Using hashtags on Instagram is pretty easy.
Hit the # key, start typing and you are on your way.
Only if it were that simple… 😨
Instagram does a great job of making it seamless and quick to add hashtags to your content. No matter how much time you spend thinking of the best hashtags to use, they will always bring in a least a few new eyes to your content.
But there’s a catch.
The difference between using a set or two of hashtags that on the surface seem to fit your content vs. finding the perfect niche hashtags for your brand can be a game-changer.
Hashtags are easy to use but hard to master. Most people use them, see some results but then can’t seem to take it to the next level. By spending more time thinking about your overall hashtag strategy you can still make it.
Don’t give up! 😭
Let’s cover seven unique Instagram strategies to help shape your mastery of using hashtags to grow your brand.
Psychology of selecting hashtags
It’s important to first understand the difference in how hashtags are used for content creators (us) and viewers on Instagram (potential followers or customers).
When you make a post and add your hashtags as a content creator, you are using them for the purpose get your post in front of more people on Instagram. Getting increased exposure is your primary motivation behind using hashtags.
The casual viewer on Instagram sees hashtags in a totally different light. They use hashtags as a way to discover new content. Finding more targeted content is the viewer's motivation behind using hashtags on Instagram.
How can you use this understanding to your advantage? 👇
Be in the mindset of a casual viewer when you are selecting your hashtags instead of a natural inclination to think like a content creator.
As a simple example, say you had a beautiful photo of the sunset across your favorite beach with its classic shoreline.
A content creator may think let me use something like #sunsetonthebeach or #oceansunset. Viewers are more likely using hashtags to scope out a location to see if it’s worth checking out so hashtags like #bondibeachsydney or #ilovebondi might be more effective.
Think twice when selecting your hashtags, once as a content creator and once as a viewer to get the best mix of niche hashtags.
Check the post count for each hashtag
The post count for a hashtag is the number of posts since the beginning of time that included that hashtag. Instagram tells you exactly how many posts were made using every single hashtag by simply viewing its feed.
Using the post count is an excellent way to start to narrow which niche hashtags you should be using for your content.
First, let’s understand why the post count matters in the first place. 🤔
When you are viewing a hashtag’s feed, the first nine posts are considered the top posts and are hand-picked by Instagram. Then there is a never-ending list of all of the rest of the posts with the most recent posts at the top.
If a hashtag has been used fifteen thousand times then it paints a different picture than a hashtag that has been used fifteen million times. Your content may stay in the first 100 posts for a few days when you use a hashtag with thousands of total posts. On the other hand, your post won’t stay in the first 100 posts but only for a few seconds when you utilize a hashtag that has millions of people using it.
Big difference right?! 😮
The post count is not a perfect indicator though. Think about a hashtag like #2020goals which has a little over 800,000 posts. With no context, you may think that is a hashtag that has a decent amount of traffic to use on your post. In reality, those 800,000 posts were likely made in the past few months. That means that your content is only staying in the first 100 posts for a few seconds as everyone has been using that hashtag recently.
I like to break down my hashtags by post count into three categories.
Let me explain… 🧐
For newer accounts, hashtags that are in the 5K to 25K posts range I consider my “low” bucket. I know my content will stay in the first 100 posts for a while, they are really narrowly targeted and I will likely get into the Top Posts for a few of them if my content does well.
For that same account, I would consider hashtags that are in the 25K to 500K posts range my “ideal” hashtags. My content will stay in the first 100 posts for a little bit, they are still pretty focused on my niche and I have the possibility to maybe get into the Top Posts for one of them if my content does well which will bring in a good amount of targeted viewers.
Lastly, anything over the 500K post count range I would consider in the “high” category. My content will barely stay in the first 100 posts and they are more generic. If I do happen to make the Top Posts for any of these hashtags then I know I will have a huge spike in reach.
Of course, accounts of varying sizes can change up the post counts of their own categories but the principle remains the same.
Find hashtags that fit into buckets of low, ideal and high post counts and mix up their use when you post your content.
Use hashtag tools and save time
In the past, my approach to finding niche hashtags on Instagram was pretty cumbersome.
