For me, some of the hashtags I use target women owned small businesses:
#womenentrepreneurs has 1.3 million images (macro)
#womenowned has 280k images (macro)
#womenowned has 151k images (macro)
#womenbusinessowners has 98k (micro)
#womeninbusiness has 59k (micro)
#womenbusinessowner has 11k (micro)
Mixing up and using a variety of targeted hashtags for "women in business" allows me to get into massively popular pools that are used a lot, as well as pools that aren't traveling like the speed of light with images (such as #womeninbusiness and #womenbusinessowner).
Chances are that people seeing my image in #womenentrepreneurs is pretty slim, but it's still smart for me to use it on the off chance that I might get one or two new people (remember it only takes one person to buy your services). Whereas the chances of many people seeing my images in the micro pools are higher.
Using all of these hashtags gives me the opportunity to get in front of a variety of different people. By targeting different varieties of the same topic it gives me the opportunity to get in front of many different people.
Another opinion: Alex Tooby, an Instagram expert says to not use hashtags that are over the 500k mark. “Generally speaking, any tag with over 1 million posts associated with it, is too big. This is a waste as it’s highly unlikely anyone will see your image within this tag. *If you have a large following and get substantial engagement very quickly, you may be able to use a tag of this size. For example, if you make it to top posts of a tag this size, then by all means, use them, but if you don’t these probably aren’t the tags for you. (My suggestion? Try tags between 5,000 – 500,000)”
Mix it up
Don't use the same group of hashtags on every post.
There's no definitive research that IG is suppressing people's posts when they do this but there is anecdotal evidence that shows that people who use the same hashtags day in and day out see less and less engagement over time.
I use a variety of different hashtags for my business that cover women in business, online marketing, service-based businesses, coaching, etc. I create different hashtag groups and I mix them up depending on what my image is and what's it's trying to convey.
Create branded hashtags to represent your business and gather services, events, etc.
An excellent use of hashtags for a small service based business is creating a branded hashtag to tag your images. This is a great opportunity to brand your business and encourage your community to use this hashtag. That way when others use your branded hashtag, you are by proxy getting in front of others!
When creating a branded hashtag, make sure it's easy to remember and represents your business. Search the hashtag first to make sure no one has used it or that it's not in some filthy or weird group (it happens).
You can use something obvious if it's not taken, or something that's witty and speaks to what you do and what you offer. This again, is totally up to you. Just remember to create something memorable.
Not only is this a great branding experience for your business, but it's an opportunity for you to create UGC (user generated content) to use in your own feed! (Be sure to always ask permission when using other's images.)
How do you know what the best hashtags are to use?
This is where testing and paying attention to your stats come in. I'll share some tools below to help you identify if your hashtags are working for you.
I feel like my hashtags are actually hurting my engagement, is this possible?
If you are using the same hashtags over and over again and not being strategic, then it may be hindering your engagement. Like I said above, there's no research that says this is true but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that says if you are not mixing up your hashtags on every post that your engagement will suffer.
Is there such a thing as a long tail hashtag? (Meaning is there longevity in specific hashtags)
This is such a great question. I think the macro hashtags don't offer this at all, but some of the micro hashtags might. And if you create branded hashtags for your services, content, or business these could definitely have the possibility of delivering long term.
Is there a goldilocks hashtag in between too little popularity and those that have so much popularity that you're easily overlooked?
The best answer to this is make sure your hashtags are diverse, that you’re using both macro and micro hashtags.
So, if I should mix up my hashtags is it bad to use a personal/branded hashtag in each and every post? Should I stop?
The short answer here is no. Continue to use your branded hashtag in every relevant post. That's important, because not only will you group your hashtags so you can use that pool in your marketing but your evangelist fans can follow it. This allows people to not only get your images in their feed but your hashtag as well!
When you get into trouble is when you use the same groups of hashtags all of the time.
Don't have time to read the whole post? Grab a downloadable PDF below!
How to find hashtags
There are a few ways to find hashtags, but they all take work. I recommend setting aside some time to research and capture hashtags you'll want to use. Gathering them and storing them (more on this below) will save you so much time in the long run.
Define your keywords
Every business is different, so one of the first things you'll want to do is figure out what topics or themes represent your business and use those for your hashtags.
If you are in social media there's a whole ton of hashtags you can explore like #socialmedia (which will be absolutely massive) to things like #instagramtips. Same with if you work in branding, start with #branding and fan out from there. Or if you’re a coach, there are so many different types of coaches - what words will best represent what you do?
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Look within your industry
If you need inspiration to get started, one of the first things I recommend is to keep an eye on and explore different hashtags that are used within your industry.
Pay attention to what others you admire are using. Watch the big hashtags (re: #womenentrepreneurs) and small ones (re: #womenbusinessowner) to decide what works best for your images. But don’t grab ALL of the hashtags from your competitors, do real research.
Think about your target market
I’m a big opponent of jargon. And that goes for the same with hashtags. Don’t use words your audience don’t identify or aren’t searching for. Get inside your ideal client’s head. What would they search? Unsure? Survey your audience! Ask them what they use!
