Instagram hashtag strategies that actually work.

Instagram’s algorithm is a black box, and hashtags can be especially confusing. Sometimes it’s tough to know which hashtags to use, how to use hashtags, and whether you should use them at all. At some point, most people start asking questions like:

“What hashtags should I use?”

“How many is too many?”

“Are hashtags really still effective on Instagram?”

“Should I even use hashtags at all?”

Hashtags are a big and complex topic, so let’s start out with the basics. Why use hashtags at all?

Why should I use hashtags?

In theory, using hashtags can extend your Instagram reach. Put simply, that means you’re increasing the number of Instagram users who see your content.

Many people wonder if hashtags are still effective on Instagram wonder if they’re even worth using. Often, they’ve tried to use hashtags and had minimal success.

However, I’ve discovered personally that hashtags are stiill an extremely effective way to help interested users discover my content.

As an example, here are the discovery insights from one of my recent posts:

Over 70% of people who saw this picture discovered it through its hashtags! If you use hashtags strategically, they are still extremely effective for exposing your content to new people.

Now that you’re clear on the effectiveness of hashtags, let’s move on to some hashtag strategies that will help you reach Insta #goals.

Hashtag strategies

Nurture your follower base.

In order to grow your Instagram, you need to reach people who don’t already follow you. And hashtags are all about helping these new people find you. So, what does your current follower base have to do with your hashtag strategy?

The main goal when using a hashtag is to have your post featured as a top post under that hashtag. Getting featured as a top post is usually the only way that more than a couple people discover you through a hashtag. 

And, as it turns out, your followers’ response is crucial for getting featured.

Low engagement signals that it might be a lower-quality post. And Instagram wouldn’t want to make a low quality post a featured post. So, if your current followers don’t engage with a new post, Instagram probably won’t show it to many more people.

How can you keep your current followers actively engaged? The most obvious and important answer is to post great content. As Brittany Hennessy says in her book Influencer

“Create content that keeps them coming back.”

Besides posting high-quality content, here are a few other simple ways to nurture follower engagement:

  • Engage with the people you follow. Don’t forget that Instagram is a community, not a stage. Be generous with likes, and leave thoughtful comments.
  • Don’t slack on stories. Since they’re still chronological, Instagram stories can help recapture the interest of followers who haven’t seen your posts in awhile.
  • Do an occasional surprise shoutout.  If one of your friends said something that you really loved, quote them. If an account has been providing you a ton of #inspo lately, shout them out. Even if it’s just on your story, publicly thank whoever’s been giving you energy and inspiration. If it’s a small account, you will be building a ton of goodwill—and possibly making someone’s day.

Use general hashtags sparingly.

Some people use a pile of general hashtags in their caption. For example, let’s say I’m a travel blogger tagging my photo. The hashtags might look something like this:

#travel, #traveling, #travelling, #travelbug, etc.

The hashtags I’m using are popular and relevant to travel. But, they probably won’t help anyone discover the post.

What’s the issue? It’s that all of these hashtags are already oversaturated. In other words, millions of photos have already been tagged with #travel (332 million posts), #travelbug (6 million posts) etc. It’s extremely competitive to get featured a top post for a tag that’s so popular.

Typically, posts that get featured as top posts under these hashtags are from consistently popular accounts that get hundreds or thousands of likes within the first hour of posting. So, unless someone already has quite popular content, its unlikely people will find their post through these extremely popular hashtags.

Go ahead and choose 2-3 relevant, popular hashtags because #dreams. But your overall hashtag strategy should be based around lower-traffic, specifically-target hashtags.

Focus on long-tail hashtags.

By ‘long-tail hashtags,’ I mean quite specific hashtags with a relatively small number of posts.

Long-tail hashtags give you much better odds for being a top post. The other huge benefit to focusing on long-tail hashtags is that you can be specific with your targeting.

For example, let’s say you’re an aspiring foodstagrammer who blogs and posts about paleo baked goods. One option would be to use popular hashtags like #foodstagram (43.4 million posts), and #foodblogger (23.6 million). However, these hashtags are oversaturated, and it’s unlikely you’ll get featured. The hashtag #paleo would be more relevant, but it’s also extremely saturated (13.1 million posts).

Examples of long-tail hashtags for this account might be #paleomuffins (8,568 posts), #healthybakes (9,511 posts) or even #easypaleorecipes (745 posts). Although not as many people search these hashtags, you have much better odds of getting featured as a top post.

Another HUGE benefit of long-tail hashtags is that the people who do find your account from long-tail hashtags are literally searching for the exact content that you’re creating.

Let’s say you create the most delicious, amazing paleo cheesecake recipe, and you post it using #paleocheesecake (837 posts). When someone is looking for a perfect paleo cheesecake recipe by using #paleocheesecake, they’ll probably be extremely grateful for your content. They might thank you, visit your blog, or follow your account.

And, since there are so few posts under #paleocheesecake, it’s easier to persist as a top posts. That means that someone could find your amazing recipe by searching #paleocheesecake for weeks and months to come.

Using long-tail hashtags is a great hashtag strategy because it helps people find your content who are likely to love it and appreciate it. Instagram users who find you through long-tail hashtags will be much more likely to follow you, engage with your other content, visit your website, and ultimately join your love group.

Hashtag like you’re applying to college.

So, should all your hashtags be long-tail hashtags? Not so fast. Instead, you should think about going for a range. In fact, you should use hashtags the same way you might if you were applying to university.

