As a panellist at the recently concluded Rise and Shine Jamaica Expo, I had an opportunity to share with the audience on one of my favourite topics, social media. One of the questions posed by the moderator was about hashtags, what are they and how to use them effectively.
You can see my rambling response on my IGTV, but in this post I want to take some time to seriously dig into hashtagging. I am going to do my best to give a more fulsome explanation using examples to explain the function behind this tool, it’s usage, best practices and how to easily conduct research on Instagram.
How it started
First used on Twitter in 2007 by Chris Messina, hashtags are metadata used mainly on social media platforms to group like content — making it easier for users to search, connect and interact with other users, communities or interest groups.
Fast-forward thirteen years later and hashtags have morphed into a cultural phenomenon all their own, transcending the digital space to now being a regular part of everyday vernacular across mediums, cultures, brands, industries etc.
In fact, they are so popular that they have become a powerful social engineering tool used to start political movements #metoo, #blacklivesmatter, #sayhername #womensmarch — to fell celebrities #cancelrkelly — raise awareness #alsicebucketchallenge, #bringourgirlsback — launch brands #fashionnova or even turn regular Joe’s into viral sensations #kikichallenge #onfleek.
The point is, as personal brands and businesses you shouldn’t underestimate the power and reach of hashtags. Think of them as little pockets of information that you can use to help you find your people online, to stay up-to-date on industry trends and to help the right people find you.
Why use hashtags
How do you attract people to your page on social channels? With content, and how do you make sure that your content is seen by those people? By using hashtags. In the main, a hashtag is a very effective distribution tool used to spread content on social media platforms.
Unless you have well over 100k followers, hashtags are a necessary part of your engagement and content distribution strategy. However the use of hashtags should not be a random act. For tags to work it requires having a solid content strategy which includes a content creation, distribution and engagement plan.
Hashtag is the distribution part, in fact it’s one of the ways a platforms’ algorithm generates impressions, more impressions, means more reach and more reach means more engagement.
There is a however a major caveat you need to be aware of, hashtags are only one part of your content strategy and can carry your content so far. If your content isn’t that great to begin with, and or if you’re using the wrong platforms then no matter how great the strategy it won’t get you very far.
Hashtags are not a panacea to fix all your content woes, there is no magic there. It is a support tool that doesn’t work if your strategy doesn’t gel.
Types of Hashtags
You can divide hashtags into four main categories — general, industry, branded and geographical hashtags. The right combination of these can really draw attention to your content on social media. However, hashtagging is thoroughly useless and even harmful if misused or abused so let’s look at what each category of tags is for and how to use them.
General tags can literally be any word or phrase randomly generated by users. It can be pop culture references from a TV series #winteriscoming (Game of Thrones) or song #nonewfriends (Drake) or just in general, #love (the most popular hashtag on Instagram in 2019 with over 1.221B uses).
There are thousands if not millions of these kinds of tags and using them can help you reach a wide cross section of people. But, going too big #boss (21M uses), can mean getting lost in a sea of users or too small #bosschicforlife (fewer than 100 uses) can mean niching yourself completely out of view.
A rule of thumb on social media for brands and businesses is that when someone lands on your page they should instantly know exactly who you are and what you do. The trick to doing that in the limited space you’re allowed in the bio is to incorporate industry tags.
Industry tagging serve the same function on social media as Keywords do on websites, its SEO for your page. Using industry tags will associate your business or brand with a particular industry, profession, niche or hobby — for instance #jamaicanchef, #jamaicancomedy, and #jamaicanblogger.
Like keywords, there are best practices for using hashtags that if adhered to will help you avoid coming into conflict with platform rules. Instagram for instance will shadow ban or suspend you for being repetitive, meaning using the same tags on every post.
Industry hashtags are particularly susceptible to this, because of the misplaced belief that it is ok to use the same set of tags fore every post. The best way to avoid hashtag fatigue and worse a ban is to vary your tags and make them as relevant to each piece of content as possible.
Like your logo, a branded hashtag is unique to your business or personal brand, for example #thedigitaljamaican or #theprchick. Branded hashtags boosts your presence on social media and helps with brand development, awareness and recognition in general.
There are several ways you can use your branded hashtags to grow your presence on social media platforms and build engagement. For instance when used in your Call to Action (CTA), It’s a fun way to encourage your target audience to engage with your brand.
Branded hashtags are as important to your brand as your logo is and for the same reasons, the biggest being that it is an effective (and instant) identifier. And, just as how it takes time, strategy and consistency to create that association between your logo and your brand it’ll also take time, strategy and consistency for your branded tags to catch on.
