Social media platforms seem to be ever-updating their algorithms and it’s easy to feel out of touch with the ‘new best way’ to promote yourself online. We’re told that hashtags allow you to improve your visibility and share your content with interested users - but do they actually help?
Hashtagging and the deep unknown
Instagram, like most social platforms, doesn’t exactly advertise their algorithm updates and explain how to most effectively use their features. Because of this, we can only trust our own experiences, or take advice from others, on how to make sense of the hashtag mystery.
“How many hashtags should I use? Do I choose to include popular hashtags, or niche specific tags? Should I always use the same hashtags? In the caption or in the comments?”
I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves questions like these before, and if you do a little researching online… you’ll find no one really knows the true answer. At Creatively Squared, we have done some experimenting to try and bring some clarity to the mystery of hashtagging. We hope this blog can help you make sense of this feature and encourage you to do some testing of your own!
What does the data say?
While Instagram isn't forthcoming with all the details of their algorithm, they do provide users with business accounts some basic profile insights and metrics behind each post.
After looking into the data behind our own account we were quite surprised to discover that only 5-10% of the average reach, was from outside our profile's follower base. On a more in-depth study of the insights panel (accessible by swiping up) we were also able to see precisely how many (or more accurately how few!) impressions came from hashtags. This was on average 5 hashtag views for every 1000 in feed impressions - not great is it?
To investigate this further, we asked a few creatives from our community to share their post insights with us to see if they matched our findings. Their account insights all had very similar metrics to ours which supports our theory that hashtags have little to no effect on the overall impact of a post. In fact, when we crunched the numbers we found that on average only a measly 0.5% of all impressions came from hashtags!
Conclusion: This basic analysis of the data provided by Instagram definitely suggests that hashtag use does little to promote the reach of our posts.
Where should you put your hashtags?
There are a lot of people claiming that you need to post all of your hashtags into your opening caption in order for them to be seen. When the whole ‘shadow banning’ fiasco hit last year, users affected would disappear from public hashtag feeds but still be visible to those that were following them.
To put this opening caption theory to the test we viewed the same hashtag feed from several profiles (to account for any followed user implications) to see if we would get different results.
We found absolutely no difference in the hashtag feed when viewed from a variety of accounts and the images visible were a mix of posts with hashtags in the first comment and opening caption.
There is of course the possibility that some accounts that had used that tag were simply not visible at all to anyone. When we moderate our weekly challenge hashtag there are usually some discrepancies between the number of times Instagram says the tag has been used and the number of posts we can see, but this could also be attributed to people posting from private accounts.
Conclusion: Although we can see no obvious examples of posts not showing up in feeds due to the placement of the hashtags, if you are concerned it certainly can’t hurt to put them in your opening caption.
How many hashtags should you use?
Some users say that you should limit the number of hashtags to just several of your top ones and there are many rumours swirling that imply Instagram will penalise you for using too many.
Common sense tells us that it would seem a bit ridiculous for the platform to permit account holders to do something and then penalise them for doing it. We are in the school of thought that if Instagram lets you use 30 then why not just go for it and use all of them?
With our research already showing that minimal post traffic comes from hashtag use, why not spend your time researching a more refined set of tags. We think it’s much more effective to spend your time finding 10 amazing and hyper-relevant hashtags that you yourself would love to follow, than by putting a whole bunch up just for the sake of it.
Conclusion: Some users claim a sweet spot of around 11 tags however, with no definitive ruling from Instagram you’ll have to come to your own conclusion about this one or err on the side of caution and not use all 30.
How do you get your picture into the top posts of a hashtag feed?
We looked at the results of this from several different accounts and funnily enough there is one simple solution to have your image featured in the top posts - make sure the person viewing the feed is following your account. To verify this, we looked at the our own branded hashtag #creativelysquared from several different users accounts and no top 9 was the same.
From this you can determine that as well as popular posts, you are more likely to see the posts of accounts that you follow in the Top Posts section of hashtag feeds. We also considered other factors such as where they placed the hashtags or how many they used, none of which seemed to have any impact on its visibility.
What hashtags should you use?
While the business insights will usually tell you how many users saw your post through the hashtags, it won’t indicate which tag led a user to your photo or if they engaged with it. Unfortunately there is no clear way to determine how successful your individual hashtag selection is apart from overall post performance.
A popular theory at the moment is that you should mix up your hashtags and use different ones each time you post. Whether Instagram’s algorithm is monitoring this or not, we agree it is a good practice. By using a mix of popular and niche tags and mixing them up each time you post you will give your content the best shot of being introduced to wider audience that will enjoy it.
Conclusion: The most important thing to do when selecting which hashtags to use is to ensure that the tag you are using is relevant to your image. Before you commit to using a particular tag take a good look at the feed and ask yourself - would I want to browse this collection?
One last tip - stay on top of the latest features
The latest hashtag feature introduced at the end of 2017 enables users to follow their favourite hashtags. Instead of manually searching hashtag feeds they love, accounts can have content from their favourite tags delivered straight into their feeds. For those, like us, who are not getting much traffic to their posts via hashtags this could be a game changer.
We have already started following our branded #creativelysquared tag as well as the weekly hashtags meaning bring our community even closer into our feed. In our experience, rather than show you every post from that feed, the algorithm will only show you the top posts and curated highlights from the hashtag stories.
As well as discovering more content that you are interested in, you can also look more closely at other peoples accounts and find out what hashtags they enjoy and are following. You can view this alongside the ‘people’ tab when you click on an accounts followings. Once this feature gains more momentum it will be key to conducting hashtag research, allowing you to more easily identify popular tags and refine your own hashtag selection each time you post.
Followed hashtags will also start appearing in our Stories feeds allowing you to expand the reach of your posts to a different audience. Try including your favourite tag or two when you next share Stories and see if you get some new viewers.
A Wrap up
So to answer our opening line - is it #worthit? Our conclusion that in general, probably not but if you have the time it can’t hurt!
There are definitely lots of positive things to be gained from the right hashtag use, such as getting your images shared by your favourite feature hubs or getting involved in online communities. There are lots of fun themed hashtags you can participate in like Instagram’s own weekend hashtag project and creative challenges like the one that we run every week on our Creatively Squared Instagram account. Discovering your favourite hashtags can help you find your tribe online and introduce you to other accounts that inspire you.
At the end of the day, hashtag use, along with many other social media features, is likely to remain a complete mystery. There is no way to truly know the perfect way to use hashtagging to maximise reach - unless, of course you work for Instagram and would like to share the answers with us!
With the introduction of users being able to follow hashtags, we believe Instagram is moving toward an updated kind of feed, where hashtags play a more integral role than in the past. Our best advice would be to jump onto any new features that Instagram release, like following hashtags and Story highlights and experiment with what works best for your account. Find your niche and participate in hashtag projects, join communities and follow your favourite hashtag feeds. Just make sure you are having fun! Best of luck with it all!