I would manually go to each hashtag page, copy data points like the post count and make sure it actually fits my content. I tracked everything in an Excel spreadsheet which I had open every time I was planning a post.
Then I would copy and paste my hashtags, email them to myself, open the email on my phone, copy the hashtags once again and then paste them in my Instagram post’s caption.
After spending so much time on my hashtag strategy, I knew there could be a better way. That was my motivation behind creating Curate, a hashtag tool for Instagram that helps you master the art of hashtags.
Curate is directly integrated with Instagram so it has the data it needs to know about every hashtag you have ever used and how it performed. No more manually collecting data since Curate puts it all at your fingertips as soon as you sign up.
It also takes care of the copy/paste woes of the past. You can plan your hashtags for each post in advance within Curate and schedule them ahead of time. Curate will detect your new posts and automatically add your hashtags as a comment.
After I use my hashtags, it also lets me know what is working and what isn’t through checklists and visualizations. When consistency is key, it’s helpful to have the help that keeps your brand growing in the right direction.
Give it a try if you run into any of the same problems when nailing down your hashtag strategy.
There are other hashtag tools out there as well like Later which just released the option to add your hashtags to a post in the first comment. See which hashtag tool fits best with your workflow and strategy.
Look at the average engagement of the Top 9
Every hashtag page has exactly nine posts that Instagram has deemed to be the best content for that hashtag at the moment. Similar to how being on the first page of Google results gets you more people to your website, being in the Top 9 for a hashtag will cause your engagement to skyrocket since pretty much everyone who goes to that hashtag will see it.
The trick is making sure your content can get into the Top 9. 🤨
It’s a black box on how Instagram determines what goes in the Top 9 for each hashtag. From new accounts to massive Influencers, any Instagram account is eligible to appear in the Top 9 for some length of time.
What we do know is the range of accounts that are currently able to reach the Top 9 for each hashtag. Just go to a hashtag and look at the average likes and comments for the posts in the Top 9. How close is that number compared to your own average likes and comments? If you are around or above the average engagement then it’s a decent indicator that you too can reach the Top 9 for that hashtag.
Place multiple bets on each Instagram post by using hashtags that you know you can definitely hit the Top 9 for and mix them with hashtags where it’s more of a stretch.
That’s not all to consider either. 😬
Keep in mind that hashtags that have a higher post count will have a higher turnover with its Top 9 posts as well. A hashtag with a high post count could display your content in the Top 9 for an hour or two. On the flip side, I’ve seen low post count hashtags have content in their Top 9 for over a week.
Use the average engagement of the Top 9 posts for each hashtag as a guide but nothing is black and white when it comes to the Instagram algorithm. Study what patterns you see emerge to consistently reach the Top 9 for your niche hashtags.
Hone in on a specific topic for each post
Using relevant hashtags is way more important than it may seem on the surface.
How you use niche hashtags affects how Instagram classifies your content. By being more intentional with selecting the right hashtags you can tell Instagram exactly who should be checking out your content.
First, the hashtags you use should always apply to the post you are making and less about your account themes as a whole. Think about who would be interested in that specific piece of content and which hashtags they would be browsing.
If you put your post next to the Top posts for that hashtag would it fit in? 🤔
Adding a bunch of irrelevant hashtags to your posts will usually do more harm than good. It makes Instagram less likely to put your content on the Explore page if you are telling it that your post ranges several unrelated topics.
For that reason, you should try and avoid using lots of hashtags that could be considered a spammy like #discoverunder1k. It doesn’t really have any sort of topic and is so general that it doesn’t help narrow down the focus of your post. Instagram can easily recognize these hashtags since people who use them span all sorts of interests and subjects.
You want to ensure that people who are using that hashtag are real people that are posting original content. You want to avoid hashtags where Instagram has a lot of spammy posts in the Top posts or throughout the Recent feed. Another turn off is when there are many reposts of popular Instagram content scattered on a hashtag’s feed.
Sometimes that trending hashtag you think you found has an entirely different meaning than what you think. Be sure to double-check every hashtag at least once to make sure it is actually for the right subject.
Examples of this are hashtags like #pittymom which could be talking about mothers but it’s actually about pitbull dogs. Acronyms are another thing to watch out for. Something like #cto could be the CTO of a company or the acronym for “check this out”.
