Imagine Instagram as a huge hotel full of guests. Your Instagram profile is just one of millions of rooms somewhere up on the twenty thousandth floor. Sure, your friends may stop in from time to time, but otherwise there’s not much going on.
Where do you go to meet new people? Maybe even find new customers?
Like any good hotel, Instagram has a ton of common spaces – ballrooms, gardens, shops, restaurants, dog parks, and conference rooms – but on Instagram, these common spaces are hashtags. There’s a hashtag for nearly every clique, mood, emotion, aesthetic, and interest on Instagram, so you should be able to find the exact people you’re looking for – you just have to find the right hashtag.There's a hashtag for every interest, mood & aesthetic on Instagram - you just have to find it.Click To Tweet
With the right hashtag strategy you’ll be finding the perfect tags for every post, and by using them you’ll reach more of the right people. What’s more, those people will be just the right people to help you drive your business objectives, whatever they may be. Sounds good, right? To help you get there we’ve put together this comprehensive 5 step Instagram hashtag strategy guide.
*If you need to start with the basics we’ve got you covered too with -> How to Use Hashtags on Instagram.
Step 1 – What Am I Trying to Achieve?
Define Your Business Objective
Here’s what Instagram for Business have said about choosing hashtags.
“When developing content we recommend focusing on your business objective or goal rather than hashtags. Having a growth strategy that targets the right audience is essential to success on Instagram.”
This is great advice that points to a fundamental truth about marketing, that it’s rarely successful when it reaches everybody, and more often successful when it reaches the right people with the right message.
If your business objectives require you to reach new people, as opposed to people who already know about you, then hashtags will be an important part of your Instagram marketing strategy. How important? Really important. According to Track Maven, Instagram posts that use hashtags get more interactions (likes and comments), with posts containing 9 hashtags performing best (More than 2.5x as well as posts using just 1 hashtag).
Business objectives that benefit from a hashtag strategy:
- As an Instagram Influencer I want to grow my Instagram following so I can charge sponsors more to promote their products
- As a blogger/media site I want to grow traffic to my website or blog so that I can get more interest from advertisers
- As a business I want to reach new customers and expand my customer base
In each of these cases you’re looking to reach people who are willing to take a meaningful action, to follow you, to click on the link in your bio, to actually become a customer and buy something from you.
You’re not just looking for anyone, you’re looking for some fairly specific people – your people.
Step 2 – Finding Your Customers
Who Am I Trying to Reach and What Interests Them?
You probably know who you’re looking for, either by instinct, because you interact with your audience on social media, or because you’ve spoken to hundreds of your customers in the past, or maybe you’ve done the research and built out buyer personas.
Now it’s time to bring that knowledge to bear. Think of the common spaces in that gigantic hotel that is Instagram and ask yourself, where do the people I’m looking for hang out?
Getting beyond the first word that comes to mind
Hashtag brainstorming is probably best illustrated with an example: If you make men’s denim jeans for male skateboarders the first words that come to mind as you think about ways your customers might categorize your products might be “jeans” and “denim”. Both of these are very popular hashtags.
There have been nearly 15 million posts posted to #jeans in the past, and nearly 10 million to #denim. They’re great words to start with, but they’re so obvious that they’re overused, and overused hashtags get posted to thousands of times a day, so your content quickly gets buried, and not just buried, but buried by a lot of poor quality posts that make browsing the hashtag not very enjoyable for people.
If we were to assume that #jeans has received the same frequency of usage since Instagram started supporting hashtags in January 2011 then that single hashtag gets used 6,183 times a day. To go back to the hotel analogy, these hashtags are in the busy lobby – there are so many people down there that nobody can hear you speak.
Tailwind’s Hashtag Finder tool grades both #jeans and #denim as “competitive”, meaning that you’re unlikely to get much additional reach from them. They’re long shots, although it may still be worth including them in your Instagram hashtag strategy on the off chance that you’ll appear in the “Top Posts” section. Your post appears in “Top Posts” when it receives enough engagement over a short period of time to convince Instagram that it is more popular than other posts tagged with that hashtag that were posted within a similar timeframe.
As this chart explains, hashtags with more than a few million posts to date will receive more than 1,000 new posts per day. That’s a lot of competition for “Top Posts”, but it’s also a lot of posts per minute pushing your post down the feed of “Recent Posts”.
