Understanding How Instagram Hashtags Work

Hashtag Icon with people comic style
Hashtag Icon with people comic style

Let’s face it, Instagram hashtags are great. They can help you to get your message in front of people who have no connection with you, but are interested in the same subject area and are following that subject. They search the subject, your post appears. And they are used across all of the major social networks…brilliant!

But like any good thing, it doesn’t work all the time. There are some important unwritten rules which surround hashtags. It’s about time the rules were written down to allow everyone to make the most of this great feature.

One way to think of hashtags is that they can be used to categorize, search, and connect groups of conversations to accomplish a greater goal. Thinking in this way can help brands use hashtags more effectively.

Meltwater recently hosted a webinar discussing Instagram strategies and how the algorithm sorts content. Included in that discussion was the strategic approach to Instagram hashtags to increase search results and conversions for your business. This blog post will explain how Instagram hashtags work and why they are valuable to businesses using Instagram.

Why should you care about hashtags on Instagram? 

Hashtags are the best search results you can control on the entire platform. While there is the Explore page, that is heavily curated by the algorithm based on personal behaviors of each user and there’s no way to ensure you’ll appear in those searches. And location searches are great if you have a physical business location that people are actually looking for – like a restaurant, nail salon, etc. But if you don’t fit into that mold, and even if you do, you want to be found by people searching around on Instagram, and the best way to do that is with hashtags.

If someone is searching for something on Instagram, be it inspiration for a birthday party, training for work, or anything else, they are going to search via hashtags simply because that’s how the search works on Instagram. They’ll type in the thing or topic they want to search, using the # in front of that and scroll through the results that appear. 

For most hashtags, there are two tabs of results: a Top tab and a Recent tab.

The Top tab is an algorithmically sorted list of content based on top performing posts that are curated for that individual user based on their preferences and Instagram activity. Therefore, you could look at the same hashtag as a person sitting next to you and see different results in the Top tab of results. 

The recent tab, however, is sorted chronologically with the most recently uploaded image in the top left corner of the results screen. This tab will show almost every post uploaded with that hashtag. There is still some algorithmic sorting in this tab so there isn’t a guarantee that all posts will appear here. And again, some people may see different results than others depending on their personal interactions on Instagram. 

When Should You Add Your Hashtags?

The best time to post your hashtags on your post is immediately when you upload the content to Instagram. Hashtag results are sorted chronologically based on the timestamp of the post itself, not when the hashtags were added. In that Recent tab result of searches, your post is placed in order based on when it was uploaded, regardless of when you added the hashtags. You want those hashtags on there immediately so that they can start populating in searches. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t go back and add hashtags to an old post if you want to. But you do want to think about which hashtags you’re adding and how old that post is. If it’s your branded hashtag you want to go add to old content, go for it! That way your old posts will show up in searches for your current branded hashtag when someone is researching your company. You can even go back and add hyper specific hashtags that have a small search result if they’re highly targeted to your audience and industry. But it wouldn’t be recommended to go back and add or edit common or popular hashtags on old posts as those hashtag searches are so saturated with content that yours would never really appear in search scrolls anyways.

Where Can I Find the Right Hashtags?

The best place to find hashtags for Instagram is Instagram. Go into the search tab (the magnifying glass icon in the bottom menu bar) and type in a hashtag or topic or phrase. Go to the “Tags” tab and you’ll see a listing of hashtags with that word or phrase, in addition to how many posts are associated with that hashtag. 

This shows you the popularity of a hashtag and also provide recommendations for other similar ones you might want to use. Additionally, if you select any of those hashtags to review, there will be a list of recommended similar hashtags at the top of that screen to give you more suggestions of what to use. 

These results are the most reliable because this is what is actually populating and being searched within Instagram. There are other options and third-party tools you can rely on as well. However, those often provide varied results as they factor in Twitter and other social media searches.

You can, of course, use Meltwater’s monitoring tool to review hashtags and determine which ones are best for you. In addition, you can use tools like Tagboard and Hashtagify for more insights and popular hashtag results. 

Where Should You Place Your Hashtags?

The most commonly asked question during the webinar was where to place hashtags: in the caption or a comment?

In the grand scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter. 

