December 20, 2019

Instagram hashtags and strategies to use them effectively continue to be the most common questions I get asked. So many people understand they should be using them but don't understand how to use them well.

How many? Where? Which ones?

These are all common questions and that doesn't even cover all the little nuances about hashtags on Instagram. So, this post will clarify ALL of that for you. It's by far my most comprehensive overview of hashtags.

The Basics of Instagram Hashtags

Why are hashtags so important on Instagram? The reality is, they are the secret sauce to success. Instagram has very limited search capabilities as a platform, and one of the best ways to get found and to get more eyeballs on your content is to use hashtags, which will allow you to show up in various searches for your target audience and get more people finding your content.

If you're using hashtags to get found in search, there are three specific places that you can use hashtags in your Instagram content: Instagram feed posts, Instagram Stories, and IGTV.

But there are some limitations to how many hashtags you can use:

  1. In the Instagram feed post, you can use up to 30 hashtags, and you want to put them either in the caption or comment, in order to have them rank for search. Anything beyond 30 will not show up in search.
  2. For Instagram stories, you only want to use up to three hashtags. You can use one hashtag sticker or you can put three in a text box.
  3. For IGTV, it's just like a feed post, you can use up to 30 in the description of your IGTV video.

How Content Appears in Hashtag Searches

It's important to point out that you can't guarantee that you will actually show up in any specific hashtag search. All of the results for hashtags are sorted algorithmically.

To view a hashtag search result:

  1. Tap on the search icon (the magnifying glass)
  2. Type the hashtag you want to look at in the search bar
  3. Tap on the “tags” tab to view the hashtag content related to that word or phrase

In the search results, you will see two tabs: one is for top performing posts, and one is for recent posts.

Everything in the “Top” post tab is algorithmically sorted and that is determined based on you as an individual and the type of content you interact with. If you really like puppies, you're more likely to see content with puppies in a search result. If you really like self-help type content, you're more likely to see that in a search result, no matter what type of content you're looking for in a hashtag. The algorithm knows what you look for, and it will sort search results based on your behaviors.

As a result, if you look at a hashtag search, sitting right next to somebody else, you will see different results because they're sorted for each of you individually.

If you switch over to the “Recent” tab in that hashtag search, that content is sorted chronologically with the most recently shared post at the top of the results feed. There's still an algorithmic sort associated with this list of results, and there's no guarantee that your content will show up in every hashtag, or even any of the hashtags that you specifically use.

But, there's always a chance that you will appear in the search results, and when it comes to hashtags, they are a “use it or lose it” type thing. If you don't use them, there's no chance of showing up in search. If you do, there's a better chance of getting found by more people. So, we want to use them, take advantage of them, and get the opportunity for more people to see your content!

How to Create a Good Branded Hashtag for Your Business

When it comes to hashtags, there’s a key thing to remember: nobody owns a hashtag. You can't trademark them, anybody can use them, and they can be any combination of words or phrases. So, how do you pick the right one for your brand?

Sometimes we'll see these really long run-on hashtags, and sometimes you see something super short. Is one better than the other?

That depends on you, your business, your audience, and what you’re using that hashtag for.

Things like contest hashtags can usually be a little bit longer since they’re a limited use capacity. You want it to be descriptive. It could even say something related to contest or giveaway in the hashtag so that it's very clear it's for that purpose.

If it's your typical branded hashtag for your business, short, sweet and easy to remember is key. You don't want something complicated, or that is hard to spell, or that’s a long winded hashtag with 30 characters worth of content in it. People won't use that frequently. But you also don't want it to be too short, because if it's a shortened acronym that is super common that other brands or other people might be using, then your content isn't the only content on that hashtag, and that can drive confusion around your brand.

Ideally, for your branded hashtags, you want something that's somewhere in the 10 to 20 character range. For example, I use #jennstrends, which is my business name. And Social Media Examiner uses #smexaminer. They abbreviate it a little bit, keeping it short and sweet but recognizable and distinct to the brand.

Using Hashtags on Instagram Feed Posts for Maximum Visibility

When it comes to your Instagram feed posts, these are your best opportunity to appear in search results for various hashtags. But not every hashtag will work the same way. You need to be strategic about which ones you use and how you combine them.

Unfortunately, a lot of people do what I call the spaghetti-against-the-wall-and-hope-it-sticks tactic. That’s not what you want to do!

How Many Hashtags Should You Use?

You can use up to 30, and anything beyond that won't show up in search. But your first 30 are free to use however you want.

But should you use 30? Or less?

I recommend using at least 15 to 20. Hashtags are a use-it-or-lose-it-type tool, meaning if you use the hashtags, there's a chance you will get found. If you don't, there's no chance of getting found. In general, more is better! Go for all 30 if you can do them well. Include as many as you can use strategically while staying relevant to your business. But I do recommend about 15 to 20 as the minimum.

