by Jenna Kutcher
I feel like there are three schools of thought I commonly see regarding hashtags on social media. There are those who pretend they don’t exist or who simply don’t know the power of them yet. Those who slap a couple random hashtags at the end of their caption for kicks, like #inspiration and #travel. Finally, those who max out their hashtags with a full-on list of strategized, optimized, engagement-driving tags on their posts. Am I right? And if I’m really being honest, I’ve fallen into each of those camps before.
If you’re blindly using them right now, using the same list of 30 for every single post, playing a guessing game each time you type them up, or just simply NOT using them — I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you’re probably not getting much of an engagement boost that strategic hashtags can totally deliver, if you know how to use them right.
There’s also been a lot of chatter out there that’s spreading false info and unhelpful tips about hashtag strategy, which I will do my best to debunk in order to get you well on your way to using them in a smart and strategic way. If you are able to use them right, you’ll be more likely to create authentic engagement, attract your dream clients and followers to your feed, grow your following and foster even greater community through your account.
Why Hashtags Are Important
Hashtags can be used to get incredible results on social media because they allow you to categorize and label your images. That way, they show up in searches and enable you to connect with other content and people within that same category. Makes sense, right? So, when someone searches a specific hashtag, it has its own feed, or a gallery of sorts, and you can simply scroll through all the images, phrases, or statuses that people used that specific hashtag on.
Hashtags are like instagram’s huge filing cabinet, and each hashtag is its own file folder. So when you file away your photo using a pound symbol and a specific word or phrase, you want to be sure you’re organizing it in the most sensible, honest, and smart way. It’s a way for you to organize your posts by category AND allow others to find your posts by searching a specific word, phrase or category.
While there is so much noise online these days and a million and a half hashtag categories, it’s my firm belief that one of the most valuable ways we can use hashtags for our businesses is to eliminate the noise and only join in on conversations that matter to us and our business. Getting connected to the RIGHT people, the right clients, customers, and followers, starts when we identify the right hashtags that align your brand and content with your ideal audience, who’s also likely seeking you out, too.
Think hashtags are irrelevant? Get this: a post with at least one hashtag averages 12.6% more engagement than a post without one. Isn’t that wild? But that engagement doesn’t really matter if it isn’t engagement from the right people, I mean numbers are great, but the main focus is in quality engagement from those who will truly be interested in your business, your offers, and excited about your content, not just some bot or a random person who has no interest in you or in buying what you’re selling.
So the key is to use hashtags with intention and efficiency. You want to shoot for quality over quantity and specific over generic. If a hashtag has a few hundred thousand to more than a million uses already, like #happy — then it’s likely your content is just going to get buried and lost right away within the rest of the noise and with the sheer volume of people using those tags.
You want to be incredibly selective in the hashtags you use, and make sure that they resonate with your ideal client AND that it’s something your ideal client is actually searching for or will connect with.
So before you know WHAT to hashtag, we first have to focus on the WHO. Who is it you’re trying to reach and what words, phrases, or locations would they be searching for that will allow you to connect with them as humans first then with your offer second.
Methods to Find Your Ideal Followers
Using location-specific hashtags to connect with others near you will help you start building your local community. Use local hashtags to reach people in your town, city or geographical area! Now Instagram auto-populates the most popular hashtags when you start typing one in
Another way to see what your ideal followers or clients are searching for is viewing some of their hashtags on their posts. Go to some of your highly engaged followers’ pages — like the people who like and comment on your photos or slide into your DMs and and see what they’re interested in, what they post about, and what or if they’re hashtagging. If it’s within your realm or industry, you might want to pick up a few of those tags to use yourself.
Look to others in your industry who are killing it with social media and engagement, and take a look at how they tag their photos. Odds are, they have specific and dialed-in hashtags that are tailored to their industry, geographic location, content and community. Now I will tell ya, don’t just copy and paste what they are using — take what’s in alignment, what serves you, and leave the rest behind.
You can also create branded hashtags, which are so useful as your business grows and your reach expands. I use branded hashtags all the TIME and I love seeing my community interact and use them, too. For example, #TheKutcherCondo is one that we started when we bought our place in Maui, and now people who rent it out for their vacation can also use it during their stay or to meet and mingle with others who have stayed there in the past.
Branded hashtags are a great way to organize aspects of your business into a category for you and your followers to interact and engage with each other. Same goes for #goaldiggerpodcast or #jennakutcherpresets…. I mean, we have a lot of different branded hashtags for the JK brand.