Manually searching hashtags is a simple way to find the keywords for your business. You can start typing a keyword in IG’s search bar and it will show you all of the hashtags with that keyword and how many images are in it.
Spend an hour or two one night watching TV and searching your keywords and phrases, look at the images at the top of the feed and see what hashtags they're using. Be sure that the images in this feed truly relate to what you do. You’ll notice the big hashtags are overflowing with images that have nothing to do with the feed. This is a sign the hashtag is saturated and you shouldn’t use it.
Schedulers offer hashtag tools to help you
Most IG schedulers will give you a hashtag tool (Planoly does not). I personally use Later for my scheduling of IG because I find they have everything I need. Their hashtag analytics tools allow me at a glance to see what's working.
There are tons of tools out there to help you. I'm not going to go into all of them, because there are just too many (you can read Later's excellent blogpost of 8 tools to use).
Instagram will autofill hashtags for you
Instagram will autofill and suggest hashtags in the app when you start typing. Use this to do your research, upload an image, and then use the caption to do your research. You won’t actually post the image.
I don’t recommend using this feature every time you post, because it’s a waste of time to add new hashtags every time you post. Do your research prior and save your hashtags.
Saving your hashtags
Both Later and Planoly offer tools to save your hashtags so they're accessible at the tap of a button. Planoly offers a "hashtag library", where you can create groups of hashtags and easily insert them into posts. Later offers this in their "saved captions" feature.
Using a scheduler allows you to easily mix and match your hashtags and save you time in the long run.
If you aren't using a scheduler to save your hashtags (which I highly recommend). A workaround for you is to keep them stored on your phone in a notes app to cut and paste easily into a comment or caption. This will make it easy to stay consistent, and not make any errors, or forget a specific hashtag. Use iPhone's Notes app or Evernote.
Once you start using hashtags you can check out Instagram's Insights feature (This is only available with business accounts) to see how hashtags are performing.
Insights will let you know how many impressions were received due to hashtags on your image. And it's a great way to get a general view if the hashtags you're using on the post work. They don't get specific though, and this is where a tool like Later's comes in handy (see above image)
Other things to know about hashtags
Only you can add hashtags
Anyone can add hashtags to images on Instagram, but only the account that posted the original image can add hashtags so they'll appear in that hashtag feed. For example, you can’t add your hashtag to someone else’s photo and have it actually work.
Keep this in mind when you see an image about your services or offerings, you can't add your branded hashtag and have it work like it should, but you can ask the original poster to add it.
Yes, there are banned hashtags on Instagram. They're kind of a moving target, so I don't really want to get into them here. There are obviously banned hashtags that have profanity/sexual content etc., but then there are random banned hashtags like #beautyblogger. If you are interested in learning more, just do a cursory search on Google.
Keep jokey hashtags to a minimum (or not at all)
Jokey hashtags can be a fun way to communicate a point ie: #omghowmuchhashtaginfodoireallyneed. But overall, I’d leave them at the door for the most part. I like to use them every now and then, because they can be hilarious - but mostly I don’t use them. Also, you only have so many you can use, don’t waste the space.
Letters & numbers only
Numbers and letters work in hashtags. Spaces and many special characters do not work. If used they'll break the use of the hashtag - rendering it unsearchable.
Characters like “%”, “-”, and “!” do not work but “_” does. To keep things less confusing, I would just stick with numbers and letters.
In 2015 Instagram allowed the use of emojis as hashtags. Emojis as hashtags are a fun visual way to utilize hashtags. They can be a fun way to add a little more oomph and searchability to your images.
You can also add emojis and words as one hashtag, but keep in mind these will most likely be very niche (ie: not easily found).
How to minimize all those bots and lame comments
Unfortunately, with hashtag use comes a lot of nonsense from people on Instagram.
When you use hashtags (especially macro ones) you'll most likely get super, spammy, embarrassing comments from people desperate for followers. Such as "great feed!" "awesome post!". Or you'll see what's become known as follow/unfollow - people following you for a few days, and then unfollowing you.
This is all done in the name of getting followers, and it's lame as hell.
Alas, it's a casualty of social media, there’s those of us trying to build actual businesses and then there’s those who have no idea how to grow a business online so they engage in shady tactics.
One of the ways that you can minimize the stupid comments is in your settings you can make it so only people you follow and who follow you can leave comments. This is a massively underused, helpful feature that I myself use.
Go to Settings > Privacy and Security > Comment Controls > Controls > Allow Comments From
This way only people who follow you can leave a comment. You will get some of the follows/unfollows leaving comments but you can ignore them.
Go forth and hashtag!
Woo! I think that was my longest post ever. Clocking in at just over 4000 words, I hope to hell you got some insight from this jumpstart guide. Remember, take what you need and leave the rest. You don't need to employ every single thing here, just what works for you.
And as always, things change at light speed online. If you feel like something isn't working, look at your results and data, and then iterate.
Hashtags are just a tool to help you. They're not the be all and end all of growing your Instagram account. You'll need to continue to post great content, engage consistently and authentically, and above all continue to offer value throughout your business.