How to use Instagram hashtags to expand your reach

Hashtags can really stir up debate. Some people hate them, while others love them.

However, there is no denying that on a platform like Instagram, they can be quite valuable. In fact, using at least 1 Instagram hashtag results on average in a 12.6% increase in engagement than a post without a hashtag.

This increased engagement can be harnessed to help promote your products or services and build your audience. For example, Dan Norris recently launched his latest book Create or Hate with the help of Instagram.


Like other social media platforms, Instagram too provides several ways for businesses to grow their audience and promote their wares. However, a critical role in all of this is the use of hashtags.

In this post, we explore the use of Instagram hashtags in gaining followers and engagement. We also look at how you can find relevant hashtags for your content and campaigns.

What is an Instagram hashtag?

An Instagram hashtag is really the pound sign (#) followed by a word or phrase which could contain letters, numbers or emojis. Spaces and special characters like $ or % are not allowed.

Hashtags are not unique to Instagram; Twitter is the birthplace of modern hashtag usage, and they are used on other social media sites.

As an Instagram user, you can employ hashtags to categorize posts, to improve discoverability, to participate in a community, to promote a brand and to collate contest entries.

Why do people use Instagram hashtags?

Instagram hashtags are like metadata and enable posts to be categorized, which enhances their discoverability. They also allow users to connect with others outside their current network. Bearing this in mind, below are a number of use cases as to why hashtags are employed:

  1. To organize their own collection of photographs. Meighan O’Toole offered a great example of this, saying:

“Last year I embarked on learning watercolor, I started tagging all of my watercolor paintings as #mlowatercolor. I did this for a few reasons, so I could catalog my progress and keep all of my paintings in one stream in case I wanted to share them”.

  1. To make new friends and contacts. Again, Meighan O’Toole utilized this aspect of Instagram hashtags, explaining:

“Through tagging my photos with the #yearofmaking tag and visiting other images within that pool, I made so many new friends, contacts, and I more than doubled my IG following in 6 months“.

  1. Brands can use hashtags to increase their audience reach by using hashtags strategically. It can make their content more discoverable. Businesses can use hashtags to influence and create a brand following. Research by Simply Measured found, “Hashtags give audiences an organic way to discover branded content through the topics and forums that interest them.”
  2. Instagram hashtags serve the useful function of collating contest entries. For example, Hootsuite used the hashtag #IWorkFromHere, a contest requiring participants to upload a photo of their workspace using the Hootsuite mobile app.
  3. Niche communities interact using specific hashtags. For example, a portrait photographer might want to find other portrait photographers or photos, and use the #portrait tag.
  4. Small businesses or sole traders promote their work using a hashtag. A good example of this is #Weddingphotography, a top performer for photographers on Instagram.
  5. Some hashtags trend and have gained universal popularity. #ThrowbackThursday, for example, was created specifically for Instagram and encourages users to post retro photos. This is often shortened to #tbt.
  6. Some of the most popular hashtags are used simply as descriptors. The most popular is #love. #instagood is used to describe any photo or video that a user is particularly proud of. A more expansive list of the top 100 hashtags can be found here.

How do you add an Instagram hashtag?

Adding an Instagram hashtag is crucial to the success of your post. We know that hashtags allow Instagram users to categorize their content and enable content to be discovered by other users. According to the Instagram Help page, a user can add hashtags to the captions or comments of their own post, but they cannot tag other people’s photos/videos.

To add a hashtag, a user should:

  • Take or upload a photo or video
  • Type # followed by text or emoji in the caption field
  • If the post has already been uploaded, users can add hashtags by tapping the 3 dots in the top right corner of their screen and selecting ‘Edit’, or by tapping the speech bubble under a photo and adding a hashtag as a comment.

It is also useful to remember that a single post can include up to 30 hashtags. If the post is set to public, then it will be visible on the corresponding hashtag page.

How do you use Instagram hashtags to maximize your reach?

As you use hashtags on Instagram, it helps to keep the following possibilities in mind.

