Perhaps the most emblematic character of the social media era, the hashtag is an excellent tool that allows you to join conversations and get your content in front of new audiences. They are most prominently used on Instagram and Twitter, but they appear on all social platforms and are widely used as pop culture symbols.
Recently, Instagram hashtags were a subject of controversy and frustration, because the platform temporarily disabled the most popular posts feature in order to prevent fake news from spreading during the US elections. Some users report it is still not restored completely. How can hashtags still help you and your brand?
On Instagram, you can attach up to 30 hashtags to your posts (whether you should is another question, and we will discuss it later). Generally, hashtags should describe what your post is about, but that is by far not the only way they are used.
Essentially, attaching a hashtag enters your post into a competition under that hashtag. When a user clicks on the hashtag, they can see a feed of the most popular (this is the feature disabled during the elections) and the most recent posts. You have to think strategically about what “competitions” you enter.
Questions you should ask yourself before adding a hashtag: Will a user who is searching for that tag find value in my post? Does my post fit into the conversation about this topic? Will my post have a chance to stand out in that feed?
This is more art than science, and only experience will help you get better at it. And how do you know you are doing well? You should look at your post analytics and see where your visitors are coming from. The more traffic you’re getting from hashtags, the better your strategy is working.
We will now look at some basic guidelines to help you get started.
When you’re starting out on social media, it helps to know the space you’re trying to break into. On Instagram, you can search and even follow hashtags. Try to find the ones that are most relevant to your niche, and pick those you will use in your hashtag mix.
Start from the most obvious ones (whatever you think describes your business the best), look at popular posts, and see what other tags they are using. There might be an alternative spelling or synonym that is really popular in that community! Note down all the hashtags you are considering and keep them in a list.
What makes a good hashtag? Here are the most important considerations:
the right size
Yes, size does matter here. The number you see after a hashtag on both Instagram and many scheduling and analytics tools shows the number of posts under a hashtag. The higher the number, the more popular, but also the more competitive a hashtag is. Generally speaking, anything above 1 million posts is a large hashtag, between 100,000 and 1 million are medium hashtags, and under 100,000 they are considered niche.
While you have little chance to be noticed among millions of other posts, joining a conversation with only a couple thousand posts is also not the best use of your hashtag efforts. Try to only use hashtags with more than 10,000 posts (with the exception of your branded hashtag), and use a healthy mix of niche, medium and large tags. The recommended ratio is 30-60-10 respectively, but feel free to experiment.
quality of posts
Look at the feed for your chosen hashtag. What posts do you typically see? If they are all professional photos from brands, that means that customers are not using that hashtag. For example, if you are selling homemade candles, the #homemadecandles hashtag will probably be used by your competitors, not your buyers.
Avoid hashtags where most posts are full of spammy text, nobody likes those.
Look at the most successful posts under your hashtag. Who liked and commented on it? Check out their profiles. Do they look like your ideal customer? If this is the case, bingo, you can and should use that hashtag. Do a little stalking and see what hashtags those customers are using on their own posts. That should also give you some inspiration.
Choose your hashtags very carefully so that they match the thought processes of your audience. Think what your ideal user would be looking for, which is not necessarily the most obvious hashtag you would think of (for example, if you are a swimsuit brand, you might be tempted to add something like #trianglebikini to your post, but your ideal customer would never use that tag herself. It is much better to use #ilovesummer or #dayatthebeach, because your post is going to show up among user-generated content, which makes it relatable and credible. Always match the hashtags to the message of your post. Do not piggyback on a popular hashtag just for the sake of increasing your reach. If your content is not what users expect under that tag, they will punish you for it.
Be extra cautious with sensitive topics (such as grief, mental health, politics, religion, etc.). It is best to avoid using these unless you have a sincere, empathic message that doesn’t try to sell anything.
Once you have your hashtag list, make hashtag groups. Using the 30-60-10 rule, put together 4-5 combinations of hashtags. The algorithm penalizes you if you are using the exact same hashtags each time, so rotate these groups under your posts. Always match the tags to the actual content in the post.
According to research and best practices within the industry, it is recommended that you not use more than 10 hashtags. Using the allowed maximum dilutes your core messaging, will overcrowd your copy, look spammy and potentially put your content in hashtag lanes that are completely irrelevant to your brand. It is customary to put empty lines between your caption and the hashtags (if you are using a scheduler, put a full stop in each line to create that space). Another technique is to add hashtags in the first comment. As with so many things on social media, you need to try it out and see what works for you.
Hashtags are great starting points for your engagement efforts, which are crucial on Instagram. Before and after you posted, take 10-30 minutes to browse the feed of your chosen tags, and comment on a few posts! This will encourage others to interact with you and get even more eyes on your posts.
Once you have some following, you should tell your customers to use your branded hashtag. This can be your brand name or company slogan, but you can also come up with a unique catchphrase. Make sure it is easy to spell, and communicate it everywhere. You can reward users with a shoutout or a discount for using the tag. This way, they become your ambassadors.
A side note about spelling: if your hashtag consists of more than 2 words, make sure to use “camel case”, ie. capitalize every word. This is not only important for human readability, but also for accessibility: camel case is easier to read for text-to-voice applications. It also removes ambiguities of meaning. Just imagine what would have happened if the person who coined #SusanAlbumParty hadn’t done so! (hint: they did not)
Hashtags are not only useful for “filing” your content in the right box for your followers, they also add an extra layer of fun and playfulness. If that fits your brand, feel free to use a few long, ironic hashtags to give your customers a little Easter egg. But don’t be mistaken: these little tags can be very powerful. The good thing is, every time you post, you get 30 chances to get it right. So go out there and #win!