As a business or brand using social media, in this case Instagram, what is your ultimate goal in using the medium? In most cases, it is to create awareness or sell a product. The chances of that happening will likely increase as more users see your posts. If your Instagram follower base is limited, your best bet for reaching beyond your current audience is showing up in the app’s Explore tab (the magnifying glass in the app).

Instagram Explore Tab

Content on the Explore tab is driven by hashtag use and how users interact with and curate their feed. Let’s say you follow some fitness personalities on Instagram, and you “like” fitness-related pictures that have fitness-related hashtags. Because of this activity, your personal Explore tab will include posts from fitness personalities you don’t already follow. So, as a business or brand, finding the right hashtags for your Instagram content will help your posts be seen by people who are already interested in what you’re posting.

If you’re not using hashtags, or not using the right hashtags, your post will never reach beyond your existing audience. Your existing audience can only do so much to help spread your brand message beyond tagging your profile and using your branded hashtag – but that’s out of your control. There’s also the seldom-explored “Following” feed on users’ heart tab, where they can see what the people they follow are following, liking, and commenting on. But again, being seen here is out of your control; your existing audience must be engaging with you. Building a sound hashtag strategy and optimizing for Explore is the best way to take control of growing your organic exposure and engagement in Instagram.

As mentioned in the Etsy SEO blogs posts, I (Patrick) am a woodworker by night. By no means am I an Instagram genius, nor do I claim to have built a large following, BUT I have a very high engagement ratio when looking at likes vs. followers. I optimize for Explore: to be seen by new users. I know I’m not using Instagram as effectively as I can as a growth method, so don’t judge me there, but by simply using organic, non-branded, non-gimmick hashtags, I’ve reached an engagement ratio that can be as high as 15% to 20% when looking at likes vs. followers. (Hint: most of the likes on my Instagram posts come from non-followers.)

This post isn’t meant to be an “Instagram-for-business-best-use” article, nor is it about how you can get from 500 followers to 5000 followers through calls to action and outbound engagement. It’s about hashtag education and building a strong hashtag strategy, based on what I’ve found to be the most successful: garnering engagement by finding and using the best, most relevant hashtags possible for the content I share.

How Do I Know Which Hashtags to Use in Instagram?

A great place to start is to investigate your (successful) competitors’ hashtag use and take notes. Are there hashtags that they’re using regularly? Are the hashtags relevant to the subject of the image, or more playful in nature? Has that competitor built an audience large enough to where the hashtags they use are no longer relevant to the conversation? Furthermore, once bigger brands have built a large audience, they tend to not use hashtags anymore, as they don’t need to. Getting “useful” hashtags from them will be tough. Influencers may not be the organic influencers you think they are.

Now what you know what your competition is doing or not doing, you can find what hashtags are best for your own posts. You’ll need to begin with knowing the audience you want to attract. For instance, are you trying to attract others in your industry, or the end user of your product?

Hashtag Strategy Best Practices

Think of the hashtag search in terms of not just what subject is represented in the picture, but the concept and implication of the image. Maybe the caption and picture are teasing or leading into an upcoming event. Use hashtags around that. Hashtag the main concept of the image; hashtag the intention behind the image. Don’t hashtag #sun because there is a sun in the background. Don’t hashtag the word #color because your picture is vibrant.

Also, there is no magic number of hashtags. You’ll find plenty of dated research that says 9 to 11 hashtags is the correct quantity. I’ve tested it. It’s not accurate. Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags. I’ll regularly use somewhere between 20 to 30 hashtags if I think they will help. That stated, I may only use 5 to 15 if the image or subject doesn’t justify using 30. You still need to have the foresight to really know what your image is about before you search for relevant hashtags and post with them.

If you have a note sharing app, or even a blank email, open it on your desktop. Take notes here while searching for hashtags within Instagram on your mobile device. Create lists of hashtags that you think you’ll use for different types of posts you’ll make. Email your list to yourself. Copy. Paste (perhaps as a comment to your post to keep the caption clean). Repeat. There – you just saved a lot of time by no longer needing to research and retype hashtags for every post.

Bonus Instagram best practice: Don’t buy likes, and don’t buy a “growth service.” Running an online business, I get approached all. the. time. about these services. Their tactics are easily seen through, and they ultimately create false followers that mean nothing to your brand. I’d much rather have my 500 followers and 100 likes per post than 5000 followers with 20 likes per post. What good is a follower if they don’t engage with you?

Finding Your Hashtags

You’ll want to start with a base keyword in mind, the same way you would for any internet search. Open Instagram and touch the magnifying glass. Touch the search bar at the top. Touch the Tags column. Enter your base word or phrase and review suggestions with frequent use. I’ll illustrate the process from my perspective as a woodworker:

Instagram Hashtag Search

Touching #woodworking shows the top posts, followed by the most recent posts for that hashtag. Here, I’ll review the type of content that appears in this feed. This high-volume hashtag appears to be what I’m dubbing a “super hashtag,” because at the top of the screen are not only suggestions for related hashtags, but also Stories that recently used that hashtag.

Woodworking Hashtag Feed

Not every hashtag gets these features. For instance, #woodworkingtools only shows the related hashtags, and #woodworkingschool doesn’t show any of these related suggestions.

Woodworking Tools Hashtag Feed

Woodworking School Hashtag Feed

The related keywords are a treasure trove of keywords that will be relevant to your subject. Most times I find these to be right in line with what I’m trying to accomplish. Even better, when exploring these related hashtags, I’ll find even more hashtags relevant to my subject matter.

Comparing the top posts to the most recent posts for a particular hashtag is a great place to analyze what might end up being a successful post. Try to emulate the type of post that gets a lot of attention in the relevant hashtag.

When reviewing the list of hashtags Instagram suggests for you, going for the most popular isn’t always the best idea when you’re talking about 3.8 million uses. Your post is likely to get buried quickly. (For example, refresh the Explore tab for #vsco a few times and see how quickly the most recent photos change). However, if you see suggested hashtags with much more reasonable numbers, there’s a great chance you’re going to stay visible in that feed for a longer period of time.

You’ll also want to pick an “evergreen hashtag” the same way you strive to write evergreen content for your blog or site. Evergreen hashtags are those hashtags that will always remain popular, compared to those created around a season, or a one-time or annual event. If you are sharing a photo you took at MozCon and want to use #mozcon2017, it’s a good idea to also use #mozcon in the same post. Aim for both audiences.

I think you have enough information to be dangerous here.


Hashtag #beonewithexplore

My parting advice: Don’t focus on getting your next follower. Focus on the the organic reach possible through Explore. The followers will come when they want to or need to.

Many Instagram users will scroll the Explore grid while ignoring their own feed. Do you want to get lost in your followers’ single-image feed created with a popularity algorithm, or do you want to be seen by those who haven’t seen you yet?

Your new audience lives in the Explore grid. So you should you.