  1. When an Instagram post has been tagged with a hashtag, it is then possible to click the hashtag and be taken to the hashtag page, which shows all the publicly shared photos and videos that have been tagged with that hashtag.
  2. If an account is set to private, only approved followers are able to see photos and videos that have been shared and tagged on a hashtag page.
  3. Posts appear on the hashtag page in the order that they were shared. If, for instance, a hashtag is added after a photo is posted, then the photo will appear on the hashtag page according to the time it was originally posted, not the time the hashtag was added.
  4. If a hashtag is trending, its hashtag page might include sections called Top Posts and Most Recent, which show some of the popular posts tagged with that hashtag. The Most Recent section of a hashtag page may be removed if it is used to post abusive content.

What is a brand hashtag?

It is useful to think of a ‘brand hashtag’ as being like a signature. It should be unique to a particular business. In many instances, a brand hashtag is as simple as a company name or the name of a product or campaign.

70% of the most-used hashtags on Instagram are branded hashtags created by businesses. #BMW and #MercedesBenz are the most popular examples of these.

How do brands use hashtags?

In some cases, the brand hashtag might be a word or phrase that defines a brand’s identity, such as Herschel’s use of the #WellTravelled hashtag, which was created as part of a campaign to encourage customers to share travel photos featuring Herschel products and has been used in more than 1.15 million posts.


During the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Nike posted inspirational photographs of children playing football in the favelas and used their slogan as a hashtag, #justdoit. They continue to do so with other inspirational moments like the one below.


Starbucks has previously used hashtags like #glutenfree to advertise its products to customers who are not necessarily performing coffee-related searches. More recently, they have been running contests encouraging user generated content to be submitted around this hashtag #RedCup.


A brand hashtag can be created for a specific marketing campaign or it can be used to showcase a company’s products and services. The purpose of the brand hashtag is to drive customer engagement. As hashtags perform the function of categorizing posts, it allows posts that are tagged with the same hashtag to appear on a hashtag page. This makes it easy for people who don’t already follow a company on Instagram to find their content when they search with hashtags.

Brands can also use hashtags to collect contest or promotion entries. Hootsuite did this with the previously mentioned #IWorkFromHere contest. Users can share photographs and add further hashtags, thus extending the reach of a post.

Posts that are shared on other social media sites, such as Facebook, also include the Instagram hashtag. In short, brand hashtags enable communities to be built around a brand and increase the reach of a business.

Brand hashtags should be specific. For example, a photo of a VW van should be tagged with #vwvan rather than #van.

Brands can find inspiration for new hashtags by looking at hashtags competitors or influential people in the industry are using. Take for example the airline industry.

Emirates Airline has previously used #HelloTomorrow and #EmiratesAirline.


Qatar Airways has previously used #GoingPlacesTogether and #QatarAirways.


Failure to use a hashtag effectively renders Instagram content private, and research has shown that posts with at least one hashtag average 12.6% more engagement than those without. Having said that, it is important that you avoid using hashtags that openly solicit likes and followers, such as #followme and #like4like.

How do you choose the right Instagram hashtags, and how many Instagram hashtags should you use?

There is no one right answer to this question, it can vary depending on your audience. Yet this is a question that keeps coming up. So I figured I would turn to data trends to give you a place to start trying hashtags for your audience. Here are some of the key observations I discovered.

1) Number of characters

A 2016 report published by TrackMaven found that hashtags consisting of between 21-24 characters generate maximum engagement, with engagement per post falling sharply beyond 25 characters. On the other end, the least amount of engagement is generated by hashtags consisting of 2 characters.


2) Relevant hashtags

The hashtags should be relevant or in some way related to the post made by the user and also to the community the user wants to enter. An easy method is to utilize hashtags that are used the most frequently in the community you want to be a part of.

For example, if the user wants to be a part of the fitness community, they should use hashtags like #Fitspo (featured in over 24,342,312 posts) or #Eatclean (used in over 25,361,322 posts) to get more attention.


3) Trending hashtags

There are 2 approaches as to utilizing trending hashtags:

(a) using hashtags directly related to the user’s niche and

(b) using hashtags having no connection to the user’s niche.

Now, using the first approach can give more targeted results and high engagement, but the user may have to wait a long time to get trending hashtags in his/her community. Hence the second approach can be used to improve the user’s visibility.

For example, Dolls Kill is an online fashion brand. Though it doesn’t sell flowers, chocolates or anything else related to Valentine’s Day, the company managed to use the trending hashtag #Valentines in its posts without seeming desperate for likes.


