With the introduction of a new algorithmic based feed, and more brands jumping on the Instagram train, organic reach is becoming increasingly difficult to get. Trying to stand out on an app with over 600 million active users is no easy task. So with all of these challenges against you, how can you get your brand’s Instagram photos and videos in front of your target audience?

The answer is hashtags.

The beauty of hashtags for Instagram is they make your content discoverable and increase your chances of engagement. Aside from getting mentioned by influencers, using hashtags is one of the easiest ways to grow your audience within Instagram. However, it only works if you take the right approach.

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Why You Need to Use Hashtags

The first step to using hashtags to grow your audience is to understand the way they work within Instagram. When you go into the search feature of Instagram, you’ll notice you can search by top content, hashtag, people (username) and places.

instagram search

Instagram uses hashtags to categorize content. A great analogy is to think of how you would organize paperwork in an office. You have your papers which go inside folders, and the folders go inside a filing cabinet. In this scenario, the papers are Instagram posts, the folders are hashtags and the filing cabinet is the Instagram platform.

When someone searches #fitness, it’s like telling Instagram to search its cabinet for the “fitness” folder and show the latest posts containing that keyword. When you use hashtags in your posts, you’re letting Instagram know to put your post in the appropriate folder in case anyone searches for it.

What this means for your business is that you need to get into the habit of using hashtags for any main keywords you mention inside of your posts. Using keywords without a hashtag won’t make your post discoverable.

Let’s dive deeper into how you can use hashtags for Instagram to grow your audience and build your brand.

Types of Hashtags

There are two major types of hashtags on Instagram:

  • Branded hashtags
  • Community hashtags

Branded Hashtags

Branded hashtags are specific to your company. They might contain your brand name, your products or a specific campaign. It’s also worth noting that 70% of hashtags on Instagram are branded.

One benefit of branded hashtags is they can be tied back directly to your company. So when you want to measure the success of a campaign, or see if your brand is becoming more popular on Instagram, you can analyze your branded hashtags with social media monitoring tools.

Another advantage of branded hashtags is the ability to get user-generated content (UGC). Encourage people to use your branded hashtags in photos and videos on Instagram when they mention your product. For instance, Bullet Journal has been able to grow its presence on Instagram by getting customers to promote its products for them. Then the company Regrams some of the best photos onto their own feed.

#Repost @decadethirty with @repostapp ・・・ – in 2014, I started doing these handlettered memories as part of one of my bullet journal collections. I took a bit of a break from them when I had Squish but I'm taking it up again on May 22, when the New Zealand version of the 100 day project launches. I miss taking 15-20 mins to reflect on my day and handletter my thoughts into my journal. How do you use your bullet journal for memory keeping? #bulletjournal #bulletjournaling #BulletJournalCommunity #bulletjournalcollection #handlettering #handletteringpractice #handwriting #journal #journalling #journaling #writing #memorykeeping #handletteredmemories #stationery #planneraddict #plannermom #plannermum #plannerd #plannercommunity #planwithme #unipinfineline #sixwordmemoir #sixwordstory #100dayproject #100daysproject #100daysofhandletteredmemories

A post shared by Ryder Carroll (@bulletjournal) on

Use branded hashtags to get your most loyal followers and customers to engage, and improve brand awareness.

Community Hashtags

Community hashtags are more general and don’t necessarily have anything to do with your company. Some examples are hashtags like #instafood or #picoftheday. They’re widely used and aren’t specific to any one person or company.

The photo below from McLaren uses multiple community hashtags including #cars, #instacar and #carpic.

The benefit of community hashtags is they can make your content more discoverable and build your audience. People actively search for community hashtags, so if your brand’s photos and videos show up in the search results, you get instant exposure to a new audience.

Just make sure the community hashtags are relevant to the content you’re posting. If McLaren had used hashtags like #instafood or #ootd in the photo, it wouldn’t have made sense.

In order to get the most value from hashtags for Instagram, you’ll want to use a combination of branded and community hashtags. So the next question is, how do you actually come up with your hashtags?

How to Find the Best Hashtags for Instagram

As simple as it may seem to just throw on some hashtags to the end of your captions, it pays to be strategic. The first step is identifying the right hashtags to use. Here are a few ways to find them.

Search for Related Hashtags

One of the first places to start, particularly for community hashtags, is to just do a search. When you search in Instagram for hashtags, you’ll see a list of suggestions auto-populate as you type. These could all be potential hashtags to include in your captions.

instagram hashtag search

Start by thinking of some keywords relevant to your business. For instance, an invoicing software company might look for phrases like #billing or #payroll. You can even go a bit broader if you’re not seeing great results. That invoicing software company could also search for #smallbusiness or #enterprise depending on their core audience demographic.

The goal is to find hashtags your target audience would likely search for and use on their own. If you have a list of keywords you target for search engine optimization (SEO), paid advertising or content marketing, you can use those as inspiration.

