How to use Instagram hashtags: how they work, how to use them to grow

The Instagram post is almost ready. You’ve taken care of the photo following the manual, respecting the style and color consistency of the gallery. The text is informative, fun, and inspiring. You’ve also included the call to action at the end to boost the notorious engagement… There’s just one thing left: choosing the right hashtags!

Doing this can be tedious, especially if you’ve already invested time and energy in the previous steps. However, using hashtags is a means to grow a profile, so we can’t treat them like Cinderella! This article provides guidance on how to use Instagram hashtags to grow a personal, business, or brand account.

What are hashtags and why use them

To explain how to use Instagram hashtags, it’s essential to start with what they are and what they can do for us.
Hashtags are “digital labels” formed by the pound sign (hash) followed by one or more words (tags). They were created with the purpose of organizing content and categorizing it based on a topic. Given this premise, hashtags should always be relevant to the content of the post.
When used effectively, they are a means to increase visibility and followers of a profile, as they enable the discovery of new content by users in at least three ways.

The first is through hashtag search. Clicking on a hashtag displays posts that use it, divided into “Top” posts, shown first because they have more interactions than the average, and “Recent” posts. Secondly, while we’re on a hashtag’s page, Instagram itself suggests related hashtags. Finally, it’s possible to follow hashtags. By doing so, you populate the newsfeed with top-notch content that uses that hashtag, created by profiles you don’t yet follow.

The more I can increase likes and interactions on my posts, the greater the chance of appearing among the “Top” or in the feed of those following a hashtag. Let’s not forget that Instagram is a social platform for visual inspiration, so the visual aspect will always be the first to capture attention.

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How to use Instragam hashtags

Businesses, personal brands, influencers, or communities have different objectives on Instagram: to create brand awareness, acquire customers, promote themselves, sell on Instagram, and highlight a place or a cause… Whatever the objective, it’s important to understand how hashtags work on Instagram to choose the right ones to reach those interested in what we offer.
The list of hashtags should be tailored to the profile; there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. However, there are three factors to always consider when using the right hashtags: relevance, types of hashtags and their functions, and their popularity.

How to use Instagram hashtags: relevance

The first rule applicable to everyone on how to use Instagram hashtags is to choose hashtags relevant to the content of the post. Using popular hashtags that are unrelated to the content just to increase visibility doesn’t automatically translate into more likes and followers. First, the post will be considered uninteresting by users looking for different content. Second, popular hashtags are not a guarantee of visibility by themselves.

how to use Instagram hashtags

Using relevant hashtags increases followers and engagement. More niche or vertical hashtags reach an audience with specific interests, more inclined to follow the profile and interact with likes and comments. For a profile, growth in absolute numbers is important, but even more so is having a profile with high engagement due to interactions.

Types of hashtags

There are different types of hashtags with various functions. Understanding how to use Instagram hashtags means knowing that we can adopt existing ones or create new ones based on our goals.
Branded hashtags include the name of a company or individual, product, brand, or event. They also include those that encapsulate the motto, values, or characteristics of the brand even if the name is not included. Branded hashtags launch advertising campaigns, promote community membership (like #shotwithIphone for Apple phones), or can be tailored to different products or aspects of the brand (e.g., the company Lush with #LushCosmetics, #LushLabs, #LushBathbombs, and many others).

Another strategy to grow with hashtags is to use community hashtags, which are accounts with geographic connotations or focused on a theme. They exist in every industry, produce their own content, or repost content from others. Communities encourage using one or more “community hashtags” to foster collective dialogue or because they repost posts that use them. In both cases, visibility is gained.
If I aspire to be reshared by a community, I must produce content that aligns with its gallery in terms of quality, style, and subject.
Examples of geographically-oriented communities include #igersitalia or #gardaoutdoors, which post photos of Lake Garda, respectively. In the couples’ travel niche, we mention #creativecouples, and for luxury hotels, there’s #luxuryhotelsdaily. An environmentally-focused community is #retezerowaste, which has launched vertical hashtags like #teamsaponetta, #teamborraccia, or #retequasiperfetta to stimulate conversations on specific topics.

One indication of how to use Instagram hashtags to grow is to discover branded and community hashtags, assess their popularity, and use them to target those interested in a topic related to my business.

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How hashtags work: popularity

Not all hashtags have the same frequency of use and the same weight.
To estimate their popularity or “competition” and understand how to use Instagram hashtags, I can use the following guidelines:

instagram hashtags

– Popular hashtags: over 5 million shares
– Semi-popular: between 500k and 5 million shares
– Less popular: between 100k and 500k shares

Popular hashtags generate a very high number of content, and there’s a low chance of standing out among the many. Instagram barely has time to categorize the post and show it to users, and in a few moments, it will be swept away by thousands of new content.
On the other hand, I shouldn’t even use overly rare hashtags because if they receive few visits, using them for visibility purposes would be useless. Ideally, I should use and combine hashtags from all popularity ranges, including niche ones. However, an assessment should be made based on the profile.

