If you’re reading this, you’re not new to hashtags—but I’ll bet you’re wondering whether or not they’re working for you. When used properly, hashtags make it possible for people to find you and follow you. Have you considered putting together an Instagram hashtag strategy? Let’s review what hashtags actually do, and then dive into what types of hashtags you should look for, and best practices for using them.
How hashtags function
Hashtags behave like a library of social media content. In the Instagram search bar, you can type #vintagefurnituremakeover, and be taken to the hashtag’s corresponding page where all the affiliated posts live. Just like a file folder. This makes it easy for users to find topics they’re looking for and to connect to others who share their interests.
Once upon a time, you needed to know the exact hashtag because Instagram returned only an exact match for your input. But Instagram has since improved its functionality, and the search bar will now pull up hashtags according to keywords. For instance, a user could type out “vintage furniture” and still get results for the hashtag. (Hang on to this because it will be useful to us in creating a hashtag strategy.)
For many creators, business owners, and social media managers, hashtags are the weakest aspect of their social media strategy. Since they are typically the last step in the sequence of posting content, hashtags often get slapped on at the end. But remember, you don’t just want to post content your followers will see—you want more people to discover you. A sloppy approach won’t get you more followers.
I totally understand. When you’ve worked so hard to put together content, you just want to press the button and publish! And it’s mind-numbingly easy to let the autocomplete function tell you which hashtags are popular as you begin typing out keywords.
This is a haphazard way of finding hashtags. It might seem to save you time now, but makes it harder for the right people to find you in the long run. Choose your hashtags with purpose.
Let’s look at how to select hashtags in advance, so you’re not scrambling at the end of a post, leaving a clear path for hashtagging your Instagram content.
Stack these 7 types of hashtags
To develop an Instagram hashtag strategy, you should become aware of the different types of hashtags: industry, niche, service, community, trending, seasonal/event, and local. Selecting from each of these seven important categories can help you reach everyone you are supposed to reach, and more.
Start with the most basic industry hashtag(s) to position yourself to the widest relevant audience. You should be familiar with your industry hashtags—they’re often simple and categorical, casting a very wide net within your industry, field, discipline, or market. Think a bit bigger than your target customer, and imagine all the people you would want to be aware of your business and brand.
You may come across multiple similar industry hashtags that serve the same purpose. Look each one up to decide which has the best array of users and posts. In the case of a restaurant, broad stroke industry hashtags are obviously #restaurant, #restauants, and #restaurateur. Don’t waste caption space with tons of industry hashtags that are almost identical. Remember, the search doesn’t require an exact match, so a more optimal hashtag would be a specific cuisine such as #italianrestaurant, which contains the main keyword.
Once you decide on your favorite industry hashtag, you can forget about it since these won’t be fluctuating much.
If you're a local, niche business, you might be tempted to skip this type of hashtag, but it could attract attention from the industry and the press. It’s easy to get caught up in niche words such as eatery, trattoria, gastropub, cantina, or bistro. Yet if the word “restaurant” never appears in your handle, bio, or hashtags, you may not be showing up in some searches or suggestions.
Narrow your focus with hashtags that represent your specialty within the industry to target a more specific audience tier. Think of your ideal customer when selecting these hashtags. What makes your brand unique? What do you want them to know about you to create a connection?
S’mac is a NYC-based restaurant that totes a menu of exclusively mac and cheese. They often use the niche hashtags #macandcheese, #comfortfood, and #familybusiness. Bonus points for the evocative keyword phrases #cheesepull and #cheesygoodness, which we’ll get to later on...
What conveniences do you offer that are tangential to your core products or services? Keywords such as #takeout, #delivery, #outdoordining, #grubhub, #installation, #curbsidepickup, #privatelessons, #virtualclasses, #consulting, and #24hours are helpful to spread the word about your business.
Which groups of people are adjacent to your business? If your most loyal supporters formed a group, what would they call themselves? Take advantage of subcultures on Instagram to attract people to your posts, such as #plantparents #floristsofinstagram, #mushroomhunters, and #kombuchalovers.
Certain hashtags may trend in your industry, niche, or community, with a focus on social justice or philanthropic causes. Or they will reflect current events going on in the world. Recent examples include #supportlocalbusiness, #stopasianhate, #crueltyfree, #fragrancefree, #vegan, #maskup, and #socialdistancing. If you truly care and support a cause, or the cause is directly related to your brand, let people know.
Certain trending hashtags represent a fun challenge or movement currently rising in popularity. Past examples include #hobbylobby, #yogaeverydamnday, #nomakeup, and #bookcoverchallenge. Participating in a challenge along with everyday people humanizes your brand.
Seasonal and event
Time sensitive content is a key component of social media growth and plays a big part of your Instagram hashtag strategy.
Everything is cyclical, so keep your posts fresh, and easy to find with hashtags relative to the year, season, month, week, day, holiday, or events within your industry. Applying these cycles to a fashion designer or clothing retailer you have #colorofyear2021, #fallcollection #septembersale, #fashionweek, #casualfriday, #backtoschool.
Align yourself with an appreciation day or awareness week if possible. Musicians or vocalists can celebrate Music Therapy Awareness month by creating special posts with the official hashtags. You can even create your own event hashtag if you are hosting an event IRL or online.
Look for local and neighborhood-specific hashtags (in addition to your location tags) to increase your discoverability. Plus, with localism in full effect, people are super eager to support their local businesses.
