Everything You Need to Know About Hashtag Strategy
Updated: Jun 10, 2020
“Do I really need to use hashtags in my social media posts? Aren’t those just for fun?”
I’m asked questions like this all the time during my 1-on-1 social media coaching sessions.
I get it. If you’re used to seeing Facebook and Instagram as entertainment, hashtags might seem like the guacamole on your Chipotle burrito: a nice extra, perhaps, but not necessarily an essential ingredient.
But as both a marketer and an extra-guac devotee, I’m here to tell you that hashtags are an absolutely crucial element of a well-rounded social media strategy. Just like how that extra guac brings out new flavors in your burrito, hashtags enhance your social media posts’ potential to reach and engage new audiences.
And for them to work as effectively as possible, you need to take a tactical approach to using them. In this blog post, I walk you through the exact steps I follow when creating hashtag strategies for my own clients. Take a look…
What is a hashtag?
Hashtags as we know them originally started on Twitter, but are now a standard feature across all major social media platforms. To create a hashtag, simply type the pound or hash (#) symbol and then add a word, phrase, number, or emoji, leaving out spaces and punctuation.
People like to have fun with hashtags, so many of them lean toward the silly side:
But from a marketing standpoint, hashtags serve two critical functions that help your social media posts perform better: They organize and file content, which in turn drives reach and engagement.
Function 1: Content organization
Hashtags’ main job is to act as a search term to organize social media posts by topic. Each one links to a feed of all the public posts that include that hashtag, so people can easily find topic-specific content depending on what they search.
I typically explain hashtags to my clients as a sort of virtual filing system:
Imagine that each social media platform is a different drawer in one big file cabinet. Hashtags are like the folders in the drawers, and posts are like the documents in a folder. So the hashtags you include in your post determine which topics that post is filed under and what searches it will appear in.
Instagram and LinkedIn even have features that let people follow a specific hashtag as though it were another profile. This filters posts for that hashtag into a user’s main feed so that they don’t have to search for it each time, giving you even more opportunities to get in front of your audience.
Function 2: Increased reach and engagement
Hashtags’ second use comes as a result of the first — they drive reach and engagement as people discover your post through the included hashtags. In fact, an Instagram post with at least one hashtag averages 12.6% more engagement than posts without one.
Because hashtags add your posts to topic-specific feeds, using them is a great way to expose your content to people who don’t yet follow you. The more targeted and niche your hashtag is, the better chance you’ll have of reaching and engaging exactly the right kind of new followers for your brand.
However, hashtags only help with reach and engagement if your profiles are set to public. Posts from private accounts are not visible to the public, regardless of which hashtags you include.
So a hashtag is just a keyword, right?
This is a common assumption, because both keywords and hashtags help people find your content by searching for a specific word or phrase. And on a very, very basic level, a hashtag is essentially just a keyword that starts with a pound sign. But when applying them to your marketing campaigns, it’s important to understand the separate purpose each serves.
Here’s the biggest difference between the two: Keywords help you find information, but hashtags help you join the conversation.
Keywords are typically associated with search engine marketing and are used throughout websites to help Google (or other search engines) determine what your content is about. When a user searches for information online, Google takes into account a whole host of factors, including the keywords on your site, to determine how relevant your content is to that search. In part, this determines how highly your website ranks in search results.
But it takes time for Google’s bots to crawl your site — i.e., “read” the content — so search engine marketing is often a long game.
Hashtags are used in social media marketing to categorize your posts according to topic. When you create a post with a certain hashtag, your content immediately appears in the feed — i.e., search results — for that hashtag. This lets users see and participate in conversations happening in real time, which ultimately means faster growth for you.
Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter all let users search by either keyword or hashtag, but the two often turn up wildly different results. For example, a search for the keyphrase “cats of Instagram” yields any post that contains either the word “cat” or “Instagram.”
But a search for “#catsofinstagram” turns up only posts that have used that specific hashtag, giving you a more refined set of results and helping you stay on topic.
And on Instagram, the only searchable elements on the entire platform are hashtags, account names, and places. Including keywords here without the pound sign in front of them won’t do you any good whatsoever.
How to use hashtags in social media marketing
Now that you know why hashtags are so important for your social media campaigns, let’s dive into the best ways to put them into action.
If you’d rather watch than read, here’s a video of a few of the main points:
1. Consider using a branded hashtag.
The easiest way to get started using hashtags is to create a new one specific to your own brand, like Coca-Cola’s #shareacoke, Calvin Klein’s #mycalvins, Lululemon’s #thesweatlife, or Goodyear’s #moredriven.
