If you want to get more followers on Instagram AND make more sales, then knowing how to find and use the right hashtags is crucial.

But there are a LOT of unanswered questions, and a lot of confusing and conflicting answers from different sources.

I hear this question aaaaaall the time:

“How do I find the right hashtags to use for MY business?”

 

and the more crucial question:

“How can I use hashtags to get more followers and more SALES?”

SO that’s why I’m writing this complete guide to using hashtags on Instagram with the latest updates. Everything you need to know, in one spot, completely updated with the latest Instagram algorithm in mind.

Starting with the biggest hashtag misconception of all time.

What most people don’t know is that there are TWO different reasons you use hashtags on Instagram, and you use each at different stages of your IG account growth:

1 – to find your target audience (and grow it)

2 – for your target audience to find YOU

That means proper hashtag practice is not just using hashtags in your own posts and crossing your fingers that if you use the right ones, hundreds or thousands of new followers will find you.

There’s a lot more to hashtags.

Click here to get the shorter, straight-to-the-action-steps version!

I’ll break down the two parts of the biggest hashtag misconception plus:

  • how to find the right hashtags for YOUR business
  • how hashtags can get you more targeted followers (and ultimately, sales)
  • how to rank in the “Top Posts” for your relevant hashtags
  • how many hashtags to use in your posts
  • how to NOT look spammy
  • best practice for custom hashtags

Keep reading and we’ll get down to it.

The Way Hashtags Work (Basically + an Insider Strategy Most People Waste)

Hashtags work in two different ways, and you’ll need two different kinds of hashtags to do both properly.

But the basic way a hashtag works is…

When a hashtag is used on a post, that post gets automatically filed away into a hashtag “folder” of sorts. Here’s what I mean…

When@academyofhandmadeuses the hashtag #handmadebiz…

  Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 6.19.14 PM

…it shows up under the #handmadebiz hashtag “folder” when someone searches for #handmadebiz or clicks on the hashtag #handmadebiz.

Right away it will be added to the top of the “Most Recent” list and will move down (you have to scroll to find older ones) as more recent posts using that same hashtag are posted.

MostRecent_Screenshot

If your post using the hashtag scores in the top 9 posts (using that hashtag) for most likes and comments (in the shortest amount of time), then your post will appear in the “Top Posts” section for that hashtag.

Now, if a post gets less engagement (likes and comments) than yours, BUT they get it a lot faster, then they could bump you out of your spot. The growth rate of the post engagement is a big factor here.

TopPosts_Screenshot

If 9 posts beat your number of likes & comments, then you will  be bumped off the “Top Posts”.

TopPosts_Screenshot_Bumped

So if you become a “Top Post” then you can get found by new followers – but if you are consistently on the top of the most recent posts, then you can also get discovered there too!

BUT there is another way you can use hashtags, and it’s just as important (if not MORE – especially if you are just starting out and need to grow your followers)

The Two Different Reasons to Use Hashtags (the Biggest Misconception)

Reason 1 – To Find Your Target Audience (and Grow It)

When you’re trying to grow your audience (especially when you’re just starting out), the strength of hashtags is in finding your target audience, not the other way around.

targetaudience

 

If you’re just starting off and have under 1,000 followers (and even under 10,000 depending on how many other accounts there are like yours), then you should have this state of mind:

“I gotta find my people and introduce myself!”

There are 300 million Instagram accounts, so when you’re the new (or small) kid on campus, you gotta put yourself out there and make friends (ahem, by friends I mean followers – it’s a  metaphor heheh).

Reason 2 – Getting Your Target Audience to Find YOU

When you’re trying to grow but already have a big enough following, another strength of hashtags is that when you rank for them, you can get discovered.

And when I say “rank” I mean make it to the “Top Post” section for a particular hashtag:

  TopPosts_Screenshot2

If you have a solid (5-10k + followers – again this depends on how saturated your industry is and how much competition you have) then you can start thinking with this state of mind:

 “I still gotta put myself out there, but I’ve grown enough that people can find ME too.”