Research Competitors

Do you have competitors that are already popular on Instagram and have built a strong following? There’s a chance they’ve used hashtags as a part of their strategy.

Pull out your detective hat and start looking at the hashtags your competitors frequently use. If they’re using the same hashtags on a consistent basis, there’s likely a reason for it—they work.

Manually combing through all of your competitors to look for their most popular hashtags can be tedious and extremely time consuming. Luckily, you don’t have to go through all of that if you use Sprout Social. With our Instagram Competitors Report, you can add your competitors and we’ll show you their most frequently used hashtags.

instagram competitors report

You’ll also want to look at your competitors’ most engaged posts and record the hashtags they include. That can be found in the competitors report too.

Use a Third Party Tool

A third way to find good hashtags for Instagram is to use one of the many hashtags discovery tools available. Here are a couple of popular options:

Hashtagify: This is one of the better known hashtag discovery tools. It works by entering a seed keyword/hashtag. Then Hashtagify looks for relevant related hashtags and groups them into nodes. You can click on any of the relevant hashtags to get even more results.

hashtagify

The downside is these hashtags aren’t specific to Instagram. But they’re helpful for getting a good starting place.

Focalmark: If you’re looking for something more specific to Instagram, then Focalmark is a good option. The tool works by first identifying the subject of the photo or video you’re trying to post.

focalmark

Then depending on the options you choose, the tool will give you a list of popular and relevant Instagram hashtags to include. Here’s an example of the results I got looking for hashtags to use in a portrait photo in Chicago.

focalmark results

Experiment with a few different tools to find the one that works best for you. Or use a combination of them to create a more all-encompassing list.

How Many Hashtags Should You Use in an Instagram Post?

Using the tactics above, you’ve likely uncovered dozens of potential hashtags you can use. A common question marketers have at this point is “how many hashtags should I use on Instagram?”

Since Instagram is less strict about the number of hashtags you can use in your posts than Twitter, it’s easy to go overboard. Instagram allows users to post up to 30 hashtags in each caption, but that doesn’t mean you have to max out on every post.

In order to determine what the sweet spot is for your brand, take these two steps:

  1. Look at how many hashtags influencers in your industry and your competitors use in their posts.
  2. Track the engagement of your posts when you use different amounts of hashtags.

When you’re starting from scratch, it’s a good idea to study what successful people in your industry are doing. If you notice the accounts with the most engagement are using a minimum of five hashtags in the majority of their posts, that’ll give you a clue as to where to start. Then, you’ll be able to test out posts with a slightly higher or lower amount to find what works best for you.

Of course, the second half of this is measuring and analyzing your results. You can use Sprout Social’s Instagram Analytics to find out which of your posts have the most engagement. Then look at the amount of hashtags in your highest performing posts to get a concrete idea of how many hashtags you should use.

top instagram posts report

The main problem with using too many hashtags is you won’t be able to tell which ones drive engagement. If you use 30 hashtags in every post, it’s impossible to know which specific hashtag people are searching to find your content. If only five out of the 30 hashtags you use in every post are driving engagement, you can clean up your captions and look less spammy by sticking to the handful that actually work.

Tips for Instagram Hashtags

You know why hashtags are so powerful on Instagram and how to find the best ones for your brand. Now, let’s talk about how to be effective with them. Follow these tips to get more out of hashtags for Instagram:

Match Hashtags With the Right Photo

As we mentioned earlier, the hashtags you use should be relevant to the photo you’re posting. When you’re targeting hashtags that are frequently used, you need to make sure the photo that goes with your Instagram caption will stand out.

Remember, even though adding hashtags in your captions can make your posts easier to discover, the image is what will pull in users.

Instagram’s search results display in a grid. When a lot of the pictures look similar, they all tend to blend in together. Do a search for your hashtag and pay attention to the photos that show up. Don’t just look at the individual pictures, study the grid as a whole. Specifically, you want to look for similarities between the images.

instagram search hellospring

You want to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing. In the photo above, we can see that most of the pictures have pastel colors and don’t have a lot of movement. If we wanted to post a picture that would stand out in these search results, could do something that has a more active feel. Or maybe even use video.

Now that you know what to do to make your image pop, the next step is to see what the “must-have” elements of your photo or video should include. For our example, we’d want something that captures the feeling of spring since the hashtag is #hellospring. It would also be a good idea to have the picture be outdoors, since those seem to get the most engagement for this particular hashtag.

Once you have all of the elements that you want to include, craft your post and share it with the world.

Jump on Trending Topics

Using hashtags that are already trending is a popular way to grow your audience. There are two approaches with this tactic:

  1. Wait until a hashtag related to your industry is trending
  2. Use trending hashtags that aren’t directly related to your industry

The first approach will give you more targeted results. However, depending on your industry, it might be rare that a topic related to it becomes trending.