Each of these hashtags started with only that brand using it, but over time, and with encouragement from the brand itself, fans began to include them in their own posts. Now, 70% of the most-used hashtags on Instagram are branded hashtags created by businesses, making them the perfect tool to encourage conversation around your products or services.
Be sure to give plenty of thought to your branded hashtag before taking it public — rushing this choice just for the sake of having one won’t get you anywhere. Your branded hashtag should:
Reference your business name or your industry
Be short enough for followers to type correctly
Be catchy enough for followers to remember
Be unique to your company — be sure to check all platforms to make sure your hashtag doesn’t exist yet!
Depending on your company, you might benefit from using different branded hashtags for specific topics, promotions, or events, like how Century 21 uses #c21details to showcase listings but switches to #c21relentless when talking about their agents. If you’re not sure how many branded hashtags your business needs, I can help you figure it out with a social media coaching session or a custom social media strategy.
2. Pay attention to posting volume.
Branded hashtags are great, but for your social media marketing to perform as well as possible, you’ll need to branch out and include some other hashtags, too. Whenever possible, try to choose hashtags that have been used somewhere between 1,000 and 100,000 times.
You can see how many times a hashtag has been used by simply searching it on Instagram. I prefer to do this on Instagram’s desktop site rather than on mobile, as the desktop version shows a more precise estimate of the number of times each hashtag has been used.
Although people certainly can and do search for hashtags on other platforms, Instagram is the only one that clearly shows how many times each hashtag has been used. LinkedIn only shows how many people follow a given hashtag, while Facebook and Twitter just show a feed of hashtagged posts.
But here’s why that posting volume is so important …
Hashtags that have been posted to fewer than 1,000 times don’t really have enough activity — either from accounts posting to them or from people searching them — to be of much use to you. They basically just take up space that you should be using on more popular hashtags.
The same is true, but for the opposite reason, when it comes to hashtags with more than 100,000 posts. Hashtags at this end of the spectrum get such a high level of activity that your posts are buried beneath other people’s content before your audience can even find them (you can see an example of this in the video above).
So most of the time, hashtags that fall within that 1K-100K range will give you the best reach and engagement.
But there are a couple of exceptions to this rule:
Branded Hashtags: When you first come up with your own branded hashtag, it’s obviously going to have fewer than 1,000 posts. That’s OK, as long as the majority of your other hashtags fall within the correct range.
Local hashtags: These appeal to a smaller geographic region than a more general hashtag, so they’re likely to have significantly less activity than the global version (for example, #realestate vs. #southjerseyrealestate). But if you’re in a business that relies heavily on clients in your local community, these can be a handy way to get in front of a more targeted, focused audience.
3. Stay on topic.
Be careful to only use hashtags that are relevant to your post — either the photo or the caption. For example, don’t use #catsofinstagram unless there’s an actual cat in your photo.
This is because, for most social media users, it’s pretty frustrating to find irrelevant content in a search for a specific topic. People who follow that hashtag on Instagram might even mark your post as out of place.
And since social media algorithms learn from user behavior, using irrelevant hashtags in your posts could mean you’re accidentally training the algorithm to think your content is irrelevant.
The solution: Switch up your hashtags between posts so that they’re always on topic. I like using the Saved Captions feature in Later — my all-time favorite social media scheduler — to organize my hashtags by subject so that I can pick and choose the right ones depending on which category my post falls under.
4. Use up to 30 hashtags.
Instagram allows you to include up to 30 hashtags per feed post and up to 10 per Stories slide. But there’s a lot of conflicting research regarding the ideal number of hashtags to use on Instagram. In fact, while researching this guide I found 5 different studies all recommending a different “best” number of hashtags to use:
TrackMaven says Instagram posts with 9 hashtags get the most engagement.
In a different study, TrackMaven found that using either 5 or 11 hashtags resulted in the most interactions per post.
Hubspot says 91% of top brands use 7 hashtags or fewer, while Hubspot’s own account does best with a range in the low 20s.
Social Insider says most brands use either 7 or 30 hashtags.
A study by Klear found that using only 2 hashtags resulted in the most Likes.
As you can see above, those recommendations are all over the place. While the majority call for 10 hashtags or fewer, that majority wins out by a suuuuuper slim margin (4-3). So why this dramatic difference, not just in opinion, but in actual study results?
Simply put, every single account is marketing to a slightly different audience because each of us knows different people than the next. Even your direct competitors still reach different people than you do, because chances are, your friends, family, and others in your network follow you, but not them.