You already have some “friends”, and you have a good reputation around campus, so now when people hear your name (see your posts), they might check you out!

So how do you use hashtags for these two reasons to get these two results?

Let’s break it down.

How To Find Your Target Audience (and Grow It) with Hashtags

Just like Instagrammers search for certain hashtags to find accounts to follow, YOU can search certain hashtags to find your followers.

(It may seem a little backwards, but trust me, this is basically how we got our account up to 17.4k!)

So in this case, hashtags are less about you and more about your customers.

The idea is you want to find the hashtags that your target audience uses themselves so that you can find their accounts, engage with them, and “introduce” yourself. Basically, just start a relationship with them and get your account seen by them.

If your content is good, and they are truly part of your target audience, then chances are they will follow you :)

Here’s how to do it: 

Step 1. Choose 3 of your followers

(If you don’t have any followers yet, or they aren’t exactly in your target audience, then take a look at some of your competitors followers. As long as they have the same target audience as you, this will work.)

Step 2. Scope out their accounts – which hashtags do they use? Try and find about 5.

Say you make super cool gemstone jewelry, and you’ve been using the hashtag #makersgonnamake, and you’ve been getting followers that are other makers. That’s because your hashtags are the ones used by other makers! You gotta find what your CUSTOMERS use.

So look for patterns between the 3 accounts. Try to find the hashtags they all use (then you know it’s relevant.)

You might notice that all three (or maybe 2 of those followers) always use #boho in their posts.

I mean, it makes sense – if they are into the whole boho style, then your gemstone jewelry is right up their alley! Noticing this hashtag pattern let’s you know you’re onto something.

If you’re having trouble here because either,

1. Most of your followers have private accounts or,

2. Your followers don’t seem to really use hashtags

Then, again, check out the followers of your competition (or just other accounts with the same audience) and see what you can find. If you still got nothin’, try asking some of your current followers/customers if they have Instagram accounts and what kind of hashtags they use!

If it comes down to your followers not really using hashtags, or you can’t find any solid patterns, then don’t worry. You can focus on using hashtags for the 2nd reason, explained later in this lesson :)

Step 3. Take those hashtags and start a list

PSST! If you make the list as a note or memo on your phone, you’ll have it for easy access when you are posting. (Instead of having to open a Google doc or something like that.)

Eventually you’ll have these tags memorized, but for now, a memo is the way to go!

HashtagList

 

Step 4. Search for those 5 hashtags on Instagram

Now the idea is…

You take these solid hashtags you found and do a little research to find MORE similar ones.

Instagram will show you a list of similar and relevant hashtags, and in order of how popular they are (how much they are used on Instagram):

Search

IG_search1

 

 

Search > Tags

IG_search2

The trick here is to NOT just choose the very top (most popular) ones.

Why?

Because the top ones are usually more general and less specific (so when you search them, you’ll have to filter through more non-relevant accounts to find your true target audience).

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 6.16.11 PM

THE SOLUTION: Choose hashtags with a variety of popularity levels. Mix it up and throw in some popular tags that aren’t quiiiite so saturated as well.

So for this example, I would snag #bohochic (a top one) and then a lower one like #bohobride.

  boho_hashtags

Step 5. Repeat this step for all 5 original hashtags you chose & add them to your list (You’ll have about 15 total).

 

HashtagList_Long

Step 6. Find Your Potential Followers

Now that you have a list of relevant and targeted hashtags that your audience uses, you can start finding potential followers!

Go through your list and search one hashtag at a time.

Then go through the posts (top, and most recent) and check out the accounts using that hashtag.

You’ll want to find ones that look like they are part of your target audience.

Step 7. Engage with Your Potential Followers

Once you find an account that fits one of your buyer personas, engage with them to get your account seen!