Now, you may be freaking out because some people think that's a lot and it's hard to come up with that many hashtags. You might be able to think of three or four off the top of your head, but how can you come up with 15 to 20 hashtags? That is where the super-secret recipe comes into play!

You will want to combine a variety of hashtags from different categories of popularity. You can see how popular a hashtag is by going into the search on Instagram (the magnifying glass icon) and typing in a hashtag in the “tags” search bar. The hashtag list that populates will tell you how many posts are associated with each of those hashtags.

The “super-secret” hashtag recipe for maximum exposure is:

  • Pick three to five popular hashtags. Popular hashtags are those in the mid-hundreds of thousands up to a million posts, for a specific hashtag. Anything over a million generally becomes irrelevant to you because it's so saturated with content that the only thing you will attract are spambots. And we don't want that!
  • Pick three to five moderately popular hashtags. These are the hashtags that fall in the high tens of thousands into that mid-hundreds of thousands range.
  • Pick three to five niche-specific hashtags. These are super-targeted specifically to your industry, what you do, the solution you provide, and what your customer is looking for.
  • Include your one to two branded hashtags.

Using this, you're already up to 12 to 15 hashtags without even trying, so you can easily get to that 15 to 20 total hashtag number.

I should also point out that there are plenty of rumors about hashtag usage. One of those common rumors is that you shouldn't use more than 5. I promise you this is just a BS rumor and is so not true! Instagram wants you to use hashtags. They aren't going to punish you for using them!

Which Hashtags Should You Use?

Simply throwing up a long list of hashtags is not enough. The key is to find relevant hashtags for your business. You don’t want to use popular hashtags like #love or #vacation, or something that's viral trending or hyper-popular because it's not related specifically to your business and it's too concentrated. Instead you want to pick hashtags that are very specific to your industry, to the content that you posted, or what it is you offer as a solution.

The reality is most people don't pick the right hashtags for their audience. They only think about their business and what “they” want to be found for. Let’s look at the example of car insurance, because car insurance is not exactly super sexy for Instagram. No one is going to Instagram to search for car insurance! That's what Google is for. The only ones looking at #carinsurance are the competitors who are selling car insurance. Using this won’t attract your target audience.

You need to think about where your audience is. What is your audience doing? Who is your audience?

If we continue with the car insurance example, your audience is people who have cars. And people who have cars are looking for things like #dreamcar or #lamborghini or #newcar, #myfirstcar. And if someone is buying #myfirstcar, guess what they need? They need car insurance! If you’re using the hashtag where they are currently hanging out, you get to show up and give them quality content that's valuable to them. Some industries can get away with using hashtags directly related to what they do, like #weddingphotographer. Yes, if someone is looking for a wedding photographer, they will go to Instagram and look for that hashtag specifically. So those industries can use those industry hashtags. But you still want to think about people outside of just that realm. If all you do is wedding photography, that's great, but people are only going to be searching for you in a very limited scope of time. In addition to those wedding hashtags, you can also look at hashtags related to geographical locations where you work and other ways to serve your audience outside of that very specific time that they're looking for your services.

In the last section, I mentioned some bad rumors. Another bad rumor is that you can't (or shouldn't) use the same hashtags repeatedly. I can assure you that is not true either! You can absolutely use the same hashtags over and over again, even on back to back posts. Doing so will not reduce your reach or exposure.

Why Does this Hashtag Strategy Work?

Combining the variety of hashtags from different popularity categories, and finding the ones where your audience is actually spending time will drive results for your business. This may come about in the form of new followers, an email or phone call, or engagement on your post.

How? Let’s look at the what happens:

  1. The popular hashtags will give you an initial burst of activity from non-followers. Within a matter of seconds, maybe into minutes, however, your content will be buried in the archives of those popular hashtags.
  2. The moderately popular hashtags will keep your content active for hours into days with more non-followers.
  3. Meanwhile, your existing audience of followers is engaging with your content as they log into Instagram.
  4. The Instagram algorithm looks at your content and determines your followers are liking it consistently and non-followers are seeing it and liking it. This is a positive ranking to Instagram! You're creating great content that people really like.
  5. And then, in those niche-specific hashtags, you start ranking as a top-performing post. Top-performing posts can stay in those top placements for months even, which means if somebody is looking for that specific hashtag, when they go to that search result, you’ll be one of the first ones, if not the first one, they see in that top-performing hashtag tab.

And what happens when they see that? They click on your content! They're now on your profile. They may follow you because they realize that you're relevant to them. You have a product or a service that is valuable to them. They may even email you or call you if you have those action buttons enabled on your profile. You can actually close sales with this tactic!