Hashtag cautionary tales
With all of these options for categorizing your content and tapping into ongoing conversations and collections of content around them, you might be on a roll thinking about the tags that fit your biz best. Let’s talk strategy here, because it’s the key difference between just using a hashtag because you think you have to and utilizing a hashtag to reach a specific goal.
Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags per post, and resources in the past have advised making a list of 30 and slapping those same ones on everything you share. But you all probably know by now that that ain’t gonna work anymore — the algorithm figured it out because, spoiler alert, Mark Zuckerberg is pretty dang smart.
Even crazier? In my research, I’ve found that the algorithm penalizes Instagrammers for using hashtags that are irrelevant to a photo. They are getting smart so they can use image recognition to scan your image for what it is. Is it a tree? A dining room? A family photo?
So if you post a photo of your baby and use hashtag #business or #entrepreneur, the IG wizards could KNOW based off of image recognition that you’re using irrelevant tags based on what is IN the photo, and your content could be flagged and less likely to show up in others’ feeds and searches. So it’s important to ask yourself: What is in this photo, what is the content INSIDE the photo and tag based off of that.
What is Shadowbanning?
Ever heard of shadowbanning? It’s the act of blocking a user’s content on social media in such a way that the user doesn’t know it’s happening. If you’re shadowbanned on Instagram, your content doesn’t appear on anyone’s feed unless they already follow you. If you feel like you’re getting less engagement or aren’t showing up in certain hashtags, you could be shadowbanned.
Now the whole shadowban thing feels like a mythical creature and I am NOT an expert on it but we dug in to see if we could understand and teach you a bit more about it. The shadowban idea/method is a way for Instagram to penalize people using inauthentic methods to grow their following and helps to deter bots — so it’s actually a good thing when it comes to organic, honest growth, but it can be frustrating when it happens to you and you don’t KNOW it’s happened to you. And sadly, it can happen by using a bunch of hashtags irrelevant to your content — who knew?
Of course, IG doesn’t openly cop to shadowbanning users, but they did release a statement in February of this year addressing an issue users were experiencing with content not showing up in certain hashtags. The statement is ambiguous at best, saying they know users have experienced issues with their hashtag search that caused posts to not show up, and that they’re continuing to work on improving the problem. They also offered a pretty clear recommendation: to focus on your business objective rather than relying ONLY on hashtags.
They basically said that high quality and creative content will do the best in terms of organic growth and engagement. Your content needs to be visually appealing, tell a story, and be thoughtful. AKA, not just a copied pun and a copied list of hashtags that aren’t relevant to the image.
To check if you’re shadowbanned, you can post a photo with an uncommon hashtag, like your name with a specific number, or something else unusual. After posting it, ask a 5 or 6 people who DON’T follow you to search the hashtag. If none of them can see your post, you’re likely shadowbanned. If a couple people can see your post, you might just be facing a drop in engagement.
If you find you HAVE been shadowbanned? Welp, time to shut down camp and quit Instagram. Kidding! It’s definitely fixable, and it starts with the issue. If you’re using bots or automation services, you gotta stop. Google which hashtags have been banned, and stop using those, too. Take a two day break, like a FULL 48 hours, from using Instagram at all. People have reported a 48 hour break can reset your account and get you back on track.
And most importantly, post helpful, authentic, interesting content that abides by Instagram’s rules and regulations. It might seem “slower” to grow than other seemingly fast fixes, but those fast fixes are the things that often hurt engagement or get you shadowbanned.
How to Research and Select Hashtags
Dial it down and get niche for each post. It shouldn’t take an hour of research for every post. In fact, it’ll only be a minute or two of your time in exchange for way higher engagement, and a happier algorithm. Every hashtag on every post should be legitimately relevant to the content you’re sharing.
Beyond looking for local hashtags and hashtags your competition is using and ideal followers are following, you can brainstorm to create a master list of ideas and topics that apply to your business.
Jot down words, phrases, and/or locations that make sense for your content and brand and enter those ideas as a hashtag into the search field on Instagram to see how many posts already exist and what kinds of accounts generally share posts using those tags and to get a vibe if that tag is really a fit for your content.
If you’re struggling to come up with your list of topics, ask yourself what your business is about, who your offer serves, where you serve clients, and what your brand signifies. Instagram will auto-populate the most popular hashtags using those keywords, which will give you even more ideas for hashtags to potentially use.
