For those trying to grow their Instagram, Twitter or TikTok followings without spending cash on an ad buy, one of the most effective ways to grow is by choosing the right hashtags.
While it can be easy to want to throw out whatever hashtags you think of the moment you are posting your amazing content, the reality is that the big players are very strategic with the hashtags they use. So if you want to play with the big boys, it’s time to do your homework on the hashtags you want to use.
Before we jump into the tools we can use to help us research the best hashtags to use; it’s worth checking off the basics of Instagram hashtags, so we’re all on the same page.
What are hashtags?
Inspired by Twitter, hashtags are a way of labelling your content to identify it as being about a specific topic.
On Instagram, these are usually descriptions of the photo, so when people search that topic, people can find photos to do with that subject.
The simplest example of this is that if people are in a city, they will hashtag their location, such as #barcelona. Or, perhaps they are describing features of their photo, such as an unfiltered photo, using tags like #nofilter or the objects in the photo like #coffee or #blue.
However, over time, hashtags evolved and began to cover other topics too. As Instagrammers began sharing more diary-like content, the hashtags began to change, too, with a focus on emotions. For example, on a photo of friends, hashtags like #bffs or #love began to rise.
When considering which hashtags to use, consider all elements – descriptive and emotional.
Then, to be strategic, make a call on which hashtags you want to use from a reach perspective. Our intuition would draw us to only use hashtags which are ‘high volume’ or ‘high reach’. However, there is a risk in exclusively using these ‘big’ hashtags, because it is also likely your post will be ‘flooded out’, because thousands of people may use that hashtag a day, yours will be lost in the masses. For this reason, it’s good to select a mix of high and low-reach tags.
Additionally, selecting a variety of unique tags with every photo means that Instagram is far less likely to think you’re a bot – so don’t be tempted to copy and paste the same list every time you post.
And finally, make the most of all your hashtags. Instagram lets you post up to 30 hashtags per Instagram post, so don’t be shy. On the flipside, Twitter is limited by character count and TikTok recommends under 5 hashtags, so being choosy makes a difference.
From a design perspective, on Instagram many people keep their caption and their hashtags separate. For example, they will create their Instagram post, then add spaces between their caption and the hashtags. Some people also add hashtags in the comments, so that their original caption doesn’t look messy with a stack of hashtags at the bottom of their caption. It still counts as using a hashtag, even if it’s in the comments. It’s simply a design choice.
In the example below, chocolate shop Max Brenner has used:
#maxbrenner #maxbrenneraus #chocolatecafe #dessert #chocolatefondue #crepecake #saltedcaramel
It’s a mix of branded hashtags and descriptions of their food – all perfect use of hashtags. If they wanted to throw in a trending hashtag, I think they could also get away with something more generic like #love to get a bit more reach.
I always recommend collating a list of hashtags for your business to use. You might store this on a spreadsheet and categorise it based on when you’re likely to use it (i.e. topic or theme) or save it on your phone in the notes app for easy access. This list can change over time as different hashtags come in and out of vogue.
Now that we’ve covered off what hashtags are, let’s highlight the tools to keep in mind to help you find the best hashtags to use for your Instagram posts.
Trending hashtag listings
There are listings of the trending hashtags for specific platforms, for example, the top 100 hashtags for Instagram. Of course, there would only be certain instances when using these hashtags would make sense for your business, but it can be useful because there might be cases where you design a post so you can leverage the use of that hashtag.
The benefit of using a popular hashtag is that it has more subscribers to it, but likely more competition and potentially more people who aren’t your likely customers. For example, if you use the #coffee hashtag – you’re going to potentially reach a million people – but not all of these people are cat owners in Bondi ready to buy cat collars from you.
Hashtag Identification Sites
One of my favourite tools is Display Purposes. This is a site where you can type in a keyword and see related hashtags to the one you typed in that people are using. It’s a great way to find industry-specific hashtags that might be harder to spot at first glance, but likely to have more people using it who are actively engaged in your industry or to purchase. It also tells you how popular you are, so you can use a mix of popular and least popular hashtags. Keep in mind that it’s global, so you might find hashtags in other languages there!
Doing an industry audit is a great way to see hashtags others in your industry are using. Visit the top 10 websites which come up in a Google search for your industry and add an international city or two to broaden your sample group for your audit. Often, they have their social channels in the footer, so visit their Instagram channels and look through their last 20 posts. What hashtags are they using? Are they ones that you can also use? I always double check the hashtags they use to ensure they are legitimate hashtags. Not every business researches their hashtags, so be cautious of using a hashtag and assuming it’s a common one (or if it’s just them using it!).
You can also use Google Advanced Search to simply type in your industry name and add a site filter (site: instagram.com) so that it shows you content related to your industry from Instagram.
One of the most effective methods of identifying large, popular hashtags is simply by searching the social network. Start typing in your industry or keyword, and see the suggested options that come up. They also often have the volume of use, so you have an idea of how popular a hashtag is for use. This is a great way to find 3 – 5 really popular hashtags for your industry.
There are plenty of tools out there to help you choose hashtags more strategically than just guessing.
For the most part, researching hashtags for your industry using these tools will take less than an hour, and you’ll be much better informed about the kinds of hashtags that will give you greater reach. Throw your list into your Google Doc, and the next time you are posting content, throw in a unique mix of high and low-reach hashtags based on your research.
Originally written in 2017, updated in 2022
Want to work with Rachel?Rachel Beaney is a writer and social media content specialist, helping businesses connect with their audiences.
She’s worked with local, national and global companies, in addition to not-for-profits and government bodies. She loves helping businesses tell their stories with creative and data-driven solutions.
She is based in Sydney, Australia.
Want to work together? Rachel would love to hear from you. Get in touch today.