Where Should You Put Your Hashtags?

Now you know what hashtags you're going to use. And you know how many you're going to use. Where on Earth do you put them? This is probably the age-old question since hashtags have been used for business on Instagram.

Captions or comment, does it matter?

In all reality, no. There are various studies out there. Some say it's slightly advantageous to put them in the caption. Some people want to put them in the comment because they want to hide them and they don't want to look spammy.

If you use the hashtag recipe that we just talked about, whether you put them in the caption or the comment is not going to have a significant impact. Your content is not affected by the algorithm based on where you put the hashtags. Nor will it affect search results. They both work. And it’s really more a matter of personal preference as to where you put your hashtags.

The caveat is that it does matter where you place them if you're using incredibly popular hashtags. If you're using a hashtag with five million, 10 million, or more post results (which isn’t in line with the recipe we covered above) those are the ones you do want to put in the caption. The reasoning here is that in the 10 to 15, maybe 30 seconds it takes you to put that hashtag list in a comment, you're losing all the valuable time in that hashtag hub and you will lose all of that potential engagement. In that situation, leave them in the caption for best results. Additionally, captions now get truncated with a “… more” after the second line of text, so people aren't seeing your hashtags in the caption anyways unless they click to read the whole caption. You don’t have to worry about “hiding” them in a comment.

How Do You Know if Your Content is Appearing in Hashtag Searches?

How do you know if your hashtags are working? Did you show up in search? Did people find your content?

The easiest way to find out is to review the post insights for the post itself. Below your post, and above the caption, there is the View Insights button.

Tap on the “View insights” button and it will open up a small screen of information. Swipe up on that little menu bar and you will get a full screen of information that tells you how that post performed. Keep scrolling, and down at the bottom of the screen, it will tell you where your impressions came from, including how many impressions came from hashtags. You won’t be able to tell which individual hashtags produced how many impressions, but you’ll see overall hashtag performance.

It's entirely possible that you may not rank for hashtags or you may have very little exposure from them. Sometimes that's because your content just isn't that good. It may not be performing well with your followers, and if it's not performing well with your followers, Instagram is unlikely to show it to non-followers. It’s possible that your content is in a very saturated environment, where it's just not a good time to show up in those specific hashtag results.

Not every post will perform well in hashtags. You want to review and look at multiple posts and see how your hashtags are performing for each of those posts. Consider questions like:

  • How many times did you show up in hashtag searches and what was the consistency for those higher-performing posts?
  • Was the post timely and relevant that may have impacted higher search results?
  • Was there a consistent component, perhaps every time you used the color blue in your content, you got better search results?

Take a look at your post details to help determine which content performs better for you.

Instagram Story Hashtag Strategies

If you’re feeling comfortable with how to use hashtags on Instagram feed posts, I have a warning for you: Instagram Stories are completely different!

If you're creating Instagram Stories, you're putting a ton of effort into this fun, engaging content, and chances are you want more people to find that content. The good news is that, in addition to your feed posts, Instagram hashtags are super helpful for your Instagram Stories.

But there's some things you should do, and some things you shouldn't do.

Which Hashtags Should You Use in Stories?

When it comes to your Stories hashtags, you want to go broad, you want to go big. Why? Because your Stories only last for 24 hours.

If you're using something hyper-specific, or even your very own branded hashtag, the chances of someone looking for that specific hashtag in that narrow 24 hour window are pretty limited. But if you used a broad hashtag, something popular (which is the opposite of what we recommended you do in the feed) there is a higher chance of more people looking for that in that 24 hour period, resulting in a better chance of your content showing up in the search for those people to view it.

Think about those hashtags that are singular words, that are very broad to your industry. Something like #socialmedia, #science, #love. Any of those big popular ones are going to up your chances of getting found in search.

One exception to this rule would be if you are at a live event or running a contest. In these cases, where there is a very limited scope of time, using a narrower hashtag, specifically for that event, venue or contest, actually works in your favor because people are only looking for it in that specific area of time. You’ll be more likely to show up, and you're more likely to be seen by more people.

Where Should You Put Your Instagram Story Hashtags?

You’ve got two options for creating Story hashtags: the hashtag sticker or a textbox.

To use the hashtag sticker, click on the sticker icon (square smiley face) and select the hashtag sticker. This will add the sticker to your Story, start typing, and you've got yourself a hashtag sticker that is clickable to that search result.

For the textbox, select the “Aa” icon in the Story and then type in a series of hashtags using the hashtag symbol, followed by the text for that hashtag. It’s important that you ensure the hashtag is underlined when you post that textbox. If it's not underlined, it's not clickable, which means you will not appear in searches and people can't click on it to go to that search option.