So what works really well for your account might not do so well in front of a different audience, and vice versa. There is no one-size-fits-all, perfect number of hashtags to use in an Instagram post, so you’ll need to experiment a little to find your sweet spot.
But the bottom line is that every hashtag you use in a social media post is its own, distinct opportunity for someone to stumble onto your content, click over to your profile, and start following and engaging with your brand. If you want to get the most out of your social media marketing, you need to take advantage of every opportunity available to you.
On Instagram feed posts, that means including all 30 hashtags whenever possible, and then adjusting as needed.
On other platforms, though, you’ll need to be a lot more conservative.
Twitter limits posts to 240 characters, so you really only have room for 4 hashtags at most. Studies support this as the best range to stick to — Agorapulse found that tweets with 4 hashtags get the most impressions, while TrackMaven found that using only 1 hashtag brings the most engagement (Twitter officially recommends using only 1 or 2).
Facebook and LinkedIn were much slower than Twitter or Instagram to integrate hashtags into their platforms, so adding more than 1 or 2 per post can make you look icky and spammy — and, frankly, a bit desperate.
Use these studies as a jumping-off place to start experimenting with your own accounts to find out how many hashtags perform best with your audience.
5. Choose your hashtags’ location intentionally.
It’s hotly debated where hashtags belong in an Instagram post. Most sources you’ll find are staunchly either Team Caption or Team Comments, although several are split between the two.
According to a study by Agorapulse, Instagram posts with hashtags in the original caption had 29.41% higher reach and got 9.84% more Likes. But posts with hashtags in a separate comment saw better engagement rates, with 19.37% more comments and 5.88% more profile visits.
Why this difference in results between the two?
Because with hashtags visible in the caption, people remember that regardless of how relatable your content might be, ultimately, you’re still trying to sell them something. But with your hashtags tucked away in a comment, the viewer’s guard is fully down, they connect more deeply with your message, and they respond when called to act.
Those higher engagement rates from commented hashtags could also depend on how fast you get that comment out. According to Later, which recently released a paid feature allowing users to schedule the first comment along with an Instagram post:
“Based on our experience, the two factors that play the biggest role in determining whether a post gets into the top posts for a hashtag are how much engagement the post gets, and how quickly it gets that engagement. Top posts generally take their position within the first 24 hours of posting, so you need those Likes and comments to roll in quickly ... If you can generate a lot of engagement on your Instagram post shortly after posting, this signals to Instagram that your post is quality, engaging content.”
So if you’re already scheduling Instagram posts ahead of time, shifting your hashtags to the first scheduled comment gives you instant engagement and could help your post get discovered more easily.
Now, a different study suggests that your hashtags’ ideal location might depend on how many followers you have. Social Insider found that Instagram accounts with more than 100K followers generally had better reach with hashtags in comments, while accounts with fewer than 100K followers had better reach with hashtags in the caption.
But take those numbers with a grain of salt — of accounts with fewer than 100K followers, Social Insider said,
“Although using your hashtags in the caption seems to bring slightly better engagement, the difference is not big enough to make a significant impact (0.5 % or less).”
— Social Insider
With all of this in mind, I recommend varying your hashtags’ location depending on your goal for each specific post:
Put your hashtags in the caption if your goal is audience growth or brand awareness. To accomplish either, you’ll need to get your content in front of as many people as possible in your target audience, so it’s smart to capitalize on any potential extra reach. And although we marketers often give Likes less weight because they’re vanity metrics — metrics that make you feel good without telling you anything about your business — the fact is that they do tell you something. Likes tell you that your audience connected with your content, even if it was just on a low level.
Put your hashtags in a comment if your goal is to connect more deeply with your current followers or promote a specific call to action — like “Comment below if …” or “Click the link in our bio.” Comments can be a great way to start a conversation with your followers and strengthen individual relationships, but it can feel awkward for your followers to be the first one to say something. Stashing your hashtags in a comment gets the first one out of the way so that your followers feel more comfortable interacting with your post.
If you do decide to keep your hashtags in your original caption, consider hiding them under several line breaks. Social Insider’s study found that this gave posts a slightly higher engagement rate (about 1.3% more per post), most likely for the same reason discussed above: Out of sight, out of mind.
But the truth is that there’s no hard and fast rule that says where hashtags really work best. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to test these tactics out on your own account and see what hashtag strategy works best for you.
And if you need help along the way, I’m happy to chat with you during a 1-on-1 social media coaching or strategy session. Click below to learn how I can help: