Oh, #hashtags. Most small business owners have a love-hate relationship with hashtags.
How many hashtags should I use? What hashtags will help my small business account grow? Do they go in the caption or the comment section? — these are all questions that pop up anytime the topic of organic Instagram growth is brought up.
This love-hate relationship isn’t unfounded.
On one hand, if you don’t use hashtags correctly, you can accidentally hurt your account by getting penalized by Instagram’s algorithm.
On the other hand, hashtags are still one of the most effective ways to get your Instagram posts seen by more people who are interested in the information your posts deliver.
It’s why social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, and even Linkedin continue to encourage the use of hashtags.
This article will focus on how to get the most out of hashtags as a small business on Instagram.
15 years ago, the #hashtag was more commonly referred to as the pound sign on your keyboard or phone.
The symbol was primarily used to mark numbers, until a fateful day in 2007.
Marketing specialist Chris Messina is credited with the invention of the hashtag as we know and use it today. Hootsuite shares the full history, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll give you the cliff notes version. Messina proposed the idea of group-related Tweets together using the pound sign, and (spoiler alert) the concept took off.
Fun Fact: The world’s very first hashtag was #barcamp.
Messina’s initial hashtag concept is virtually unchanged. Hashtags are now used by millions across multiple social media platforms to share and find related content. But how exactly can a little #hashtag boost your bottom line?
The benefits of using hashtags for small business accounts include:
Put simply, the biggest benefit is a wider reach.
Think of it this way: More reach = More awareness = More engagement = More customers.
When you use a hashtag, your post will appear on the page for that hashtag on the “recent” tab — if the post performs well it can appear on the “top” tab for that hashtag, too.
People can also choose to follow hashtags — this means that even if someone doesn’t follow you (yet) they could see your hashtagged post in their feed.
This is key for reaching new, interested audiences.
The great debate! How many hashtags should you use on Instagram?
There is SO much conflicting information on this topic — for Instagram itself — that it’s probably the number one reason small business owners hate hashtags to begin with! Who can keep up with the changes?!
Here is the breakdown: Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags — but the platform says the correct amount of hashtags is much lower.
Their recommended number?
According to a recent post from Instagram’s @creators account, users should use between 3-5 hashtags.
This comes as a surprise, especially when Instagram allegedly told creators to aim for 8-15 hashtags in 2021.
It’s been suggested that Instagram recommended this range for its benefit, not yours. It could possibly be a way for Instagram to cut down on spammy hashtag use. Oftentimes, users include irrelevant hashtags to try to maximize the full allotted 30 (hence the spam).
However, when the social media pros at Later looked at how the number of hashtags impacts reach, they found that using more hashtags typically yields the best results.
As you can see from their research, while posts with 20 hashtags receive the highest average reach rate, those with 30 hashtags are close behind.
Their results closely match my experiments with how many hashtags to include on an Instagram post.
After weeks of trial and error — using 3-5 hashtags per post, then 8-15, and now 20-30 — I would recommend that small business owners stick with 20-30 relevant hashtags per post for the greatest reach.
The other lesson I learned from this experiment was that I spent WAY TOO MUCH TIME on hashtag research. Better results came when I started being more intentional about using keywords to inform my hashtag selection.
You know hashtags are important, but please don’t go #hashtagging random words in posts.
The most effective hashtags are the ones that fit into a thoughtful content strategy. Consider them a tactic in your overall Instagram marketing plan, because they are.
If you only take one thing away from this blog, let it be this: Only use relevant hashtags aka one that relates to the topic you’re posting about and what your ideal client would search for on the platform.
Relevant hashtags (which are essentially keywords for Instagram SEO) will get your content in front of the right eyes.
SEO, short for search engine optimization, can sound like a jargon term, but it essentially boils down to using the right words to get your content discovered online.
You could liken Instagram to a mini-Google. The app has added the ability to search for content with keywords rather than just hashtags. Using the search bar, you can now type in the term “Vegan Food” instead of #veganfood to find the top posts.
Why does this matter for your hashtag strategy? Because you can #hashtag your keywords to give more visibility than using hashtags alone.
This is a super easy tactic.
First, research what your ideal audience would search for on Instagram and write those words in your caption.
Here is an example from a post about Content Ideas:
The topic is Content Ideas for August so I used “August Content” and “social media post ideas for August” as searchable keyword terms within the caption copy.
Then, I researched relevant hashtags #socialmediacontentideas #augustcontent and added those in the caption below my sign-off. I did the same for supporting terms that people could search for if they were interested in this topic: #instagramcontent, #contentcreationideas, etc.
Instagram has officially said that it is best to put your hashtags in the caption.
Why the caption? Because the Instagram Search feature recognizes the keywords of the hashtags that are in the caption — more on that in a minute.
You might be wondering, do hashtags still work if you put them in the comment section?
Yup! You just might not show up on the Instagram Search Results page if you go that route, according to Preview.
Using banned hashtags is a very comment Instagram mistake.
Instagram bans hashtags that they label as spammy. These are typically overused words or phases that comprised the intent of hashtag, which is to group together related content similar to how Google ranks search results for topics.
If you accidentally use a banned hashtag, your post will be hidden from public view without your knowledge (sometimes referred to as a shadowban).
That kills your organic and growth efforts.
Some examples of banned hashtags include #bikinibody, #humpday, and #happythanksgiving.
Here’s a full list of banned Instagram hashtags to avoid.
The size of hashtags that you include in your posts determines how discoverable you are.
So if your small account (say less than 10k followers), including hashtags that have been used millions of times, decreases the odds your ideal client will find your account when they are searching that term in a sea of other similar accounts who used the same hashtag.
You’ll want to include a mix of hashtag sizes for each post.
Now that you know what pitfalls to sidestep and how to use them effectively, here are top-performing hashtags that will help grow your small business on Instagram.
There are some great tools to help you find industry/niche-specific hashtags. I like Inflact.
Bottom line: We are #blessed to have hashtags as a part of our Instagram content marketing strategy, using hashtags can’t guarantee results alone.
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