There is no algorithmic favoritism and there’s no advantage to one over the other. The only caveat to that is timing. If you place your hashtags in the original caption, they post immediately with your content and begin producing search results. If you add your hashtags to a comment, there is a delay in when those hashtags post. If you’ve already got them typed and copied, ready to paste, that lag may be 10-15 seconds. But if you have to type them up in a comment, that could take you at least a minute. These may seem like nominal time spans, and for less popular hashtags, they are relatively insignificant. But if you’re using popular hashtags with millions of post results, a minute delay could mean the difference of your content being seen in that hashtag or not. 

For this reason, I recommend including your hashtags in the caption. 

Some people think they’re hiding the hashtags by putting them in a comment and they don’t look “spammy” or salesy in there. But the reality is that everyone uses hashtags and they’re there wherever you put them, so just go ahead and use them!

How Many Hashtags Should You Use?

Instagram limits you to 30 hashtags per post and that’s all you can use. If more are added after the fact, your content will not show up in those search results. Whether you or someone else adds a hashtag beyond the original 30, they won’t count. However, if you haven’t used all 30 hashtags and someone leaves a comment with a hashtag, your content will now technically be in that hashtag search as well.

There is a lot of debate about how many to use and whether less or more is a better strategy. But hashtags are a “use it or lose it” feature. If you use them, you can show up in search results. If you don’t use them, you are not going to show up in search results. If you’re trying to grow your audience and reach more people, you want to use as many hashtags as possible!

I recommend a minimum of 15-20 hashtags per post and getting as close to 30 relevant hashtags as possible. 

Instagram hashtags really are the secret sauce to success and will help you grow your audience, get found in search, and even drive conversions for you – when they’re done right.

How to Use Hashtags More Effectively in Your Marketing

  1. Branding: 
    Branded hashtags are becoming increasingly popular. To take advantage of this trend, the hashtag shouldn’t be your brand’s name but something related. For example, Destination British Columbia coined the hashtag #exploreBC which has caught on with its audience and helps feed its social media channels with user-generated content.
  2. Promoting campaigns and contests: 
    Speaking of using hashtags to successfully spark user-generated content, this can be another way to leverage them effectively. Lay’s Potato Chips created the hashtag #DoUsAFlavor to promote its “Do Us a Flavor” contest which revolved around consumers submitting ideas for new chip flavors.
  3. Joining a conversation:
    Another popular way to use hashtags is to join a conversation on social media. Examples of this include supporting sports teams or recognizing national days, like #NationalDonutDay or #NationalBestFriendsDay. For a list of hashtag holidays, subscribe to our weekly Sidekick: A Weekly List of Social Holidays, Themes, and Noteworthy Events.
  4. Changing the conversation around a brand: 
    Two examples of this are related to personal celebrity brands, #LoveforLeslieJ and #Love4GabbyUSA. The first was created when Leslie Jones received social media criticism, causing her sentiment score to dip. The second was created for Gabby Douglas, who was on the receiving end of a backlash related to her performance in last summer’s Olympics. Meltwater’s media intelligence platform shows how the creation of these positively worded hashtags can help reverse a conversation to turn it positive over time.
  5. Self-identifying as part of a movement: 
    Hashtags are also sometimes used to show allegiance to the ideas behind a social movement. One of the most successful ongoing examples is #BlackLivesMatter, which has evolved from a way to unify citizens online to become an actual organization.
  6. Raising awareness: 
    Hashtags can also be used for social good. Perhaps one of the most successful examples of this is the #Icebucketchallenge, which garnered more than 6 million mentions on Twitter and helped the ALS Association raise millions of dollars.
  7. Using as ironic punctuation: 
    Using a hashtag ironically or when making a joke can be fine—but it can also be overused. For example, Instagram users sometimes overload images with as many hashtags as possible (Instagram’s limit is reportedly 30). This type of hashtag overuse dilutes your message. And, if you’re doing it to gain followers, you’ll attract those you don’t really want, such as spammers.
  8. Trendjacking or Newsjacking: 
    Trendjacking involves associating your brand with a hashtag — even if there’s no real connection — to spike your reach. One example of this is #thedress. Many brands trendjacked the hashtag, even if their products had nothing to do with the white/gold (black/blue) dress at the heart of the hashtag.
  9. Community building: 
    Hashtags are also useful when building communities, which feeds into building brands. Coining a hashtag to accompany a campaign can build a community around a particular push. Twitter chats provide an example of this. #VCBuzz bonds together the Viral Content community and provides a way for those involved to communicate with each other not only during the chat but at any time. Before launching a community building effort, make sure to check that your desired hashtag hasn’t already been claimed by another brand or group. 