Traditional advice when applying to college is to apply to a range of schools by splitting schools into three groups: ‘safety’ schools, ‘in-range’ schools, and ‘stretch’ schools. ‘Safety’ schools mean ones where you’ll almost certainly get accepted. ‘In-range’ means that you have a good chance of getting in, but no guarantee. ‘Stretch’ means that you have a statistically low chance of acceptance, but you’re reaching for it anyway. By applying to a range of schools, you both hedge your bets and open yourself up to big opportunities.

It turns out this is good advice for hashtags, too. Only a few should be ‘stretch’ hashtags (like #travel). The majority of the hashtags you should use should be ‘safety’ and ‘in-range’ hashtags.

So, how can you determine which hashtags are ‘safety’ and which are ‘in-range? The short answer is: it depends on your account. That’s because your post gets ranked based on follower count, engagement rate, account longevity, post frequency, and other factors.

There’s no replacement for investigation and experimentation. Investigate the hashtag that you’re considering simply by searching for it in the search bar. Then, check how many likes the top posts have for the hashtag. If a hashtag is in-range for you, your posts should be averaging at least as many likes as the top posts under that hashtags. If it’s a ‘safety’ hashtag, your likes should average significantly more than the top posts.

Discovering the correct proportions of stretch hashtags, in-range hashtags, and safety hashtags depends on you and the specifics of your account and content. If you have less than 10k followers, I would recommend starting with 1-2 (relevant) stretch hashtags and splitting the rest between in-range and safety.

Don’t copy and paste pre-made hashtag lists.

There are hoards of apps and websites that promise to automatically generate lists of hashtags that are relevant to your followers. Normally, you start by putting a single hashtag (or multiple hashtags) into the tool. Then, it will spit out a pile of other supposedly relevant hashtags.

For example, let’s say that you’re a fashion blogger and put #fashion into one of the tools. It will probably spit out a list that looks something like this:

list provided by hashtag bomb builder
auto-generated hashtag list from Hashtag Bomb Builder

Since we using general hashtags sparingly, you might already see the problem with this list. All of these hashtags are already extremely saturated. (#fashionista has 70 million posts, #style has 334 million, #fashionblogger has 75 million). Since there are so many posts, it’s unlikely for any single piece of content to get featured as a top post. So, this hashtag list is almost completely unhelpful.

It’s worth noting that these tools usually still give you quite generic hashtag lists even if you use a specific hashtag as a starting point. For example, here’s a list generated from #oiagreece:

list provided by hashtag bomb builder
auto-generated hashtag list from Hashtag Bomb Builder

As you can see, the majority these hashtags are still generic.

Some of the tools that generate hashtag lists lists are better than others. But every one that I’ve seen gives lists that are overall too general or irrelevant.

So, the lists aren’t ready to copy and paste. But, they may contain a handful of usable hashtags. If you do want to use a tool that generates hashtags, just cherry-pick the relevant, specific hashtags. Then, fill in the rest of your list yourself.

Don’t be spammy.

Don’t use more than a few (3-5) hashtags in your caption. In fact, unless the hashtags are actually contributing value to the caption, I prefer to leave them off altogether.

Instead, immediately paste your captions into the first comment. If your content has high engagement, the hashtags should be quickly hidden by additional comments.

Also, avoid hashtags like ‘#instagood’ ‘#photooftheday’ etc. As we’ve talked about, they are too over-saturated and unspecific to be useful. On top of that, these super generic hashtags often look careless and spammy.

This last note is more of a personal preference. But I’m usually a bit put off when people use hashtags inline. For example, “#greattimes in #Paris this #weekend.” Anecdotally, I’ve heard other people make fun of inserting too many hashtags inline. So, if you do want to use hashtags that way way, keep it reasonable.

Post videos with hashtags.

I haven’t heard anything official about this. But, I personally have had better luck with getting featured as a top post with videos. I have a couple of different theories about why it might be the case:

1.) It’s easier to get views than likes, which naturally inflates the ranking.

2.) Instagram’s algorithm somehow has videos compete with each other instead of all content. Since fewer videos exist, it’s easier for them to rank higher.

Having an advantage with videos might be a coincidence or specific to my content. So, if you end up experimenting with this one, please let me know what your results are!

Remember that content is queen.

Hashtags are great for helping people discover your content. But what if you use great hashtags and users still aren’t engaging?

At that point, you may need to examine your content itself. Are your pictures high quality? Does your content tell a compelling story? Are you committing deadly Instagram sins that cause users to disengage and unfollow?

Content is queen on Instagram, and nailing your content is the highest-impact thing you can do to grow your account. So if you’re using the right hashtags and not seeing results, it might be time to take another look at what you’re posting.

Next time you start wondering, “What hashtags should I use?” you’ll have a better answer. Good luck with your hashtags, and I wish you the best of success growing your Instagram!

P.S. Interested in 5 more hashtag strategies and the complete guide to strategically growing your Instagram? Check out our course on becoming an Instagram Influencer.

2 thoughts on “Instagram hashtag strategies that actually work.

  1. Can you provide insight if you’re using long-tail hashtags (2k-10k posts) and don’t even show up on Top Posts, but are also using popular hashtags (1m-10m) and showing up on Top Posts? Any particular reason for that?

    There are also times that I use long-tail hashtags (500-2K), get 250+ likes, but don’t even show up on the Top Posts.

    1. Hi, Nick! I’ve experienced the same thing. Based on what I’ve seen, here’s what I think is happening:
      * Instagram’s algorithm factors in how frequently you post, and potentially even the engagement of several previous posts.
      * Instagram also tries to estimate how relevant the hashtag actually is and only shows the posts that they guess are most relevant
      There’s no guarantee for showing up under a particular hashtag, so it turns into a numbers game. Overall, though, I’ve had much more consistent success with long-tail hashtags.
      Cheers!
      Jenna

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