I hasten to underscore consistency because repetition builds habit, by using your tags frequently you’re in effect training your target audience how to interact with your brand on social media platforms.
Hashtags can be used as ‘echo locators’ for your content — in other words an easy way for your target audience(s) to connect with you online. For example the tags #jamaica, #kingston, #caribbean are all indicators of your location.
Including a country, region or location specific hashtag into your post is the best way to publicly identify yourself with and or introduce your personal or business brand to that particular community and vice versa, even before a user visits your page.
Another way to echo locate your content is by placing a geo-tag before or after a general term to further precision target your content to relevant audience(s).
You should’ve noticed already that in several hashtag examples I’ve given thus far the Geo term Jamaican is used either before or after a general term, eg. #jamaicanchef, #brandjamaica.
Without the geo-tag your content can get lost in a sea of bigger tags for instance #jamaicanchef has 14k+ uses whilst #chef has 24M+ uses, similarly #brandjamaica has 56k+ uses whilst #brand has 25M+ uses.
It is easy to see how your content can get buried under a ton of other posts with that tag from bigger pages.
As I said before, it’s fine to use these massive hashtags, on their own they won’t get you much traction but mixing it with smaller more specific tags, industry tags and branded tags will go a long way to getting you noticed.
I can’t overstate enough how important it is for brands and businesses to invest some time in research — researching platforms and industry best practices for digital platforms. This will help you streamline your content and focus your distribution to your target audience on the different platforms because both content and hashtags perform differently on different social channels.
Don’t Reinvent The Wheel
So, how do you hashtag research? Start by snooping on your competitors. There is a lot you can glean from snooping on your competitors, in fact when building out your digital strategy it’s a great first step.
Understanding how the competition is using these tools and why it is or isn’t working for them is a pretty good indicator of how it may or may not work for you granted you’ve correctly pegged the snoopee as a true competitor.
I shouldn’t have to tell you that if you plan on stealing a competitors’ strategy said competitor must not only be relevant but must actually be ‘winning’ with said strategy.
That said here’s how you can tell if hashtags are working for your competitor(s). Do a quick scan of their feed to look at the posts with the highest engagement, check to see if they use the same or similar hashtags on those posts.
It is likely that if the posts with the same or similar tags are consistently attracting a high engagement rate then that means it’s working.
Make a note of what those hashtags are and instead of doing a cut and paste do a little bit more digging using the explore page to see (1) if your competitors post show up (2) where your competitors post show up and (3) who is following those tags.
Instagram makes it easy for you to search tags, if you click the explore icon from anywhere on the app it’ll take you to the search bar which is at the top of the explore page.
There you can type in the hashtag you want to research and Instagram will show you from the search drop down alone how many posts uses the tags, clicking on any one of the searched tags will take you to that hashtag page which further shows you who used the tags recently and the top users of that hashtags.
You should be checking to see if your competitors show up in the top users because that is the strongest indicator of effectiveness as the top users are the most popular and engaged for that tag.
Test & Tweak
Now that you’ve done your research it’s time to test your results and the only way to do that is by using the hashtags in your post, stories or even in your bio if it’s a branded or Geo hashtag.
When used in captions Instagram can more accurately track tag performance, you can find the result in your insights under said posts. Instagram breaks down your impressions so you can see how much was as a result of your hashtags.
Those insights should help you decide which sets of tags work which doesn’t and what to discard.
Again hashtagging shouldn’t be a random, but requires a strategy and one method is mixing certain percentages of large medium and small tags as suggested by Instagram expert Dave Talas.
Another hashtag method is what I’ll call the rule of 10 formula, a slight variation of Dave’s method. This method was devised by Dain Walker another Instagram expert who also believes you should be mixing small, medium and large tags. He suggests using 10 of each tags (swipe to slide 8).
Note however that formulas aren’t fool proof or generally applicable and it certainly doesn’t negate you doing your own research and testing, but they are useful in showing ways you can mix and match tags to boost your posts.
This post is only an excerpt from the Instagram 101: A complete Guide to Instagram for Jamaican Brands, my upcoming e-book that I have been harping on about for almost a year now but haven’t yet published … Oi vei.
The guide is a step-by-step look at all the important aspects of Instagram from the bio to the DM’s and everything between. It’ll be available for sale in early February, you can pre-order copies here.
So guys I hope I’ve enlightened you a bit more on hashtags and you’re now motivated to get your own strategy going.