The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Instagram Hashtags

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One of the most difficult parts of managing an Instagram account is figuring out how to build organic growth.

The 2 keys to growing organically on Instagram are producing content that leads to word-of-mouth growth and structuring content to be discovered. It may seem fairly straightforward to create high-quality content for a photo-sharing app, but how do you structure it for discovery?

Instagram has 5 major screens: your content feed, the posting screen, your notifications, your personal profile and discovery. Of the 5, discovery offers a business the best chance for growth. This screen displays posts Instagram thinks users would like to see and lets them search for content and accounts based on keywords and hashtags.

Hashtags are your opportunity to flag your account and content as relevant to certain topics. If you can master hashtags, you will set yourself up to be discovered by your target demographics. Furthermore, if you can create a meaningful hashtag and help it catch on, then you will boost your brand virally.

Hashtag Basics

How do you include hashtags in your content? On each post, you are able to leave an original caption and further comments. These comments allow you to write text, emojis and hashtags. Hashtags (which are prefaced by the pound sign: #) can include text and emojis, but no characters ($ / % & !) or spaces.

On each of your posts, you can leave up to 30 hashtags. While this is not necessarily a perfect number of hashtags to use, posts with hashtags see 12.6% more engagement than those without hashtags. That being said, 91% of posts from top brands had 7 or fewer hashtags.

There is no statistically significant information to say 30 is the optimal amount, but as with everything on Instagram you do not want to seem spammy, so do not post 30 hashtags just because you can.

Hashtag Selection

How do you go about implementing hashtags for your content? The first thing you need to understand is that Instagram hashtags are their own language, so there is a style and process you need to master. Abusing this tactic is frowned upon and can result in damage to your account.

Instagram has an algorithm in its software to detect content that is abusing hashtags, and will “shadowban” the post and possibly the user.

A shadowban results in your post not appearing in discovery and possibly your entire account. Hashtags that can cause this include things along the lines of #followforfollow or #likeforlike, but even misusing hashtags repeatedly can lead to problems.

This might be using a variety of the most popular hashtags, despite a lack of relevance to the content, such as “#love #girl #art #instagood #nature #igers #fitness #sun #hypebeast” all on a picture of a cup of coffee.

Approach hashtags as a way to be found by your ideal followers and not as a means to try and game the system. Gaming the system will hurt your post and account, and it comes across as spammy and inauthentic to users. Instead, take the time to learn the language of your followers and competitors and identify the best opportunities for hashtagging your relevant content.

First figure out what kind of content you are aiming to post and who you want to engage with. Once you know this, do some research on what hashtags your followers and ideal followers use, what hashtags competitors use and what hashtags relevant influencers use.

This will let you see what sort of tags users are already familiar with and searching by themselves. Unique Instagram fashion hashtags include #ootd, #look and #shopping. Each content style has varied hashtags that are prominent, so take the time to learn the lingo.

Next, experiment with a variety of hashtags and work on aligning the hashtags with your content, rather than simply copying and pasting the same hashtags on all of your posts. Use a tool like Owlmetrics to evaluate which hashtags drive the most engagement.

This will help you build the maximum engagement for your content and reach different audiences with different posts. Additionally, as you explore different numbers of hashtags in your posts and mix up different tags, you can see which ones perform best with your audience.

In sum, make sure you use hashtags, but keep it relevant. Focus your hashtags on your brand, product and audience. Learn the lingo and try to figure out which hashtags will do the best job of making your content visible to your target audience.

Hashtag Implementation

At this point you should have an idea of how Instagram allows you to integrate hashtags, what the benefits are and the particular hashtag language for your industry and target market. Now let’s look at how you can best implement hashtags to receive the top organic discovery, not appear to be spammy and maybe even make your content go viral.

Hashtags are great for being discovered, but a string of hashtags in your caption can hurt the aesthetic of your post. This means you want to hide your hashtags from immediate view, so your followers can see your pic and caption, but not the block of hashtags you are using to boost engagement.

You have 2 options for hiding your hashtags from immediate view. First, Instagram captions only show the first 3 lines of text, so if you add a few dots under the caption, your hashtags won’t be visible unless viewers click “read more.” Second, you can put your hashtags in a comment under the original caption, which will require viewers to click “see all” to view the comment thread and see the hashtags.

Beyond the immediate implementation of hashtags, the biggest challenge with hashtag marketing is the creation of branded hashtags. Herschel Supply Co., the trendy backpack and gear company, launched a few branded hashtags, including #herschelsupply and #welltraveled, that allowed their customers to show off their Herschel products. The goal with branded hashtags is to make it easy for your customers to use them.

For a young person to want to use a branded hashtag, it needs to either function as a way to flaunt brand association or embody their lifestyle. Since Herschel backpacks are expensive and trendy, users want to use the tag #herschelsupply because it tells their followers they own Herschel gear.

Additionally, since Herschel’s customers tend to enjoy travel, the #welltraveled tag captures a component of their lifestyle and encourages them to post travel pictures with Herschel products.

Whether you are using general hashtags or branded ones, pay attention to how they fit into your post content and aesthetic. Instagram is a way to share cool and interesting pictures, so do not let the goal of hashtag discovery get in the way of your overall account quality.

Boosting Hashtag Discovery

Finally, you should have a good idea of how to select and integrate hashtags into your Instagram account, but how can you maximize this process and ideally land on the top 9 posts for a hashtag or make a branded hashtag go viral? Since the ultimate goal is brand exposure, boosting the value of your hashtag usage will be important for boosting brand awareness.

If you are aiming to increase your ranking on a specific hashtag’s discovery page, you need to focus on boosting your post’s engagement. This means getting as many likes and comments as possible in as short a time period as possible. Obviously, the easiest way to drive engagement is to have a larger audience. Here are a few tactics that can lead to quicker engagement from your audience.

Instagram Pods are group messages with other accounts that have set rules about liking and commenting on the other members’ posts.

If you create or join an Instagram Pod, whenever you post, you can share the post in the message thread and get it kicked off with a stream of likes and comments. Early engagement will help your post appear more prominently on your followers’ feeds and also give you a higher ranking on the hashtag discovery pages.

For your branded hashtags, you need to partner with influencers to gain as much exposure for the hashtag as possible. If you are launching a branded fashion hashtag, first make sure it is a hashtag your target demographic would want to use by conducting user interviews.

Then work with fashion influencers, ensuring they share the hashtag prominently on their posts. Just as you need to build your own brand awareness, branded hashtags need to be relevant to your demographics.

Throughout your journey on Instagram, if you can successfully develop a language of hashtags to work with your posts, you will see increased engagement and organic discovery.

It can be tricky at first, and some hashtags might seem tempting for building an audience quickly, but your golden rule should be to focus on aligning your brand, content, audience and hashtags. If all 4 of these find synergy, then you will see long-term success on Instagram.

About the author

Deep Patel

Deep Patel is a serial entrepreneur, marketer and bestselling author of A Paperboy’s Fable: The 11 Principles of Success. The book was dubbed the #1 best business book in 2016 by Success Magazine and named the best book for entrepreneurs in 2016 by Entrepreneur Magazine.

Also recognized as a top 25 marketing influencer by Forbes, Patel has worked with VC-backed startups to Fortune 500 companies. He is also a contributor at Forbes, Entrepreneur, The Huffington Post and Success Magazine.

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