The more specific you can be, the better for your hashtag strategy. For instance, #nycrestaurant isn’t bad, but it could be vague and redundant. If the term “restaurant” is already found in your industry tag, and the term "city" is already found in your handle or bio, dive deeper. Look for a highly localized hashtag such as #lowereastsideeats or #manhattanfoodie.
If you’re not sure how to begin looking for niche hashtags, visit the Instagram profiles of other similar, popular brands in the area. What hashtags are they using? There may be tons of variations for local hashtags. You can’t use them all, so find a few favorites and try them out.
Creative hashtag strategy ideas
Beyond the basics, there are few creative and unique ways to use Instagram hashtags, and one of them you should avoid.
One way to truly stand out in the crowd is to design your very own hashtag. Think of it as an extension of your branding strategy. The hashtag may include the business name, or it can be campaign-specific. Loyal followers get accustomed to the hashtag, and it creates a sense of exclusivity, and generates brand loyalty.
Deodorant brand Lume has two branded hashtags, #lumedeodorant and #lovemylume, both contained in the bio:
Experiment with sensory-driven words
Remember, Instagram is a visual discovery platform. People often search for what they want to see with keywords. If it applies to your post, consider describing sights, sounds, smells, flavors, textures, or actions, such as iridescent, ambient, floral, salty, and slow, respectively.
These types of words or word pairings are tangible, so they are instinctively the keywords that most people gravitate toward. It’s easy to overuse them. Stay away from one word hashtags like #orange and try to be more specific, such as #cheesepull, which describes how the food moves. You can use sensory driven hashtags for Instagram posts, but they are even better with Instagram stories. Remember to check the hashtag and make sure it’s a thing!
Hashtags as subtext
So far, we’ve discussed hashtags as a way of indexing posts. But they’ve evolved into a communication tool that serves to underscore the caption message. It’s usually a highly specific, snappy statement that lends snark or sentiment. Because, why use sentence structure when the hashtag format sums it up so succinctly?
Sure, playing with Instagram hashtags this way can be fun and witty, but please avoid cluttering your posts with random and useless tags. Save it for group chats, or for the day you become a contestant on The Circle. #dontwastethecaptionspace #nooneleseisusingthishashtag
Do your own research! Don’t just pick a hashtag because you like the arrangement of words and see that it’s popular. Tap on it to investigate who is using it and what kinds of posts it appears in. Any type of plan, including a hashtag strategy, requires research.
A great way to research a hashtag is to follow it. See what kinds of posts show up in your feed daily. This approach can be useful before deciding to use a hashtag and after so you know when the trend is tapering off.
Popularity isn’t everything
A hashtag may be popular and sound relevant to you, but it may encompass many topics. If more than 25% of the posts under the hashtag trend in another industry, seem suspicious, or just plain irrelevant, move on. The hashtag may lack specificity, and will fail to make an impact.
Choose longer hashtags
Short hashtags containing one word tend to be popular but vague. A smart hairdresser/colorist can avoid #color, which contains everything—tattoos, sunsets, shoes and street art. When a hashtag gets slapped onto a wide variety of subjects, it isn't a good one to target your audience. Two or more words tend to perform well. Better choices are #haircolorideas and #haircolorinspo.
So many times, I’ve seen hashtags with common misspellings. If enough people make the same typo, it begins to gain traction. Also, don’t let the search suggestion feed you a popular hashtag in other language such as #makeuptutoriais, which has 13.9K posts! It’s correct in Portugese, but not in English.
And make sure you don’t misspell a word. Just look up #desert, and you will see plenty of sand dunes, yet enough cupcakes to have you second guessing yourself and reaching for the dictionary.
Monitor competitors and peers
When it comes to social media, your competitors are a valuable learning tool. Follow businesses offering similar products and services to stay up to date on niche or trending hashtags.
You can also look at similar brands in your industry that are not exactly your competitors. Rice to Riches is a restaurant in New York City that sells rice pudding only—in every flavor. An eatery specializing in a singular product, like mac and cheese, could benefit by following a rice pudding joint to check out their hashtag strategy.
Quality over quantity
How many hashtags should you use on an Instagram post? According to CompareCamp, It’s been proven that Instagram posts with at least one hashtag get nearly 30% more interactions than posts with none at all. Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags in a post, and 10 in a story. Assuming more is better, should you hashtag to the max?
The truth is: it doesn’t matter if you’re following the best practices laid out in this blog post, and every hashtag has a reason. But, if you think you have too many, you probably do, so err on the side of minimal.
Looking up top hashtags in your industry and dropping 30 of them into each of your posts does not qualify as a hashtag strategy.
It is recommended to keep the caption space free from clutter, so the spotlight is on your message. So here’s a hack for using more hashtags while being a social media minimalist: Place 3-5 hashtags in the caption space, and drop the rest, if they’re necessary, into the first comment.
Ask yourself—do you care more about views or follows? You can easily get more eyes on your content with more hashtags, but those eyes are likely to scroll past and never follow you or interact. Fine tune your social media strategy to create quality connections, reaching and attracting potential followers who will become your fans.
Be intentional when selecting your hashtags in Instagram. Stack different types of hashtags to cover all the reasons and ways people might discover you. Don’t make the mistake of focusing on one type of hashtag and neglecting another.
Use industry, niche, service, community, trending, seasonal/event, and local hashtags. And finally, be creative and consider using branded hashtags to bring your posts to life through sensory language.
Check your spelling, do your research, and follow others in your industry. Knowing a bit more about how hashtags work and how to use them, you can put together a hashtag strategy and attract more followers.
For more about boosting your Instagram following, check out Proven Strategies on How To Grow Your Instagram Following.