A post to a hashtag like #ilovemycat with around 10 million posts already on it will be pushed out of the first 9 posts visible in the feed in about 3 minutes. That might not be long enough for it to gain much additional engagement from the hashtag.An Instagram post to a tag with 10m posts will get pushed out of the first 9 posts in 3 minutesClick To Tweet
So how do you get beyond the obvious hashtags that everyone is using? We recommend that you start by brainstorming to get a richer spread of keywords. Try to brainstorm within categories. We like the following categories which range from the very broad to the very focused, and so should help you to generate hashtags of all different sizes.
- Interests: What are our customers interested in?
- Media: What media do they consume?
- Brand Affinities: What similar but non-competing brands do they also like?
- Locations: Where geographically, or virtually, can they be found?
- Problems: What problems does our product solve for them?
- Product Categories: What are all the ways our product can be categorized?
- Branded: What hashtags specific to our brand are they using?
As we travel down this list we’re going from categories that very broadly match our customers’ interests, to categories that are very narrowly focused in on our customers and our product’s role in their lives. The top of the list is great for getting wide exposure and showcasing your products to people who might have never considered them, whereas the bottom of the list is more effective at speaking to the smaller group of customers who already self-identify as potential customers either of products like yours, of your category of products, or even of your brand. The whole spectrum should be considered in a comprehensive Instagram hashtag strategy.
Pro Tip: “We’re very strategic about what Instagram hashtags we use. With each photo we post, we aim to reach a unique and specific audience that we think will respond well to the image. We start with a core base of hashtags to draw attention from large followings in the travel sector. We then use the subject and destination of the photo to dictate which other hashtags we want to target. The idea is to target people that are already interested in the subject we are showcasing.”
Here are some brainstormed terms from our example maker of men’s skater jeans.
- Interests: Men’s fashion
- Media: GQ
- Brand Affinities: Vans
- Locations: Skatepark
- Problems: How do I put together an outfit?
- Product Categories: Men’s denim jeans for skaters
- Branded: Our brand
Next we have to turn these into actual hashtags.
Step 3 – Hashtag Research
Mapping Your Customers’ Interests to Specific Hashtags They Use
Using Instagram’s search bar autocomplete
Traditionally, Instagram hashtag research has been done by with Instagram’s native search bar. The process is fairly simple but somewhat arduous. Once you have your brainstormed terms, like the ones we came up with above, you type a hashtag into Instagram’s search bar followed by one of those terms and Instagram’s autocomplete will try to predict the hashtags that you want to use based on how popular they are and how closely they seem match your query.
In this instance, starting with #mens Instagram suggests #mensfashion, #mensstyle and #menswear. All of these might be useful for our jeans brand, but they have all been posted to millions, or tens of millions of times, meaning posts using those hashtags will get quickly buried (Tailwind’s Hashtag Finder rates all three of these hashtags as “Competitive”).
As we keep typing we are offered the options #mensstreetwear and #mensstreetstyle. These are a good fit for our imaginary brand of jeans and range in popularity from 15,000 posts to 146,000 posts. (Tailwind’s Hashtag Finder rates these hashtags as respectively “Good” and “Best”).
Once we type out the whole of #mensstreetwear we can see that there really aren’t any other decent sized hashtags with that phrase as the root. If we’re going to keep looking for hashtags we’ll need to start again, perhaps with a new root term.
Finding less popular hashtags
One of the problems with Instagram’s autocomplete for hashtag research is that it heavily weights its suggested hashtags based on what you’ve already written in the search bar. Invariably there are a whole bunch of great hashtags out there that don’t start with the word you started writing. Instagram doesn’t provide a good way to find these less intuitive hashtags, leaving a lot of great tags on the table.
Some of these less common hashtags may adhere to one of the following hashtag conventions that are often seen on Instagram, and an awareness of them might help you find them.
- Combine the word “Insta” with your term (as in: #instastyle or #instajeans)
- Combine the word “gram” with your term (as in: #stylegram or #selfiegram)
- Add the word “life” to the end of your hashtag (as in: #stylelife or #streetlife)
- Add “ofinstagram” or “ofig” to your hashtag (as in: #menofinstagram or #fashionofinstagram)
- Add “oftheday” or the abbreviated “otd” to your hashtag (as in: #outfitoftheday, #selfieofthenight)
We’d love for you to suggest more Instagram hashtag conventions in the comments.