So watch out! 😝
A hashtag that has a mixture of unrelated content isn’t usually worth targeting either.
Lastly, make sure all of the hashtags that you use have the same topical similarity. That just means that it’s focused on a certain subject and mostly related to one another. It’s far better to use many hashtags that describe the same topic than to use hashtags that describe a wide range of topics on a single post.
The hashtag focus will help your chances at reaching the Explore page, hitting the Top posts for the niche hashtags you target and assist the Instagram algorithm with better classifying your account.
Avoid using any banned hashtags
There are millions of people who post on Instagram every day and of course, some of them have to ruin it for the rest of us. Unfortunately, there is content that is against the Instagram terms of service or flat out inappropriate that surfaces on the platform.
Instagram prevents this malicious content from spreading by locking down any hashtag pages with a lot of flagged content or by just banning certain hashtags altogether.
Using banned hashtags can drastically affect your posts' ability to get in front of more viewers. It can even prevent all other hashtags from working on your account.
Wait… what?! 😠
That’s right, using a banned hashtag can cause Instagram to not show your posts on any of the hashtags that you use.
Fortunately, it’s pretty simple to see a banned hashtag.
Signs of a banned hashtag are seeing the main photo for the hashtag show up as a generic black and white image of the hashtag symbol. If you scroll down you may run into a message that explains recent posts are currently hidden for breaking the community guidelines.
Some hashtags make you accept a content advisory before even showing you a single post. While others aren’t even a page that Instagram will display at all.
These are all signs of a banned hashtag that you should avoid at all costs. 😵
Keep in mind that some hashtags are banned forever while some are temporary. Typically even if a hashtag was previously banned then it’s probably not a good idea to continue to use it.
If you think you aren’t using banned hashtags, think again. 🤭
It’s another reason to use a hashtag tool, like Curate, that automatically checks if any of the hashtags you have selected are currently banned.
If you do happen to get shadow-banned from using certain hashtags then, unfortunately, the only thing to do is wait. Therefore it’s much better to avoid using banned hashtags altogether.
Don’t Use the Same Hashtags All the Time
Using banned hashtags isn’t the only thing that can get your account in trouble with the Instagram algorithm. Using the same hashtags over and over again is another reason that you will suddenly see your hashtags stop working.
It’s almost like an anti-spam measure that Instagram uses to make sure that you aren’t flooding a certain group of viewers.
Plus, it’s just bad practice. 😑
Even if Instagram didn’t penalize you for using the same hashtags over and over again, you should be diversifying your hashtag selection with every post.
I’m not talking about using one of the three hashtag lists you have made either. ☹️
If you use unique combinations of niche hashtags in every post you can target the exact audience for that specific piece of content. No list of hashtags will ever be perfect for every post you make. Mix a combination of hashtags that you know to work with new hashtags that are topical.
Additionally, if you use the same hashtags all the time, you won’t get a chance to learn which hashtags might produce better results. So, switch it up from time to time to be able to measure which hashtags bring the most success.
To put it simply, no matter what stage your hashtag strategy is in, don’t use the same exact hashtags on all of your posts. If you were seeing great results from hashtags and all of a sudden it completely dropped off then you could be feeling the wrath of the Instagram algorithm.
The only thing you can do now is to wait. 😱
It’s another manual task that can be time-consuming to track but it pays to never be shadow-banned by Instagram. Hashtag tools like Curate help with making sure you don’t use the same hashtag too many times in a row and that you don’t use it too many times in your last 10 posts.
When it comes to using hashtags many times in a row, don’t worry about your branded hashtags too much. Instagram knows the difference between one of your brand’s hashtags and a normal hashtag but I would still recommend that you don’t include any hashtag on 100% of posts you make.
The best way to learn which hashtag strategy will work for your brand is to try it out.
So go do it! 😮
By being more informed about what works and what doesn’t for your brand, you can welcome changes to the Instagram algorithm instead of fear them. Be ready to adapt to whatever you see working and really niche down on your hashtags.
After you start to think about hashtags in a different way and really master the art of effectively using them, you will see the impressive results you have been craving.