And, what about the future of hashtags? Some say hashtags are where search algorithms are heading. Even if you’re not in that camp, it’s hard to deny that the hashtag is currently providing an effective way to search unstructured user generated content. There’s even research to that indicates they may be the key to monetizing social media

Whatever the case, hashtags are here to stay. They’re widespread, so can make a real difference in broadcasting your marketing and PR efforts. The only way to find out if hashtags will work for you is to test them out. Track the data using a media monitoring platform to find what’s most effective. Test, measure, and repeat what works.

The Right Hashtag Recipe for Success 

Picking the right hashtags is only half the process. Now you need to know which ones to use in what format to increase your chances of ranking higher in the Top hashtag tab and getting found by more potential customers. 

This recipe for hashtags will help you to achieve this!

  1. Use at least 3-5 popular hashtags. These are hashtags that have 500,000 to a million posts associated with them. I don’t recommend using hashtags with more than a million results as they usually only attract spam bots and fake engagement.
  2. Use at least 3-5 moderately popular hashtags. These are hashtags with high tens of thousands of posts up to the mid hundreds of thousands.
  3. Use at least 3-5 niche specific hashtags. These are hashtags with usually less than 25,000 posts associated with them and that are specifically targeted to what your business does and the solution or product you offer. 
  4. Use 1-3 branded hashtags. Why does this work? Once you post to Instagram, your followers start seeing your content and interacting with it. The algorithm is making note of this.

This results in more engagement on your content, more followers on your account, more traffic to your website, and more sales for your business!

And that is how you use Instagram hashtags effectively and strategically. You want to hit all of these components of choosing the right hashtags for your business and audience as well as combining the right mix of hashtag popularity to increase your results. 

The 6 Rules of Hashtags

Quality over quantity

There are social media accounts which use a lot of hashtags – too many! If you have ever tried to read one of these messages, you will know how difficult they are to understand. Not only that, but, to me at least, they look a little bit desperate. So, pick one hashtag that is the most relevant for the message as a whole and focus on that – too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

Be careful starting your own

Let’s remember what hashtags are all about. They are about connecting with people who are following a subject, but don’t have a link with you – it’s all about increasing your reach. So if you are starting your own hashtag, who is going to be following it as a subject? Unless you are very very influential (thanks for reading Kanye, but this doesn’t apply to you mate), you should use a hashtag which is already well established.

Make them relevant

If you follow hashtags, and you really should, you will normally find some interesting content and people, then you will be aware of hashtag spamming. This is where someone will post a message using a (normally trending) hashtag that has no connection whatsoever to their content. This is not only annoying, it is spamming and to be avoided at all costs!

Read them carefully….very carefully

If you are using a hashtag which is a couple of words squeezed into one, then you need to look at the hashtag very closely. The most innocent and well intentioned hashtags can have very embarrassing side affects – remember Susan Boyle’s new album launch? Maybe not, but you do probably remember #susanalbumparty – read it again….see what I mean? You can capitalise to make the hashtag more clear but if there is a hidden message, change the hashtag entirely!

Keep them snappy

Hashtags are often a source of humour, and that means that some of them can get pretty long. But hashtags that are too long are difficult to read, so if you are using it for your business, keep the length reasonable – and remember that you are hoping to engage someone new with it, and the longer your hashtag is, the less likely someone will be following it. You don’t want them losing their impact

Think longer term

Although it depends on the number of followers that you have, the life span of a tweet is only minutes – a maximum of 15 but it could be even shorter than that. So if you are doing some research into hashtags then you want your work to last a bit longer than that right? Make the hashtag a longer term part of your marketing plan – use it on other marketing tools like your website and printed media.

Do you use hashtags and had success with them? Or is there a hashtag rule that your live by that isn’t on this list? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!