Stronger accounts in terms of absolute numbers and engagement compete better in visibility with popular hashtags. Let’s take an example hashtag like #marketing, with over 25 million shares. How much visibility will a post using it gain? If it’s posted by a profile with low numbers, not much. The post will quickly slide down under newer posts. The chance of reaching the popular page and being shown to those who follow a hashtag diminishes.

On the other hand, if #marketing is used by a profile with several thousand followers and high engagement, there’s a higher likelihood that it will perform above average, that it will move from the recent posts page to the popular ones, and that it will be shown in the feed of those who follow that hashtag.

Choosing hashtags: the strategy

A strategy that discusses how to use Instagram hashtags must include which hashtags to choose based

instagram hashtags for followers

on their popularity and the size of the profile, in terms of numbers and engagement. To determine if I can compete among the most popular posts for a hashtag, I can check how many likes, comments, and followers the posts and profiles appearing on the popular pages of various hashtags usually receive, and compare them to mine.
If the numbers are not sufficient to compete for a popular or semi-popular hashtag, it’s better to start small and focus on less popular hashtags, gradually targeting the more popular ones as my profile grows.
There is no one-size-fits-all formula on how to use Instagram hashtags; one must proceed through trial and error and constantly optimize.

Here’s a guide to choosing hashtags:

– Use or create branded hashtags

– Look for relevant hashtags from my industry or niche

– Divide them based on popularity

Analyze the performance of my profile and of those who have posted among the “most popular”

– Determine for which hashtags I can compete in terms of visibility

– Use a few popular and semi-popular hashtags

– Prefer less popular hashtags, but with good engagement

– Focus on local communities

– Interact with profiles to encourage engagement on mine

Constantly improve the visual and textual content of the post, so that it lands among the “most popular” posts of a semi-popular hashtag and stays there longer, gaining visibility

Repeat the process until entering the most popular posts of increasingly popular hashtags.


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How to choose hashtags

To complete the picture, we still need to see how to choose Instagram hashtags in practice. Although there are apps to find hashtags on Instagram (one useful app is Focalmark, as it suggests hashtags based on the subject, location, and type of camera), the best method is manual research.

how do hashtags work on instagram

We need to invest time in the social platform to discover the best hashtags for us, starting from the most interesting profiles, especially those with strong territorial relevance and local community connections. The first step of the research is to find industry leaders, competitors, followers, and potential audiences. Enter the posts and identify the most recurring hashtags. Even the related hashtags suggested by Instagram can be a good starting point.

By analyzing the posts with more interactions, I can understand the factors at the visual and textual content level that contribute to their success and take note of them. Afterward, I create a list of hashtags, preferably more than one, and start testing by posting the contents of the editorial plan. The list should be constantly updated to include new hashtags from our industry. As the profile grows, I can target the most popular hashtags. I have to measure the results obtained from the posts and continue to optimize them.

Hashtag impressions

There is a way to see the traffic generated by hashtags. Since 2019, following an update from Instagram, a section called “Hashtag Impressions” has been added to the statistical data of individual posts.
This feature allows us to see the traffic that each single hashtag brings to the post. We can decide which ones to keep and which ones to remove in future posts, and optimize accordingly.

How many hashtags to use

Instagram gives us the possibility to include up to 30 hashtags in the caption or comments of a post. Those with millions of followers can use just a handful of hashtags, or even none, and still achieve impressive engagement. Instagram’s algorithm tends to reward those who receive many likes regardless of the number of hashtags they use.

However, if we are not at that level yet and our profile needs to grow and be discovered, why not use them all… or almost all? Let’s always keep in mind that quality is better and more useful than quantity, to be found by a target audience that is interested and searching for inspiration, products, or services related to our business.

Where to place the hashtags

Hashtags should not be mixed with the caption text, as it compromises readability and makes the reading fragmented and annoying. Hashtags need to have their own space. Some “larger” profiles tend to put hashtags in the first comment rather than in the description, or caption, of the post. Alternatively, they leave a couple of hashtags in the caption for geolocation, summarization, or to set a specific tone, and put the rest in the comments.

The reason is partly aesthetic. If the caption is already long, removing the hashtags allows for a better view of the photo and allows readers to focus on the text. Another reason is to avoid bot likes (from software) that target hashtags mentioned in the caption. Putting hashtags in the first comment may result in lower engagement, but it will be more authentic, with real likes and interactions.

Instagram is growing and is a powerful business tool for companies and personal brands.
To delve deeper into its functioning, you can follow one of our courses on Instagram Marketing. If you want to make social media your profession, the Web Marketing & Social Media Course or the Social Media Manager may be just right for you.

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