Why difficult-to-find hashtags are often better for getting engagement
Even after trying all of the combinations you can think of it’s likely that you’re still missing hashtags. The more difficult a hashtag is to find the more likely that it has high quality, on-topic content (because if people don’t know about it they can’t spam it!). The higher the quality content on a hashtag, the more likely it is that a community will form around it, visit it regularly and contribute to it meaningfully.The more difficult an Instagram hashtag is to find the more valuable it isClick To Tweet
These are the kinds of hashtags you should be looking for.
Data from a Track Maven study suggests that longer hashtags get more engagement on average. Since longer hashtags are often less obvious, this seems to support the idea that you should steer clear of very common hashtags and aim for ones with a smaller, but more engaged audience.
Pro Tip: “One of my Instagram hashtag strategies is to visit some of the hashtags that I’m using to interact with other users of the hashtag by liking and commenting on their Instagram posts. It’s a great way to gain engaged followers.”
#stylegrid is a good example of this kind of hashtag. It has a small but engaged audience and is filled with consistently high-quality, on-topic content that might appeal to customers of our imaginary skater jeans company. This is a hashtag that it would be easy for a jeans brand to contribute to in a positive and organic way, whilst showcasing its products. Yet it would take some digging to find it through the Instagram search bar.
So how else can we find hashtags?
One way you might find these kinds of hashtags is as “related hashtags” when you visit a hashtag in the Instagram app. These suggestions are still weighted towards the wording of the original hashtag (in this example for instance all of the recommended hashtags contain the word “mens”), although they vary a little more than what you’ll find with autocomplete on instagram.com on your desktop computer.
Another way to find good hashtags that aren’t over-used is by finding posts like your post and seeing the hashtags they use. You might want to check out your competitor’s posts too for ideas.
Moving beyond autocomplete to find hashtags used in similar contexts
Rather than predicting hashtags based on what you’ve already started writing, Tailwind’s Hashtag Finder predicts them on contextual clues it gets from other hashtags that you’re using.
E nter one or more seed hashtags and the tool recommends hashtags that are used in similar contexts – it’s a completely different way of suggesting hashtags that offers up a totally different set of suggestions.
As you can see in this example, whilst Instagram autocomplete quickly exhausts itself recommending hashtags that contain the same root word, Tailwind Hashtag Finder presents related hashtags that you might not think of. Where Instagram autocomplete sees #mensstyle and recommends #mensstyles, Tailwind sees it and recommends #dapper.Instagram Autocomplete sees #mensstyle & suggests #mensstyles. @Tailwindapp suggests #dapper ?Click To Tweet
Quick Tip: Tailwind’s Hashtag Finder can find either popular or less common hashtags. It will be more likely to recommend less commonly used hashtags if you start your search with less commonly used hashtags.
The more hashtags you enter into Hashtag Finder the better able the tool is to predict the context and the more relevant hashtags it will suggest. It’s kind of magic to watch, as this two minute demo video illustrates.
Hashtag Finder is part of Tailwind for Instagram
(Need more on how to find hashtag? We’ve written extensively about how to do quick, effective Instagram Hashtag Research)
Step 3 – Evaluating Hashtags
Don’t Just Add Hashtags, Understand Them
If you’re going to understand what a hashtag really is and whether you want to use it you have to do more than focus on the one piece of data you get from Instagram’s search bar (the number of posts to that hashtag).
Evaluating an individual hashtag:
- Does this hashtag appeal to your customers?
- Will your post fit in on the hashtag? Is it the kind of content that people who visit that hashtag are looking for? If not, it likely won’t get additional engagement from being there anyway, and may create a negative impression of your brand.
- How much engagement are posts on the hashtag getting? (Are there a lot of posts to the hashtag with little or no engagement? Do the top posts have good engagement?)
- How many posts have been made to this hashtag (it overly popular? Is it under-used?)
- Can your posts be competitive on this hashtag? (Ideally you want to feature as a “Top Post”. Will your post get the kind of engagement within a few hours that will allow it to compete with the current top posts? If not you might consider using less competitive hashtags).
- Does an Instagram account with a large relevant following regram from this hashtag? Some hashtags are used by brands and feature accounts to find content for regramming (re-posing someone else’s Instagram post). Since regrams come with attribution, this can be a viable growth strategy.