4) Evergreen hashtags

Evergreen hashtags are those hashtags which can be used across all communities irrespective and are universally popular.

For example, #TBT (Throwback Thursday) is one of the most popular hashtags on Instagram, being used in 330 million posts in a day. Using such posts are a surefire way to get involved in several feeds.


5) Using hashtags that are not the most popular

Using only the most popular hashtags means that the post will be quickly buried beneath numerous posts using the same hashtags. However, using a not so popular hashtag means that the post will stay on the feed for longer, hence creating a greater possibility of engagement.

For example, at the time of writing, #Mobile is tagged over 2,364,607 times, #Mobileapps is tagged 43,597 times and #Mobileapplication, which is tagged 6,642 times. Therefore, if one wanted to promote a mobile application, then a combination of #Mobile and #Mobileapplication can be used to get featured in large number of feeds while generating maximum engagement.


6) Being sure of the hashtag’s meaning

Hashtags can often mean different things than what appears. Therefore, the user must be very careful when utilizing an already trending hashtag.

For example, when DiGiorno Pizza started a marketing campaign by tweeting “#WhyIStayed You had pizza”, the company overlooked the fact the the hashtag #WhyIStayed was already being used by females telling their stories about domestic abuse. The company suffered a serious backlash for this, and had to remove its posts and apologize to their audience.

How many Instagram hashtags should you use?

Hashtags are a crucial part of visually dominated social media platforms like Instagram. The user can add up to 30 hashtags per post, with articles from numerous sources (Hootsuite, Razorsocial) stating that more is better, with 11 being the optimal number for maximum engagement.

However, a recent survey carried out by TrackMaven stated that using 9 hashtags per post gives the highest engagement (almost 28000 engagements).


On the other hand, posts with 4-6 hashtags saw the least number of engagements, with the lowest number of engagements coming from posts with 4 hashtags ( around 6000 engagements).

Tips and best practices for using Instagram hashtags

To help you achieve your Instagram objectives, it would help to gain an understanding of other some of the best tips and best practices when it comes to hashtags. After all, they underpin the visibility and relevance of your posts to your audience.

Use your SEO keywords – But do some research to ensure that the keywords can be used as a relevant hashtag with your audience

Create custom hashtags – Once your brand is established on Instagram, consider adding custom hashtags that are unique and memorable. Some brands use a play on their name like – Burberry uses #ArtoftheTrench


Tiffany & Co uses #ATiffanyHoliday


Create an Instagram campaign using hashtags – Get your audience engaging with your brand. Run campaigns that are designed to increase your exposure and that build relationships by inviting your audience to feel like they are a part of your brand.

Use popular hashtags – Using some classic yet popular hashtags properly can help drive engagement. For example, #regram.

Optimize your hashtags – Use analytical tools to optimize the hashtags you use.

Optimize your bio – Your bio provides a brief introduction to you and your brand, so ensure it stands out with suitable hashtags.

Adapt to the platform – A heavily hashtagged image on Instagram may be appropriate but would not go down so well on other networks like Facebook or Twitter.

Use hashtags that support your theme – Many Instagram profiles that generate high engagement and interest have an overarching theme or point of view to make them compelling. Ensure the hashtags support that theme.

Don’t just focus on images and hashtags – The image may be the star of the post and the hashtags provide context, but the caption helps to tell a story.

Build a community – To create a true community, you need to follow those who regularly like your content and comment on photos you like. Hashtags offer a great way to find such profiles and content. To help build your community on Instagram check out this post from Foundr magazine.

Take advantage of trending hashtags – You can use Instagram’s Explore feature to find posts related to trending hashtags like #Thanksgiving, #BlackFriday, etc. If these tags are relevant to your brand, include them in timely posts to aid discovery.


Use hashtags to help you tell great stories – Instagram gives you the chance to tell great stories through visuals. So, showcase your product or services in a new light. For example, Urban Outfitters shows their followers updates for its #UOonYou.


Over to you

With more than 300 million active users on Instagram, it’s no surprise that many businesses and individuals are flocking to the platform to increase their reach. With the right approach and topically relevant hashtags, you can see a great return from your efforts and really step up your engagement.

To help you discover the right hashtags to use, discover new ones and analyze your competition’s hashtags, be sure to download the free tool guide below.



Vinay is the content marketing manager for WP Curve. Follow him @wpcurve

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