How Do Hashtags on Instagram Work?

30 March 2022
by Archie Williamson
6 mins
How Do Hashtags on Instagram Work?

Instagram is all about posting your best images and videos to boost brand awareness, but one seemingly small feature that is crucial to achieving this aim – and often overlooked in terms of strategy – is the humble hashtag. Just by adding # and a simple term or phrase, you can help Instagram’s 1.3 billion user base to find, like, comment on and share the content you care about. So, how does it work?

Hashtags are positioned front and centre in the captions that accompany posts published on the platform. These “tags” add context to your content and help people to discover it when they use the search function. In addition to page discovery, hashtags encourage users to interact with posts and double as a tool for analysing competitor’s campaigns, researching keywords for SEO content and bringing cross-platform digital campaigns together.

What kinds of hashtags are there?

In a blog post titled “How to Get Discovered on Instagram” on the platform, Instagram revealed that there are nine types of hashtags that businesses should use to boost “discoverability”. These are, with related examples:

  • Products and services – #trainers, #cloudstorage
  • Industry-related niches – #seospecialist, #travelblog
  • Communities – #helpingothers, #ourcommunity
  • Special events and seasons – #aprilfoolsday, #motheringsunday
  • Locations – #pastrynyc, #madeinlondon
  • Days of the week – #throwbackthursday, #mondaymotivation
  • Relevant phrases and mottos – #lifeisgood, #becreative
  • Acronyms – #JIC (just in case), #FTW (for the win)
  • Emojis

You don’t have to limit yourself to this list but it is a good starting point. Other types you could use include branded hashtags, such as Coca Cola’s #shareacoke, and descriptive hashtags that describe what’s in a photo or video, which helps users searching for your content. There are many different sources for hashtag generation, which is a relief considering the number that experts recommend you should use.

What’s the ideal number of hashtags?

Instagram is quite generous with its hard limit for hashtags, as up to 30 can be added to a regular post, and 10 to its Story format. But does including that many actually help to drive engagement? The answer is yes, according to research by marketing platform Later. Using more hashtags typically helps a post to perform better overall.

After analysing more than 18m feed posts on the platform, Later found that 20 hashtags is the sweet spot for maximising reach among followers. However, you need to go even further and use 30 hashtags to get the most likes and comments. In contrast, using between zero and five cuts the average engagement rate by at least 50%, compared to posts with 30 hashtags.

These findings are a testament to the importance of using relevant hashtags on Instagram and highlight how you need to tailor your social media strategy for the unique features on each platform.

However take these findings with a pinch of salt as in March 2022, the Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, had this to say about hashtags: ““They do help us to understand what a post is about, which means it might be more likely to show up in a place like a hashtag page, for instance, but in general, no, I wouldn’t try to think of hashtags as a way to get more distribution.”

Remember that hashtags help categorise your content and the only way they will increase in more reach or views is if the content itself is signalled to Instagram as high-value by people engaging with it.

What’s the best way to find hashtags?

Having to come up with a dozen or two hashtags for each post is quite a challenge, especially if this is your first foray into optimised creation for Instagram. The good news is that you don’t just have to rely on your own inspiration and brainstorming. There are a number of “suggestion” tools available that generate hashtag lists based on your post and the industry you operate in.

You can also use Instagram’s Explore page with its search functionality to look for “top” posts from competitors, influencers and other accounts that put out content that is similar to yours. The search bar lets you see the “tags” for a specific keyword too. These tags are presented as a list of hashtags. For example, when entering the word “coffee” in search, you might see hashtags like #coffeeaddicts and #coffeelifestyle.

Finally, Instagram also has a specific hashtags search tool that lists the best hashtags by post volume. While it may be difficult to cut through the noise for more popular hashtags, especially if there are already millions of posts linked to them, you can dig a little deeper to find different variations that are trending and have great potential for engagement.

Can I use branded hashtags?

Instagram recommends creating branded hashtags to help your business “get recognized” on the platform. It says these can be as simple as a business name but that it’s important for the hashtag to be short, snappy and easy for people to recollect. You can add this tailored hashtag to your Instagram bio, as well as the captions in your posts, while encouraging people to share user-generated content (UGC) with it. The latter helps new users who are not yet following your brand to find your content. You can also tailor your hashtag for special events and product launches.

But how are hashtags added to content?

Instagram feed posts

Hashtags can be added in the caption and comments sections of your posts. All you need to do is click on “Write a caption” and then type # and include the relevant text and emojis. Captions are the place where users contextualise what is in an image or video, and can be a powerful tool for driving likes and engagement. Instagram recommends only including around three to five hashtags in the caption, so why and how do many brands include up to 30?

The first comment in the comments section can be used for the remainder of your hashtags, to keep the caption clean, free of clutter and more readable for users. The only downside of this is that you will need to publish the post manually to get the first comment in. As an alternative, you can use hashtags but hide them in captions by using line breaks, so users have to click “more” to see them.

Instagram Stories, Reels and Bio

Hashtags can be added to other formats too. Stories have two hashtag options in the form of text overlays and stickers. When users click on hashtags in Stories, they can be directed to a feed post and other content, but they are included in Instagram’s overall aggregation for tags. That means hashtags in Stories are more about supporting campaigns than helping people to discover them.

Hashtags in Reels work similarly to feed posts, as it is possible to include a caption, so these will show up in search. Captions are positioned at the bottom of Reels and overlaid on the image or video. Finally, you can add hashtags to your bio. This is a great place for your branded hashtags to encourage UGC or to align mottos and phrases with a new product you want to highlight.

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