Choose one of their recent photos and leave a nice comment.

Something like,

“Love this!”

… usually does the trick. BUT if you can get more personal, then do it. The more quality the comment, the better connection you can make – and better chance they will check out your account.

When they see your comment they’ll think,

“Oh, that was nice, who is this?”

CLICK – they check out your account.

As long as the posts you share on your feed are something they care about, chances are they will follow you!

WARNING: Use your best judgement – if it’s a super personal photo of their kid and that has NOTHING to do with what you sell, then don’t comment on that photo! Find one that relates to your product or your brand’s philosophy.

So for the boho jewelry example, you would be looking for posts where people are sharing pics of a cool new crystal they got, or even a cool boho-vibe outfit.

Step 8. REPEAT

You will ALWAYS need to engage with potential followers. Unless maybe you have 100k and feel pretty good staying there.

The more you engage with potential followers, the more NEW people you will get to see your account, THUS the more followers you should get.

EngagementEquation

It’s all a numbers game – so engage as much as you can!

 

Now, onto the more common use of hashtags…

How to Get Your Target Audience to Find YOU with Hashtags

Alright, so you have a list of hashtags your followers use (so you can find them), but you also need some that will get you found in the hashtag “folders”.

(You will use both of these hashtag lists on your own posts!)

Step 1. Brainstorm hashtags that describe your business/products

When brainstorming you gotta think,

“What would my customers/target audience search for on Instagram?”

Those are the hashtags you want to use if you want to actually get found!

search_path

If you have hashtag block, you can try Step 3 and 4.

 

Step 2: Make a list (separate from the first)

Just like the first list you made, but remember, these are only for use IN YOUR POSTS.

 

Step 3. Look at the hashtags your competitors (or similar accounts) are using

There’s no shame in scoping out similar accounts to see what they are doing.

They are a great place for inspiration, AND a lot of insight into your target audience, potential followers, what kind of content they like to see, AND what kind of hashtags you should use.

Choose a couple similar accounts with larger followings than yours. (That’s a sign they should know what’s up and are doing something right!)

Go through their posts and note which hashtags they use frequently. They are probably using them because well, they WORK.

Add them to your list.

Step 4. Ask your followers what they search for!

Nothing wrong with going straight to the source… in fact… it’s SMART and will get you the best answers you could possibly get.

Direct message some of your followers (that fit in your target audience) and ask them, 

“Which hashtags do you search for on Instagram?”

Then take what they give you and choose the ones that relate to your business and product.

Step 5: Use Instagram (or another search) to find related hashtags

Just like you did with the first list, take the hashtags you found and/or brainstormed and find some related ones to add to your list.

Again, you can directly search on Instagram for related hashtags (plus with the new algorithm, you can always see which hashtags are trending in real-time)

 

TopSearches   TopTags

Just remember, you don’t want to JUST use the most popular hashtags (because they are crazy competitive). Make sure to mix up the level of popularity like you did with the first list:

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 6.16.11 PM

DONE!

Now that you have these 2 lists you have a TON of perfect hashtags to use. Remember, use a mixture of both lists on your own posts, but only use the first list for finding followers.

As far as how/where/when to use these hashtags, I’ll go over the biggest questions below:

“How Many Hashtags Should I Use Per Post?”

You’ve probably read other sources that give you an exact “optimal number of hashtags for the most engagement” but those are based on very general patterns, not taking into consideration other factors like if those people are even using the RIGHT hashtags, and where they are putting them.

There is no magic number of hashtags that will get you more likes and followers. There is no algorithm that says, “okay this post has 7 hashtags, it is going to show up more on people’s feeds or higher in the search.

What’s more important is using the RIGHT ones, and it always depends on how popular they are.

