How To Use Hashtags on Instagram Reading Time 8.5 Minutes

 

Join us as we talk through a range of effective Instagram hashtag tips and tools, plus research into hashtag placement and volume that could prove essential to your hashtag strategy.

How Instagram hashtags work

Let’s start with a brief recap of how hashtags work on Insta.

When a hashtag is added to a public post, it means the post will appear on the relevant hashtag page and in Instagram searches. This provides a convenient way to get content seen by users with an appropriate interest, who either follow, click or search for the hashtag.

Hashtags can be added to posts in two places: the post caption, or a comment on the post. Profiles can add up to 30 hashtags per post, cumulatively across the caption and comments.

Instagram explains how to add hashtags here.

What makes a good Instagram hashtag?

In its guide on How to Use Hashtags, HootSuite spells out a crucial difference between the roles of Instagram hashtags and Twitter hashtags:

“Hashtags on [Instagram] are often more focused on the description of the content. This is at odds with Twitter, where hashtags tend to be more focused on a topic of conversation, or a group of people (a chat for example) that you would like to engage.”

This suggests that Instagram hashtags should be based on broad trends in users’ search interests, rather than specific trends in online conversations, such as the Twitter hashtag #HorrorStoryInSixWords.  

You can find out which hashtags are currently Instagram’s most popular here . By all means, sprinkle a few of these trending hashtags into your posts – but remember to include some more obscure hashtags too, since it’s easier to get your content ranking well on niche hashtag pages than on very popular ones.

How many hashtags to use & where to place them

In August 2019, Quuu and SocialInsider published an in-depth study into how hashtags affect growth, reach and engagement on Instagram. The research looked into 649,895 posts from over 6,700 Instagram accounts.

Their report raises lots of interesting points about how hashtags should be used on Instagram posts.

87.7% of brands prefer to use hashtags in the caption, not the first comment

A point of contention among Instagram marketers is where to place your hashtags. Should they go in the post caption, or in the first comment on the post?

Quuu and SocialInsider found that 87.7% of brands prefer to use hashtags in the caption. Furthermore, brands placing hashtags in captions seem to be posting more regularly on Instagram than those using the first comment. 93.8% of the posts studied had hashtags in the caption, while just 6.2% had hashtags in the first comment.

It seems that most brands have chosen to hashtag in captions, not comments. The question is: are they doing the right thing?

Which give the best reach rate: hashtags in comments or hashtags in captions?

In terms of the important reach rate metric – which means the number of people who see an account’s posts, divided by its number of followers – the answer to this question might depend on how popular your profile is.

In Quuu and SocialInsider’s study, profiles with fewer than 100,000 followers had a better reach rate when they used hashtags in the caption. Meanwhile, profiles with over 100,000 followers had a better reach rate when they posted hashtags in the first comment.

This could be down to a mechanic of Instagram’s algorithm for distributing content; it could be caused by Instagram users responding differently to content based on the popularity of the profile that posted it; or it could be a mix of the two.

Whether due to a mechanic of Instagram’s algorithm, the behaviour of Instagram users towards accounts of different sizes, or the characteristics of content posted by relatively large and small accounts, caption hashtags seem to give a better reach rate for larger profiles, while first-comment hashtags seem to give a better rate for smaller ones.

Having said that, every profile is different. If you are thinking of changing your brand’s policy on hashtag placement, we suggest comparing the reach rate across a selection of similar posts with similar hashtags, some with hashtags in the caption, some with hashtags in the first comment, to determine which gives the best reach rate for your brand.

Brands that place hashtags in the caption tend to use fewer hashtags at once

Quuu and SocialInsider uncovered a huge difference between the number of hashtags typically posted in a caption and the number typically posted in a first comment.

Most posts where hashtags were placed in the first comment had just 2 hashtags. Meanwhile, posts with hashtags in the caption had either around 7 hashtags or somewhere between 27 and 30.

Instagram posts can have a max of 30 hashtags, which may be placed in the caption, in comments, or a combination of the two.

So, if captions and comments have the same capacity for hashtags, why are the two being used so differently?

Some people think hashtags look spammy. This is partly due to the heavy use of hashtags by fake engagement bots and lazy marketers. In some such cases, the hashtags have little or no relevance to the content, and this devalues the usefulness and public image of Instagram hashtags.

Some brands have responded to this trend by using fewer hashtags, to keep their posts looking authentic. Placing hashtags in the comments is another way to keep captions looking clean, and it’s reasonable to assume that brands that take one of these measures will be likely to take the other as well.

If you want your hashtags to look authentic, placing them in comments and using relatively few hashtags could both be good tactics to try.

Another common practice among Instagram marketers is hiding hashtags in post captions (we’ll discuss how this works in the section after next).

Does posting fewer hashtags correlate with lower engagement?

Using just a few hashtags may look smarter – but it does involve a trade-off. The fewer the hashtags a post has, the fewer the hashtag pages it can appear on.

That said, appearing on lots of hashtag pages is no guarantee of high engagement. In fact, it might even have a limiting effect.