For example, when I type in #photography, these hashtags pull up: #naturephotography #photographylovers #Photographyislife #photographyart and #travelphotography. Maybe not all of those have to do specifically with my brand, plus all of them have HUGE amounts of associated posts.
Be sure you’re paying attention to the number of people who have used the hashtags, and prioritize them by the odds of reaching the RIGHT people, not just the most. You have a much greater chance of standing out if you use specific hashtags with less posts associated with them that target your dream audience, rather than using a hashtag that has an enormous amount of posts attached, making it easy for your photo to get lost immediately.
A great tool for getting more ideas for hashtags is using displaypurposes.com. I like this one because it pulls the most closely associated hashtags to one specific hashtag that you search. When I search #marketing, it pulls up ALL the popular hashtags that people with similar content use, like: branding, socialmedia, business, digitalmarketing, startup, and so on. These are definitely more generic, so you want to be careful, but it is certainly a good tool when just trying to get those initial keyword ideas to use for hashtags.
What NOT to do with hashtags
We’ve talked about a couple hashtag no-nos, but just to drive the point home, let’s review what NOT to do when it comes to hashtags.
Don’t use 30 of the same hashtags every time: Actually, don’t use any amount of the same exact hashtags every time, whether it’s 5, 10, or 30. Using the SAME exact hashtags is easily detectable by the Instagram algorithm and it’ll land your posts in the place that bots and other rule breakers go: the no engagement zone. It’s way better to use a handful of strategic, different hashtags every time.
Don’t use common or generic hashtags. If there are a million, or even a few hundred thousand uses of a hashtag, you don’t want to use it. Your post will just get lost in the noise and the whole point of using that hashtag will just be pointless.
Don’t just Google “hashtags for [enter your industry here]” and copy and paste them to your post. There are SO many online generators for “popular” hashtags for every industry, so while you can use these to get beginner intel as you niche down and create more specific hashtags, don’t just take a list from an article and slap it on your post. They’re often full of those overly common hashtags that’ll just get your post lost in the masses.
Don’t use unnecessary hashtags. I notice this more on Facebook or from people who just don’t know the point of hashtags. If you’re hashtagging EVERY word, like #and #this #what, just know they’re not aligning you with a targeted audience. Give your shift-3 key a break. Those aren’t doing you ANY good, I promise.
My personal approach to hashtags
For the first several years of entrepreneurship, I was a wedding photographer and so many of my clients found me directly through instagram using — you guessed it — hashtags!
When I was determining what type of hashtag strategy to follow, I decided I wanted to use hashtags that both got my account in front of a broader audience as well as a local audience. This approach allowed me to get a lot of eyes on my content AND build a local audience to boost the possibility of getting booked!
Some of the broader hashtags I used were #weddingphotography #theknot #stylemepretty and #greenweddingshoes. These tags increased my chances of possibly getting featured on popular wedding accounts where I knew lots of brides all over the world were checking in for “I do” inspiration. There was also a chance that my work could get buried quickly because these hashtags were more popular, but there was still potential opportunity to stand out because I knew I was posting captivating, pretty photos that had the ability to be eye catching among the feed of so many other so-so photos.
The more narrow hashtags I commonly used included #wisconsinbride #wisconsinwedding #milwaukeewedding and other hashtags for local vendors and venues. These dug into the niche of my specific market and industry. The key is, I would change the tags with each post based on the location of the wedding, the subject of the image, and the vendors who played a role in the contents of the photo. These tags most likely moved the profit needle more because they connected me with specific people who might actually become my clients.
It’s important to maintain continuity with your branding while staying fresh and assessing your hashtag strategy and options on a regular basis. This will help to preserve the interest of your followers AND attract new ones. And before you post another hashtag, be sure to ask yourself these three questions first:
What is the main goal of this post? What categories does this image fall under? Do I have time to be intentional with hashtags?
The Big Picture
I hope you’re feeling #inspired. Hashtags can be a tremendous way to grow your community, attract your dream followers and clients, and connect with other creatives or entrepreneurs. It’s an intentional way to expand your business. It just takes a few minutes of planning and research and a little thought and intentionality to reap the best results and really create content that gets onto the feeds of the people you like and admire and want to foster community with. Use them thoughtfully, and when in doubt, less is more and quality is way better than quantity. You got this!