12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement


Hashtags are the easiest way to find new and interesting content on Instagram. They're also a great way to attract new followers.

Something I want to get out of the way quickly: There's a lot of snark, one-upmanship, and straight up shaming when it comes to social media, and it honestly makes me exhausted. One area of this negative focus is Instagram. There seems to be a lot of score keeping when it comes to Instagram; how many hashtags someone uses, whose feed is too curated, who isn't authentic enough. Ugh. Enough already. There is an unfollow option for a reason.

 12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement.

12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement.

I bring that up, because often times when I suggest to people to use hashtags on Instagram there is an apprehension to utilize them. When I dig deeper and ask why they feel this, there seems to be a misguided notion that people who use hashtags are desperate for likes. Which is an unfortunate, because hashtags are one of the best ways to get your images in front of others.

If you want to build community, increase your reach, find new followers, network, and improve engagement, hashtags are your answer. 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 are an acceptable way of building your social media strategy.

But, 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 and tips to help you make the most of your Instagram hashtag game and keep it right.

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.

Example: I share my watercolor paintings on IG, I often tag them with the #winsornewton hashtag. Many people utilize this hashtag so they can be found by other watercolor artists and possibly be featured by Winsor & Newton's account. However, if Winsor & Newton came upon my image and added their own comment with the hashtag it would not add the image to that hashtag pool. Only I can add the #winsornewton for it to show up in that hashtag pool.

Add Hashtags as a Comment

If you are planning on using many hashtags, consider adding the hashtags as a comment after you upload your image. Edit your caption, upload your image, and then add your hashtags as a comment. This makes a clean caption visually, and makes it much easier to cut and paste hashtags you use often (see below).

Here is a blog post that shows you how to hide hashtags as comment.

30 Hashtag Limit

Instagram limits 30 hashtags to each image. If you try and add anymore the comment or caption will not load.

While I encourage people to use hashtags within their images, I do believe adding 30 feels a little overkill. Studies have shown images with 11 hashtags get the highest engagement on the platform. That feels like a great number to hover around.

Cut & Paste from Notes

If you use the same hashtags over and over again, 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.

Instagram also remembers your most recent hashtags and renders them as you add, which is very helpful!

 12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement.

12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement.

Be Specific & Relevant

Use hashtags that describe the image and what's in it. When using hashtags it's important to stick to best practices, and utilize hashtags that are specific to what the viewer is looking at. If you start to use hashtags that don't represent your image, it reflects badly on you, and people notice this stuff. Be a good community member and don't try and game the system, in the end this hurts you and your brand.

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.

Example: A macrame artist should use the #macrame hashtag for obvious reasons, but the #macrame hashtag has 254k images in it. So while it's important she use that hashtag, she may also want to use the hashtag #modernmacrame which has just over 10k images. This allows her image to get into a popular pool, but also adds her image to a pool that isn't as highly trafficked with images and where more people within her industry are looking.

Keep an eye on and explore different hashtags that are used within your industry. Pay attention to the big hashtags (re: #macrame) and small ones (re: #modernmacrame) to decide what works best for your images.

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. It's best to stay away from special characters, some like %, -, and ! do not work but _ does. To keep things less confusing, I would just stick with numbers and letters.

Emoji Hashtags

In 2015 Instagram allowed the use of emojis as hashtags. Emojis as hashtags are a fun visual way to utilize hashtags. I don't use them often, but when I share my watercolor work I like to use the palette hashtag -  #🎨, and because I paint a lot of flowers and leaves I like to use those hashtags as well: #🌿 #🌱 #🌺. It's just a fun way to add a little more oomph and search ability 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).

Create Personal/Branded Hashtags to Gather Work & Products

Another great use of hashtags is creating a personal hashtag to gather your work into your own pool. This is great way to organize your work or products.

Example: Last year I embarked on learning watercolor, I started tagging all of my watercolor paintings as #mlowatercolor. I did this for a few reasons, so I could catalog my progress and keep all of my paintings in one stream in case I wanted to share them (like I did above!).

There are many ways to use hashtags like this: keep a group of work or products together, a project you're working on, or series of events, etc. Just be sure you search the hashtag first to make sure no one has used it, and make sure it's branded to make sense for your series.

 12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement.

12 Ways to Use Hashtags on Instagram to gain exposure, build community, and increase engagement.

Community Projects, Group Hashtags, Branded Hashtags

Last year I took part in Year of Making - where I made something every day and shared it on Instagram. Through tagging my photos with the #yearofmaking tag and visiting other images within that pool I made so many new friends, contacts, and I more than doubled my IG following in 6 months. This year, @Augustwren, @Ccerruti, and @ErikaLeeSears and myself have created our own community project titled #12MonthsofPaint (if you are interested, you can find out more on August Wren's blog or Erika Lee Sears blog).

Community hashtags are a great way to connect with others, get your images in front of others who otherwise might not see them, gain followers, increase your own community, and honestly so much more. Explore group hashtags within your community, pay attention to what others are using. If you're using brands within your work, be sure to look for those branded hashtags - I guarantee they're out there. Whether you are creating visual art, sewing, quilting, sharing your shop products research the branded hashtags you might want to consider. It's a great way to get your images in front of people interested and using those brands. Example: When I share the art I have been making I often use branded hashtags: #winsornewton (watercolor brand), #jellyroll and #Micronpen (Sakura pen Brand).

Don't use group or branded hashtags just to get your work in front of others though - meaning if your images don't represent those hashtags don't use them. Use them in a real, and authentic way.

Use Iconosquare to Measure & Gauge Hashtags

If you want to take a deeper dive into the hashtags you utilize, sign up for Iconosquare to get analytics on your IG activity. There section Optimization shows all the hashtags you have used and highlights the most popular on Instagram. It also lists the most popular hashtags being used on IG currently.

Hashtags are a great way to expand your reach, just follow best practices when you use them and you're golden. How do you use hashtags? Is there something you can add to the list? I'd love to hear it!

Meighan O'Toole

Always all in.