To make things complicated, there are limitations to how many hashtags you can use on each of these options:

  • With the hashtag sticker you can only use one hashtag. And you can only use one hashtag sticker on each Story post. Once you've added that sticker to your story, that's your hashtag. If you try to add another hashtag sticker, it opens up your existing one, and you will end up typing over it with the new hashtag.
  • For the textbox, you can put as many hashtags in there as you actually want to. You could put 10 in there and they're all underlined, and you think, great, I have 10 hashtags. In fact, it’s advertised that you can use up to 10 hashtags in a text box. But Instagram often limits you to three usable hashtags. Which means if you use more than three, only the first three will actually record for search results.

There is one more limitation that you should be aware of when using the text box option for hashtags. You may have seen or heard of people taking their hashtags, minimizing them, and changing the color and hiding them somewhere in the image with a matching color. This is meant to disguise the hashtag, so people don't see them, and it doesn't look like there are hashtags on the post. Instagram, however, got smart to this shortly after people started doing this tactic, and now they will not populate your content into a hashtag search if you minimize your content too much, and attempt to hide it.

As a result, you want to keep your hashtags legible. Large enough that somebody can read them with the naked eye, and where they're not being hidden.

Will Story Hashtags Get You More Exposure?

When it comes to hashtag search results for Instagram Stories, you need to have realistic expectations. Think about how Stories work. No one wants to see a hundred or a thousand dots across the top of the story screen. As a result, Instagram will not show all Story results in a search. There is no guarantee that your Story content will appear in a hashtag search. Instagram algorithmically determines which Stories each viewer sees in a hashtag search result. That algorithm will be based on that individual user, what content they're more likely to interact with, as well as the performance of your post. If your story is performing well and getting good engagement with your audience, and if it is ideal content for your target audience, there's a good chance that your post will show up in that hashtag search for that user.

How to Use Hashtags on IGTV

If you're creating high-quality IGTV content that's appealing to your audience, using hashtags on your IGTV video descriptions is a great way to get more people to find you and your content.

For IGTV, you're going to use a strategy very similar to what you would use on your Instagram feed post. This will be a combination of three types of hashtags; popular, moderately popular, and niche-specific hashtags. We went into detail on this very specific recipe in the section above for hashtags for Instagram feed posts. You can use up to 30 hashtags just as you would on a feed post. Again, this is use-it-or-lose-it mentality. The more you use, the more chances you have for search.

The upload process is relatively simple for IGTV. After you open the IGTV app, tap the plus sign, and that will allow you to select a video to upload. Once you've done that and chosen your cover image, you get to the next screen, and this is where you enter your video title and description. You do need to give a title to your video or it will not upload. The description is actually optional, but this is where all of the goodies go in. This is where you get to explain what's happening in the video. This is where anybody, regardless of account size, can add a clickable URL. And THIS is where you will put all of your hashtags. There aren’t any subsequent comments so you will put all of those hashtags directly in the description of the IGTV video.

Once your video is uploaded to IGTV it will be scanned for hashtags in the caption and potentially appear in search results on those hashtag searches.

When it comes to showing up in the hashtag search results, a normal feed post takes up a single square. IGTV videos are a large square video giving you more real estate for people to watch and see your content. The IGTV logo will also appear on the thumbnail of the video in the search results. Like all other content, there's no guarantee that your IGTV video will appear in any of those hashtag search results. However, if you have a high-performing post that is doing well with your audience and it's ideal content for your target audience, it's got a better chance of being algorithmically sorted for that target audience to view it in search results.

Well, there you have it! All of my best tips and recommendations for hashtag success on Instagram, across all different areas of Instagram. I know this is a lot to take in and it may seem overwhelming. But, once you know your target audience and which hashtags you want to use to reach them, you can use those hashtags repeatedly. So, while the initial research and determination of your hashtags may take a while, once you have them, you're pretty much set. After that, you may want to review your hashtags every 6 months or so just to make sure they're still the best options and see if there are any new ones you should incorporate. 

Did you find this helpful? Please share:
  1. Thanks again for sharing very interesting content, Jenn. Do you think irrelevant hashtag proves negative according to algo? Like if I am posting something related to Pizza and putting hashtag related to finance then?

    1. Your hashtags should definitely be related to the content at hand. Algorithmically speaking, there’s no negative impact for using unrelated hashtags. BUT, if I find your post about pizza in a finance hashtag and there’s no viable connection, “I” will have a negative connotation with your brand for showing up where you’re not aligned. So it can turn away potential customers and create a bad brand experience. For example, there’s a nail salon that always uses the #SanDiegoRestaurants (I follow that hashtag) and every time I see that nail salon content pop up, I hide their posts. And now I’m annoyed every time I see them. As someone who’s been getting my nails done for 17+ years, I will never use that nail salon on this pure principle alone.

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