In Quuu and SocialInsider’s study, posts with 27-30 hashtags sometimes got reasonably high engagement, but never got very high engagement. Meanwhile, posts with relatively few hashtags were far likelier to attract engagement at exceptional levels. 

This makes sense based on two simple facts:

  1. Instagram hashtag pages reward relevancy; and
  2. It’s much harder to come up with 30 relevant hashtags than it is to come up with 3.

One of the factors that decide the order of posts on a hashtag page is engagement. This will usually be higher if the content is truly relevant to the hashtag. As such, a few very relevant hashtags might earn a post more visibility and engagement than a large number of loosely relevant hashtags.

As of 2017, Instagram users can flag content they don’t like (e.g. irrelevant content) using the ‘Don’t Show for This Hashtag’ option. This feature is presented as a tool to help users edit what they see via the hashtags they follow – but it may also have a role in alerting Instagram to accounts that routinely misuse hashtags. This could lead to reduced visibility for those accounts.

Relevancy is rewarded, irrelevancy is punished – and using fewer hashtags is clearly the best option to reap the benefits of that equation.

How to get a better Instagram post engagement rate

According to Quuu and SocialInsider’s study, engagement with posts tends to be higher when hashtags are either included in a comment or posted as hidden hashtags in the caption.

Hiding hashtags is simpler than it might sound. You add a character such as a full stop, one-per-line, to push the hashtags to the bottom of the caption, where users would have to scroll to see them. Influencer Kat Kobzeff explains the process here:

We can only speculate as to why these approaches seem to bring relatively high levels of engagement. Perhaps they come across to Insta users as more authentic than visible caption hashtags or hidden comment hashtags. And it may be significant that they create a clearer space in the canvas to add engaging copy.

Whatever the reason, using hidden caption hashtags or visible hashtags in comments seems to benefit post engagement.

Best practice insights from Social Insider and Quuu’s study

Let’s recap the key best practice learnings we can take away from Quuu and SocialInsider’s study:

  • Captions, not comments, are the industry standard for hashtag placement. 87.7% of brands prefer to post hashtags in the caption.
  • Hashtag placement strategy should consider follower count. Profiles with fewer than 100,000 followers tend to get a higher reach rate when they post hashtags in the caption; profiles with more than 100,000 followers tend to get a higher reach rate when they post hashtags in the first comment.
  • If you’re aiming for excellent engagement, use just a few hashtags. Posts with relatively few hashtags tend to have the highest engagement rates – although posts with many hashtags can get decent engagement too.
  • Use of hidden caption hashtags or visible comment hashtags correlates with high engagement rates.

These guidelines won’t hold true for every Instagram account – so if you’re thinking of updating your brand’s Instagram hashtag tactics based on these guidelines, we suggest you do so gradually.

For example, if you plan on making the switch from placing hashtags in comments to placing them in post captions, start by doing some A/B experiments where similar content is posted under similar conditions, but with different hashtag placements. You should be able to get an indication of whether the change is beneficial for your account by watching to see which of the variants performs best. 

Researching Instagram hashtags with Hashtagify

Hashtag research tools can take a lot of the time and effort out of finding the right hashtags to go with a post.

Our favourite tool of this type is Hashtagify, It’s a Hashtag generator which generates hashtag suggestions and can monitor hashtag activity over time.

Hashtagify analyses a database of over 12 million hashtags to identify hashtags suitable for your profile, based on metrics such as popularity, relationships and languages. You can also use it to track the hashtags that interest you most – a useful feature for brands that are trying to get a hashtag trending. You can input your branded Hashtag and see which other Hashtags it generates around these to get a feel for the hashtag landscape your branded hashtags are operating in. The top Hashtags in the tool are highlighted larger in the word cloud it generates indicating their more prevalent use.

If you plan on using a hashtag research tool like Hashtagify, just be sure to check out any of the hashtags it suggests before you add them to your content.  This will help you avoid adding unintended connotations to your content, which is a real risk with Instagram hashtags.

The above is a classic example of a brand that has jumped on the wrong hashtag, just because it was trending. The hashtag #notguilty was trending on Twitter, due to the outcome of a murder trial. A baked goods brand, Entenmann’s, used the hashtag to promote their “tasty treats”, not realising the serious connotations of the hashtag. It could hardly be said Entenmann’s was #notguilty of careless social media marketing.

The two elements of successful Instagram hashtagging

All the tips, tools and research findings covered in this article may have painted you quite a complex picture of how to hashtag your Instagram posts.

Don’t be discouraged by all the information, because success with Instagram hashtags essentially boils down to two key components.

First, you’ll need to use our knowledge of how Instagram hashtags are used, plus extra information from tools like Hashtagify, to identify the ideal hashtags to use in our campaigns.

Second, you’ll need to implement those hashtags effectively, based on a knowledge of which hashtag placement tactics are a good fit for a brand like yours.

Put plenty of research, planning and trial-and-error into these two steps, and you’ll be in a great position to reach a wide audience of relevant users through Instagram hashtags.

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