- Is the hashtag spammy? Will a presence there attract spam comments to your posts which maybe off-putting to your community? Will being there look bad for your brand? For instance using #like4like or #followme is almost certainly a bad idea for any legitimate company. In all likelihood those are not followers who will engage in any meaningful way with you in the future anyway.
- Will using the hashtag have unintended connotations? Is it inadvertently edgy, political or negative in some way?
- Has the hashtag been “banned”? It has been reported that using “banned” (0r more accurately, deactivated) hashtags can result in a Shadowban that prevents your account from getting any additional reach to new people through hashtags. The truth is, using a “banned” hashtag will prevent your post from appearing in the hashtag results for that hashtag, but not for the others you used. To see if you are about to use a “banned” hashtag, search every hashtag you intend to use and if there’s no “Top Posts” section and you can only see the last few post, it’s possible that spammers have targeted that hashtag with Not Safe for Work (NSFW) content and gotten it “banned” by Instagram. The “banned” hashtags on Instagram are constantly changing, and we have no way to keep an updated list, so don’t worry too much about it. Your other hashtags are still working to help your content get discovered.
Mapping brainstormed terms to real hashtags
Here’s how our brainstormed ideas for our imaginary brand of mens jeans for skaters might map to real hashtags we could use on a variety of Instagram posts.
A part of any good Instagram hashtag strategy is streamlining your workflow. Now that you have found a lot of highly relevant hashtags for all kinds of different posts you can save yourself a lot of time by turning them into hashtag lists. Many marketers use notes on their phone to save hashtag lists. If you’re a Tailwind for Instagram member you can save hashtag lists directly in the app.
At a minimum you should maintain different hashtag lists for the different types of content that you regularly post. For instance at Tailwind our weekly Instagram editorial calendar includes posts with Instagram Tips, Instagram Stats, Inspirational quotes and blog posts. We maintain a list of hashtags for each of these reoccurring topics and can add all of the hashtags in that list in a couple of quick clicks in the Tailwind app.
Whilst hashtag lists are a great way to save time when you post, you should also be sure to update your lists semi-regularly as hashtags burn out and new hashtags emerge all the time. In fact some Instagram users have reported receiving a Shadowban on their account which they believe is due to posting to the same hashtags over and over again. Might be time to freshen up your hashtag lists!
Step 4 – Use Hashtags the Right Way
Now That You’ve Found Great Hashtags, You’ll Want to Deploy Them Correctly
There are just a few more things to consider to make your hashtag strategy tight.
How many hashtags should you use?
The Track Maven study mentioned at the top of this post suggested that the optimal number of Instagram hashtags to use on a post is 9 or more. The maximum number of hashtags that can be used on any Instagram post is 30.
Some marketers don’t see any disadvantage to using the maximum compliment of 30 hashtags, while others see that as overly promotional and limit themselves to fewer. Some brands have a large enough audience that they don’t feel they need to use hashtags at all. Others continue to use hashtags and benefit from additional followers when they appear in the “Top Posts” sections of relevant, popular hashtags.
The best answer to the question of how many hashtags you should use is that you should experiment and see what works for you and for your Instagram hashtag strategy. At Tailwind before we launched Hashtag Finder we spent the time to research about 15 hashtags for each of our posts through the Instagram search bar. With hashtag finder we’ve been able to quickly double that and now regularly send our posts out with a full complement of 30 relevant hashtags, often added in-the-moment, keeping them fresh.
Getting the right balance of popular and niche hashtags
When you use hashtags on Instagram the goal is to reach more people and get more engagement. What balance of popular and niche hashtags is best to maximize engagement?
Pro Tip: “A smart move is to use a variety of hashtags: one or two very popular (with millions of results), a group of targeted hashtags that are popular with 100,000 or more search results, and some that aren’t as popular. You’ll want to stay on brand for your content with all your hashtags and don’t use unrelated hashtags as this is spammy and won’t help your growth.”
At Tailwind we’re having success with an Instagram hashtag strategy that we think covers all these bases.
- 2-6 popular hashtags: It’s a good idea to add a few very popular or “Competitive” hashtags to your post. These are your Hail Mary passes, your long shots. Often these tags will have over a million posts already and you’ll be gone from the top of the feed in minutes. Don’t count on them generating a lot of engagement for you unless you make it into the “Top Posts” section, but it may be worth a shot.If your post happens to generate a lot of engagement from other hashtags, inclusion of a popular tag might really pay off as it might push you into the “Top Posts” there too, which is the equivalent of going viral on Instagram. “Competitive” hashtags are salmon colored in Hashtag Finder.