But these are true facts based on firsthand experience (and success):

  • If you use too few hashtags – you’re limiting your potential to be found when people search
  • If you use too many (in your post directly) you will come across as spammy to your followers and potential followers viewing your post and will deter them. “I’m really just posting this to rank high for a hashtag and get lots of likes, followers, etc”

How to Use Hashtags Without Looking Spammy

A cool trick to adding more hashtags without looking spammy is to add them to your first comment instead of in your caption directly.

Step 1: Post your image and caption like you normally would, but leave out the hashtags.

Step 2: Right after posting, add a comment to your own post just using your hashtags.

Now when other people comment on your post, the hashtag comment will be hidden!

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 6.30.44 PM

SO that means theoretically you could totally use 30 hashtags in your first comment and you won’t look spammy if you get enough comments to “cover it”.

HashtagsHidden

 

INSIDER TIP:

If you don’t usually get a ton of comments and are worried your hashtag comment won’t be covered up…

Take advantage (in a good way) of your friends or biggest supporters and ask them to be the first to comment on your posts when you post them. Then you’ll be sure to get your first comment covered, PLUS it will up your chances of getting other organic comments.

(When people see that others have already commented, they feel more comfortable and are more likely to comment themselves!)

IMPORTANT: Whether you put your hashtags directly in your caption OR in a comment (even a year later) it won’t affect your post any differently. Either way, you will still be added to the hashtag “folders”.

“Can I Add Hashtags Later (After Posting)?”

Totally!

Your post will be added to that hashtag folder BUT…

…it will not “re-promote” your post for that hashtag.

What I mean is, your post will show up relative to the others in the “most recent” timeline based on when it was ORIGINALLY posted, not when the new hashtag is added.

Say you post a photo on Monday with the hashtag “etsyshopowner”. Right when you post it, your photo will be added to the #etsyshopowner tag folder. So when someone searches #etsyshopowner your post will pop up in the “most recent” – of course until too many new ones push you down on the list. As the day goes by, your post will be buried by any other more recent posts using that hashtag.

  RecentPost_Days

 

Then let’s say you add a different hashtag, “#etsy” a few hours later.  Your post will be added to that “#etsy” folder and can be found there when “#etsy” is searched BUT it will be placed in order based on your original posting time.

So it won’t show up at the top of the most recent UNLESS it’s a less popular hashtag and there aren’t enough MORE recent posts to bump it down. 

RecentPost_Days2

 

“Should I Create and Promote My Own Hashtag?”

Creating your own unique hashtag can be super powerful for your brand. But you have to do it right.

The goal of a custom hashtag is to get followers to start to use it on their posts. That way your branding is spread!

But without incentive they just probably aren’t going to use it, no offense.

Accounts that feature customer photos take advantage of custom hashtags in a great way:

@frank_bod asks their customers to post photos of themselves using their coffee scrub, and if they use the hashtag #letsbefrank, they have a chance at being featured on the @frank_bod account. That’s their incentive – people want to be instafamous!

  frank1

@izzigadgets does a similar thing, telling followers to use the hashtag #izziographer when posting photos taken using their camera phone lenses to have a chance at getting their photography showcased on the iZZi account.

  izzi_hashtag

Again, incentive to use the hashtag is the only way to go!

So if you came up with your own hashtag to match your branding and are just hoping people will use it – you just gotta step up your game a little bit and give them a reason they care about to actually use it.

That isn’t to say you HAVE to use a custom hashtag.

If you can stick to the strategy you learned above, using theIconosquare hashtag research technique, you’ll be on your way to getting found by the right people that will actually buy from you.

Click here to get the shorter, straight-to-the-action-steps version!

What You Should Do Right Now

Comment below with 4 of your newfound (and super relevant) hashtags that are going to get you more followers and sales. One lucky commenter will be randomly chosen to win a free journal!

Blogpost_Form_HeaderRach

Rachel Daley
Rachel is the resident Content Fairy at MadeFreshly, the ecommerce platform that makes your passion pay off. Click here to get her actionable tips and inspiration for entrepreneurs every week!