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Are Instagram Hashtags Dead?

Instagram hashtags, they're pretty 2019, aren't they? Or are they? Should we be using them on our Instagram posts? 

You might have noticed some buzz around this topic recently. So what has sparked that discussion? Well, we can blame the head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri. Adam has a habit of jumping on Instagram Stories for a chat and whether he means to or not, he'll make a comment that sends social media professionals like me into a spin. And that is what he has done recently around Instagram hashtags.

The first comment he made was in mid-March 2022 when he was asked about hashtags and their impact on Instagram. He said, "they do help us to understand what a post is about, which means it might be more likely to show up in a place like a hashtag page, for instance. But in general, no, I wouldn't try to think of hashtags as a way to get more distribution."

There we have the answer from the horse's mouth, right? Hashtags aren't that important on Instagram.

Well, hold your horses.

In his next Q and A session at the start of April in 2022, Adam was asked to confirm that hashtags don't matter - someone actually challenged him on his last response. This time he said, "I'm saying they're not going to meaningfully change the amount of reach you get when you post. So if you expect a night and day difference, you're going to be disappointed. But feel free to use them because they can help on the margin."

So what are we to do?

On one hand, he's saying that they're pretty much useless. On the other hand, he's saying they might help a little bit.

So, of course, I look to the data. I analysed my posts and had a look at the performance of my hashtags. But before I share with you the results of my analysis, I just cover how hashtags actually work.

Hashtags can help to categorise or group your content.

When we add a hashtag to our content, whether it's an Instagram post, a video, or a Reel what we're doing is we're adding a topic or a subject. We're also grouping our post with all the other posts about that same subject. All of the other posts that have that same hashtag get grouped into the same "bucket".

The other thing we are doing is adding keywords to our post. Let me give you an example: say I was selling skincare and I had a particular cleanser, and I created a post about that cleanser. My message might be about the ingredients in the cleanser, so I could be talking about how it uses all-natural ingredients. Now that cleanser might be really good for eczema-prone, sensitive skin - there might be a whole lot of other benefits to using that cleanser. Now, I'm not going to clog up my caption with all the benefits because I want to give one message or concept for that caption. So instead, what I'm going to do is use hashtags to add all of the other benefits of that product to that post.

Because hashtags are searchable!

So I might add #sustainableliving or #sustainability if my packaging is all glass and it's recyclable - there's lots of different ideas or topics that I can add to that one post.

Now, what happens is when someone does a search on a hashtag - they literally type into the search bar on Instagram #sustainableliving - my post could appear in those results. That's how hashtags help increase our reach.

The other way someone might search on Instagram is by actually just typing in the words and doing a more natural search. Rather than typing in #sustainableliving, they might just do a search of the words 'sustainable living'.

Now, Instagram works like a search engine. So what Instagram will do is it will have a look through captions for the words sustainable living - regardless of whether they are typed with a hashtag at the front or not.

That's why it's important that we include the hashtags in the caption rather than in the first comment. There was a whole period where I was adding my hashtags to the first comment, and it would still work to group my posts with everything else that had that hashtag on it. And it would still work to appear in searches, but only if someone searched using the hashtag. But what we're finding is that people are doing more sort of natural language searches. They're just typing in the keywords that they're interested in.

If I had used the #sustainableliving and someone did a search just for the word sustainable living, but I had put my hashtag in the comments, not in the caption, I'm not going to appear in those search results. So it's only the caption that Instagram is searching for keywords in.

You can follow a Hashtag.

The other way that hashtags can help increase our reach is that people actually follow hashtags. So there's a whole range of subjects that I'm really interested in. I have chosen to follow those hashtags because I want to see any content that refers to that topic. I don't necessarily need to be following the business or profile. I don't even need to know that they exist to find that content in my news feed.

I've noticed lately that when I open up Instagram in the morning and I have a look at my newsfeed, the post at the top for the last few days has actually been a post that is tagged with a hashtag that I follow. So I'm not talking about a post from an account that I follow. It's not even a post from an account that I know exists. It's literally a post that has used a hashtag that I am following. So yes, that post is relevant to me. It's something I'm interested in. But it's a brand new account. It's someone I didn't even know existed. So through hashtags, I'm being exposed to a brand new account. And for that business or that creator, they are reaching a potential client, customer or follower just by adding in that hashtag.

Now the facts.

So when Adam comes out and says that hashtags don't increase your reach, then I choose to disagree.

Let's get back to that cold, hard data. I went back through my last ten posts where I had used hashtags. Now, for the record, I generally aim for 30 hashtags. That might seem like a lot, but I have done my research, I have some good 'buckets' of hashtags depending on what my content is. And I have my hashtags saved into Business Suite, so I just click on the relevant ones for that post.

So I went through my last ten posts. I had a look at my insights for each post, and what I was looking at specifically was the impressions from hashtags. So how many impressions did I get that were a direct result of the hashtags I had used on that post? 9%. I had a 9% increase in impressions just from using hashtags.

I guess 9% could be on the margin, and like Adam is saying, I'm not going to be an overnight success just by using hashtags. I'm not going to suddenly start reaching thousands of extra people because of those hashtags. But for me, a 9% increase in impressions is actually worthwhile.

Have a look for yourself.

You can easily figure out this yourself. Grab your phone and open up Instagram and have a look at the posts that you have used hashtags on. When you click on a post, you'll see a wee blue link at the bottom there that says View Insights. Click on that and scroll right down until you see the heading Impressions. Under Impressions, you'll see a few different options, but you're looking at the one that says From hashtags. So you want to see how many impressions you generated on that piece of content from your hashtags.

As I said, 9% to me is worthwhile. It depends on the size of your account. 9% for a small business like me that doesn't have a lot of followers, is quite an increase. I'm happy with that. But if you've got a lot of followers, you've got a good size account, you're generating pretty good reach, I probably wouldn't bother with hashtags if I'm honest.

But have a look at the data. I think that there's real clarity in that data there. Have a look and see what you think about using hashtags and what impact they're having on your own content.

Hashtags in Instagram Stories.

I also just want to briefly mention Hashtags in Instagram stories. So when we share a Story, a piece of content that disappears after 24 hours, adding a hashtag to that story is not going to increase our reach. Stories are no longer appearing on hashtag pages. That's how they previously did increase our reach. But it's absolutely pointless now to add a hashtag to your Instagram Stories.

So, should you bother with Hashtags?

I think you'll agree it's pretty clear the answer is it depends if you want to get that little extra bit of reach that they will help you achieve, or if your time is better spent creating really great, engaging content that your audience wants to engage with and that's how you're going to increase your reach instead.

It's not a hard yes or a hard no from me, I'm sitting on the fence. It really does depend on your goals, the size of your account, your time, your resources, all these different factors there. But come and find me on Instagram @socialsmarty.co if you want to continue this conversation.