You can now follow hashtags on Instagram – so what?

Instagram #Christmas2017 hashtag

Instagram introduced another new feature yesterday. Users can now follow hashtags as well as people, making it easier to follow key interests and trending topics within our feeds. Okay, but so what?

Potentially this is a game-changer for influencers and advertisers. And even if it isn’t, it underlines the importance of a good hashtag strategy if you want to maximise your reach and engagement.

The rise and rise of Instagram

Instagram’s development since its launch in 2010 has been nothing short of meteoric. Facebook purchased the fledgling photo-sharing service for $1bn in 2012. Since then, its user base has grown rapidly, recently passing 800 million monthly active users. That’s more than twice the size of Twitter. Every day, 500 million people log in to Instagram.

As the platform has grown, its range of features has increased. Originally you could only share square photos and apply built-in filters. Now you can also post:

  • Both vertical and horizontal formats
  • Videos
  • Photo carousels
  • Stories (which disappear after 24 hours)
  • Paid advertising.

More controversially, in spring 2016 Instagram also switched from a chronological to an algorithm-controlled feed. Like Facebook’s News Feed, it determines the order in which content is show to users based on previous behaviour, with the aim of improving the experience for casual users.

However, Instagram’s newest feature is arguably its biggest game-changer so far, for both users and brands.

What is hashtag-following?

Instagram works in a similar way to Twitter insofar that you follow other users and their content then appears in your feed. This ensures you only see content you have chosen to see. However, if you are interested in seeing, say, travel photography, there is a whole world of Instagrammers whose relevant content you won’t see because you don’t follow them.

The platform’s existing solution to facilitating ‘discoverability’ – yes, it’s a word! – is hashtags. These work in a similar way to SEO keywords. When posting content, the author adds hashtags that flag up relevant topics. So, for instance, a photo of a popular tourist location in Italy might include #italy, #ig_italia, #travelphoto and #igtravel. Clicking on a hashtag or typing it into the search bar brings up a feed relating to the hashtag. This enables users to find, engage with and follow new people.

This is similar to how hashtags work in Twitter. However, Instagram is not constrained by Twitter’s character limit. So it is common practice to include up to 30 hashtags per post (the maximum allowed).

Get your hashtag strategy right and you will reach an audience far beyond your existing followers. Get it wrong and you will achieve limited reach.

The one downside of this is that a user must make an active decision to search a particular hashtag, rather than automatically seeing the content in their feed​. At least, until now.
Instagram’s new functionality enables ‘hashtag-following’. This means we can now follow our favourite hashtags as well as fellow users, with content being automatically pushed directly into our feeds.

This is a potential game-changer for influencers and brands.

So what should I do now?

Of course, no one knows for sure just yet how big an impact this will have. But here’s what I think you should do.

If you already have a working hashtag strategy, just keep doing what you’re doing. You should see at least a small increase in your stats as people start to follow hashtags you regularly use and your content automatically gets pushed into their feed.

If you don’t have a proper hashtag strategy, create one. By following their favourite hashtags, people are welcoming relevant content from unfamiliar users.

So use as many of your allowance of 30 hashtags per post as possible. But don’t just go for the biggest hashtags. You will do yourself no favours if you include irrelevant tags. And ‘most popular’ doesn’t necessarily equate to ‘most likely to succeed’.

So hashtag selection is critical. Here the ‘Goldilocks principle’ applies. You don’t want hashtags that are too big or too small; you want them to be just right.

Creating new hashtags or using unpopular ones will not help your discoverability. No one is going to follow a hashtag they don’t know exists.

Equally, selecting extremely popular hashtags opens up a big potential audience. But the likelihood is your content will be swept away in a flood of other people’s content, unseen.

But get it just right and you find that sweet spot: a hashtag with enough critical mass but small enough to give your content the opportunity to be found.

Finding the right hashtags

How do you find the right hashtags? Here are three easy things you can do:

Firstly, take a look through your feed for any posts similar to what you are doing. Do they tend to use similar hashtags? If so, that’s a good starting point – although not a foolproof one. At the very least, it should prompt some ideas.

Secondly, in Instagram itself you can type a word into the search bar and it will show a list of existing hashtags and how many posts have used each one. A hashtag that has been used millions of times is probably too big. One with only a few hundred uses is certainly too small.

Finally, some Instagram publishing tools will suggest relevant hashtags to you. For instance, in Tailwind if you add a couple of hashtags to an image, it will suggest related tags and give you a colour-coded indication of how competitive each one is.

And that’s it, really. Be creative with your hashtag ideas, do a little research to see how popular they are and don’t be afraid to use all 30 available hashtags if relevant. Now go forth and publish.


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