- 7-24 fairly popular hashtags: The bulk of your hashtags should be in a more moderate range, likely your post will be able to be more relevant to these tags, and they will be in the sweet spot of usage where they can generate a lot of attention. The good news is your posts may stick around for about hour at the top of “Recent Posts” even if they don’t happen to make it into the “Top Posts”. In Hashtag Finder these kinds of hashtags are often color-coded green and labeled “Good” or “Best”.
- 1-3 niche hashtags: Sandwich this off with any “Niche” hashtags that are especially relevant to your posts. These might include branded hashtags, either your own or other people’s, as well as hashtags used by niche communities, or small subsets of larger communities. The right post on the right niche hashtag can generate a reasonable amount of engagement.
Where to place your hashtags
You can place your hashtags in your caption, or, if you prefer to keep your captions looking pretty you can post them in the first comment. Instagram’s algorithm is time sensitive though, meaning it looks at engagement from the second your image is posted, so you’ll want to add your hashtag comment immediately to create engagement fast. A third option is to use styling (periods and line breaks) to hide your hashtags below the “more” button. This works since Instagram cuts off captions after three lines. Here’s more on how and where to add Instagram hashtags to your posts.
Whatever you decide is the right posting strategy for your Instagram hashtags you should try to be consistent.
We condensed 12 months of research into this Instagram Marketing 101 Webinar. If you’re enjoying this article, you’ll love it.
Step 5 – Evaluating the Success of Your Hashtags Over Time
The Final Step of any Good Strategy is to Evaluate it on an Ongoing Basis
Evaluating the success of an Instagram hashtag strategy is maddeningly difficult because there’s no transparency into how much engagement your post received from any given hashtag. Since your posts will likely have a dozen or more hashtags it’s almost impossible to know which particular hashtag drove additional engagement, unless you happen to end up as a “top post”. Most of the evaluation of the effectiveness of any given hashtag that goes on happens at a more instinctive level – marketers just get a feel for what’s working and what isn’t. That’s far from ideal.
One of the most effective things that you can do for your hashtag strategy is to go back to Step 1 and ask the question – which of my posts are helping me to reach my business goals. If one specific type of post seems to drive a specific business goal do more of it, or figure out a similar style of post that might also work.
By changing your Instagram editorial strategy in this way you will inevitably impact your hashtag strategy, since different types of posts require different hashtags.
Discover what hashtags (and what content) is working for you
We use the Post Inspector in Tailwind for Instagram to track how often any given hashtag is associated with a successful post.
Type in the hashtag you’re interested in evaluating in the search bar of Post Inspector and all posts with that hashtag in the caption (but not in the comments) will appear. Click on “Likes” to sort these according to the ones with the most likes (you can do the same for “Comments”).
In the following screenshots you can see how Post Inspector tells us, at a glance, that posts in our #instatip series get more engagement than those in our #instastats series.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the hashtags are to blame, it might be that our tips are better than our stats, that our audience prefer tips to stats, that our tips designs are better, that the other hashtags we use with tips posts are stronger, or a combination of all of these (and more!).
Nonetheless, it’s hard to argue with the assertion that tips posts are generating more likes for us overall than stats posts, and so you could make a case that we should do more tips posts, or more posts that are like tips posts.
Tie it back to your business objective.
At Tailwind we have seen a lot of engagement on Instagram, and are consistently growing our organic reach through the social network (it grew 61% last month and is now double our organic Facebook organic reach!). Instagram is becoming an important part of how we reach members, and despite Instagram not sending much traffic, the quality of the traffic it does send is high.
Our business objective with Instagram is to build an audience that we can reach organically and inspire and empower them to do great marketing through our content. That ties directly into the Tailwind mission statement which is “To make world class marketing easy for everyone”.
You can see how a hashtag strategy that contains tags like #instatips and #instastats helps us fulfill our mission, and we’d encourage you to create a hashtag strategy for yourself to do the same.
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David is Tailwind’s Director of Marketing and Growth. He is a former journalist who wrote for The Times and The Financial Times, a marketing agency co-founder, founder of Confluence digital marketing conference, father of two, and early morning writer. He grew up on The Isle of Wight in England and lives in Oklahoma City.