With the second approach, you’re jumping on topics that are already trending but may not have a direct connection with your brand. If you go this route, you’ll want to stick with current events like holidays or special events because they’re easier to tie back to your company.

For instance, Sephora might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Unicorn Day. But the brand managed to tie their products in with the trending hashtag while remaining authentic.

Take a look at our hashtag holidays calendar to get an idea of upcoming national holidays that you can create content around.

Vary Your Hashtags

Once you find popular hashtags that people engage with, it might be tempting to continue using those same hashtags in every post. However, eventually you’ll need to add some more variation.

Using a variety of hashtags allows you to reach more people. If you’ve been using the same hashtags for months, there’s a chance that the people you’re trying to reach have already seen your content and chose to follow or ignore you. By adding in a little variation, you’re able to reach new people.

Use Low Competition Hashtags

One cool thing about searching hashtags on Instagram is you can see the number of posts that contain the hashtag you’re searching.

instagram post number

You might be tempted to just use the hashtags with the most posts. However, another approach is to focus on hashtags that aren’t used quite as frequently. The benefit of this approach is hashtags that are used less frequently are less competitive.

When you target hashtags that have been used millions of times, you’re competing against millions of other photos and videos to get your content seen. On the flip side, when you use hashtags that have been used in 20K posts or so, you’re competing with a smaller group of people.

Mix things up and target hashtags that have been used more frequently, as well as some that aren’t quite as common.

How to Break Into the Top Posts Section of Instagram

When you do a search on Instagram, the app displays nine “top posts” at the top of the search results. Getting your content to appear here can give you a big boost in visibility. But how exactly does Instagram determine which posts to highlight?

It’s all a part of their algorithm. And while nobody knows the specifics of how it works, it’s far from random. Try these tips to help you break into the top posts section of Instagram for your target hashtags:

1. It’s All About Engagement

Like we said, the exact formula for Instagram’s top posts section is a mystery. But one thing that’s fairly obvious just from looking at the posts that show up is engagement is a key factor. Just comparing the posts in the top nine to the “most recent” section, you can see a big difference in the number of likes and comments.

In order to boost your chances of engagement, try to publish when your audience is most active. With Instagram switching to an algorithmic feed, you need to post your content when people are most active in the app. That’ll decrease the likelihood of getting overlooked.

You can use Sprout to schedule your Instagram posts ahead of time, so you don’t forget to post during the windows when your photos and videos are most likely to get engagement.

Sprout Social Instagram Scheduling

Check out our Instagram engagement guide for more tips.

2. Start Small

Like we mentioned, you have a higher chance of getting noticed if you target less competitive hashtags. If you already have a large and engaged audience on Instagram, you may be able to compete for more competitive hashtags.

But if you have a smaller following (under 10K followers) you may have better luck with less competitive but more targeted hashtags.

For instance, the hashtag #chicago has tens of millions of posts, which makes it difficult to get into the top posts section. But #chicagoig on the other hand only has tens of thousands. So it’s popular enough to get engagement, but not to the point where it’d be impossible to get noticed.

chicagoig hashtag

The engagement you get from these smaller hashtags can carry over to some of the larger ones you include in your posts. Mix in a few bigger hashtags along with the smaller ones. That way you get the best of both worlds.

3. Be Consistent

You probably won’t make it to the top posts section your first go around. That’s why it’s a good idea to be strategic and more thought-out with your hashtags on Instagram. For instance, you could plan to use a specific small hashtag in 3-5 posts per week. Then mix and match the hashtag with various bigger ones.

Analyze Your Instagram Hashtags

Knowing which hashtags to use and how to implement them is nice. But unless you’re tracking your efforts, you’ll have no idea what’s working and what’s not. You need to know which hashtags are your top performers so you can build around them.

For instance, if one of your most engaged hashtags for Instagram is #welcometochicago, you could use it alongside hashtags that you’re not currently showing up for. The engagement you get from #welcometochicago can give you more visibility for the other hashtags as well.

In order to track and measure all of this without spreadsheets or driving yourself crazy, use Sprout’s Instagram Analytics. Our reports show your most frequently used hashtags, plus the hashtags that get you the most engagement.

instagram outbound hashtag performance

Pulling it All Together

To refresh, here’s what we’ve learned:

  • Using Hashtags for Instagram makes your content more discoverable.
  • You don’t need to use 30 hashtags in every post.
  • Study your competitors and top influencers to find the best hashtags.
  • Make sure your hashtags are relevant.
  • Use trending hashtags and tie them back to your company.
  • Get familiar with Instagram lingo and evergreen hashtags. Make adding them a habit.
  • Measure the performance of your posts and most engaged hashtags.

Using the tips and strategies you’ve learned here, you’ll be well on your way to growing your audience on Instagram. With Sprout Social, you can simplify your engagement efforts with our Instagram management tools to monitor hashtags, manage comments and see your efforts through social reporting features.

Do you have any tips on using hashtags for Instagram that we missed? Leave a comment and let us know!