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If you thought Instagram was a tween trend of 2010, that ship has sailed. It’s 2018, Instagram and Facebook are in bed and the rest of the world is eager to get in.

New Instagram updates are rolling out hot, like the announcement that you can pre-schedule and automatically post content (Read Hootsuite’s guide >> How To Share Post Directly to Instagram). Instagram for business gives you ad capabilities and analytics. And even more recently the platform switched back to chronological posting.

So, how do you navigate the massive sea of Instagram content?

Answer: hashtags.

Hashtags are one of the best ways to make your content stand out, connect with your audience and future followers, and get seen.

Just watch the first 10 seconds of last year’s Ingrid Goes West trailer and you’ll get the idea (and possible the urge to run screaming from the 21st Century):


If you are going to use hashtags for any reason other than an ironic kicker, make sure you’re smart about it. Here are our top tips to use hashtags to get noticed, gaining followers and likes while still remaining true to your brand. And we’ll just say this right now: don’t try to trick Instagram; it’s just not worth it.

Do Market Research

You don’t run into the street without looking and you don’t launch into the hashtag game without doing market research. (For a market research fail worse than you could ever do >> Starbucks coffee soda).

Look at the profiles of Influencers and accounts you love to follow. While you find yourself trolling their feed, check out what they tag and how. This will give you an idea of how the top account gain followers and their hashtag strategy (you bet it’s a strategy and not whatever popped into their head).

Now look at your peers. What are other people like you, or companies like yours doing? Not that they have a strategy down, but this will show you what hashtags they care about and what they’re searching for.

Once you’ve scoped out your role models and peers on Instagram, you have an idea of the sphere you’re operating in. You have a list of hashtags that caught your eye. And you have an idea of where to place them (you know that one word caption followed by 30 hashtags looks needy).

Use hashtags with the right amount of posts

To decide which hashtags YOU should actually use, this is part research and part highly-monitored experiment.

If you use hashtags that are too broad (#happy #sun #summer), there are millions of posts already and yours will be lost in the deluge. If you use hashtags that are too specific (#iatethiswheniwasinmiddleschool #stripedpantswithpompoms), no one is going to think to search that and you’re wasting your time.

Like a high school math test, hashtags are essentially graded on a curve. You know when you click on a hashtag and the screen pops up showing you everything with that tag? BUT at the top there are nine special photos that stay there, featured, without getting pushed down the chronological feed. Those are the first things you see and the ones you’re likely to click on. They are there because they are the most popular photos in this pool of hashtagged posts.

How do you get highlighted? Be more liked than the posts below you. You don’t have to be the very top, but you just have to be in the Top 9. (Anyone else having PTSD flashback to MySpace’s Top 8 friends??)

To get in a hashtag’s Top 9, there’s a sweet spot in your hashtag game. You want to choose a hashtag that has enough posts for you to be seen, but not so many that you reduce your odds of being one of the nine most popular.

For every account this will be different, depending on your engagement (how many people like your posts), your number of followers, and your engagement with that hashtag. Too little competition (ie. a hashtag with only a couple hundred posts), and you’ll probably easily make it to the Top 9, but the trade-off is that it’s a small hashtag that not many people are searching for.  Too much competition (ie. a hashtag that one of your 101K Insta-crushes uses), and you have very little chance of making the top.

This is where trial and error comes in. Compare your number of followers and average post likes to the stats for the accounts that are in the Top 9 on hashtags you want to try. Find hashtags with similar accounts in the Top 9 and you know it’s a reasonable goal.

Then go for it! Check in to see if you made the Top 9 and voila. Keep going until you find your sweet spot.

Related tags are awesome

Instagram makes this one easy for you. Click a hashtag and check out the list of related tags at the top of the screen.

Using the tools above, check out the related tags and see which ones are right for you.

Warning: this likely will take you down a black hole of Instagram tags and never-ending tapping…so go in prepared.

Switch it up

Do not keep posting exactly the same hashtags over and over again, blinding repeating them until they lose all meaning. You don’t post exactly the same photo again and again. The hashtags should fit the photos, so don’t just copy and paste them either.

Choosing relevant hashtags is the best way to ensure people like your post when they click that hashtag and see it pop up.

You can also think of this like diversifying. Rather than tagging all of your posts with the same few hashtags and hoping that tag gets searched, split your odds between other (well-researched and smartly-chosen) combinations to increase your chances of coming up in a search.

This brings us to our last point and our big no-no when it comes to using hashtags:

Do not blindly copy-and-paste.

Beware the get-likes-quick sites that advertise chunks of hashtags for you to copy and post. While some can be legit and helpful, most of them are unreliable, not tailored to you personally, and more work weeding through than they’re worth. We hate to even link to this, but for example, avoid the likes of this >>

It’s spammy to copy-and-paste a slew of pre-imagined hashtags in a word vomit heap on your post. Not only does this look bad to followers, you will end up with random hashtags in some foreign language and put yourself at high risk of being shadowbanned. (Read this for reference: Is the Instagram Shadowban Killing Your Engagement? Here’s How to Fix It)

We’d talk about shadowbanning, but that’s a whole separate black hole of the social media sphere. So we’ll just say it’s essentially a time-out that Instagram puts accounts in when it doesn’t like what they’re doing. It’s a lonely place. Not where you want to hang out online.

So…how the heck do you use a hashtag?

After careful market research, some controlled experimenting, and thoughtful posting. Done correctly, using hashtags will gain you followers, likes, exposure and more business if you’re using Instagram professionally. Keep up the work—it is work—and you’ll see worthwhile results.

We recommend a little sense of humor, too. After all, they’re hashtags—you can always throw one in just for impact.

And THAT is how to use a hashtag. #micdrop