Hashtags for Instagram: Why You Need Them + How to Use Them

As a social media manager, it’s one of my top pieces of go-to advice:

If you’re looking to increase your post engagement (and aren’t we all?), hashtags need to be part of your social media strategy.

But what do hashtags even do? And how do you know the right ones to use?

Let’s break it down…


What are social media hashtags?


Hashtags allow your posts to gain more reach by showing your content to people who don’t currently follow you. Think of hashtags as a way to categorize your content. By adding hashtags to your posts (either at the end, in the comments, or within the main text itself), you’re essentially labeling that content so that when it’s filtered (i.e., when someone searches for that specific topic or follows that hashtag on Instagram), it will come up in the results or their feed.


Here’s an example: If I include the hashtag #socialmedia in my post, everyone who follows or searches for that hashtag will have the ability to see my content. (Even if they don’t follow my account!)


And that’s not all — hashtags are also used as a reference for the Instagram algorithm, so it can categorize your content and suggest it to users it thinks will have a high interest. So, even if people aren’t searching for content like yours, they’ll still be more likely to see it based on other content they regularly view.


5 Ways to Optimize Your Hashtags for Social Media


Hashtags have long been a confusing topic, and new recommendations from Instagram have only muddied the waters further. (More on that below.)

But when it comes to hashtags and their effectiveness, a few things are abundantly clear:


1. Less is not necessarily more. 


Although Instagram recently advised users to include only 3–5 hashtags per post, the platform still allows you to use up to 30 per post. And while I’d never recommend using more hashtags just because you can, it is good practice to use as many hashtags relevant to your post to increase reach and engagement. Which leads me to…


2. You have to do your hashtag homework.


Choose your hashtags wisely to attract quality followers who will be interested in your posts. Here’s how: Look up phrases on Instagram related to your content or business and browse the hashtags that come up when you search. I suggest checking out your competitors’ pages or industry leaders in your field for hashtag ideas. Find their top-performing posts and take note of what hashtags they’re using, pulling the ones that would also be relevant to your content. Save this list of hashtags to refer to in the future.


3. Smart hashtags are better than popular hashtags.


You’ll also see the number of posts for each hashtag and how recently it’s been used during your hashtag research. The best hashtags have been used for recent posts (within a day or two of your post) and less than 500,000 times. (When you get into the more popular “trending” tags, your post is less likely to be seen due to sheer numbers.)


4. Smaller hashtags can have a BIG impact on reach.


You want to use hashtags to reach a larger audience, but you also want that audience to be targeted to your business. I recommend including a mix of hashtags that include a few larger trending tags, but mostly smaller hashtags that are more specific to your audience or location. For example, we use tags like #loudouncountyva, #virginiasmallbusiness, and #smallbusinessmarketingtips to tap into our community followers and our niche market.


5. Branded hashtags for your business will not increase your views…


But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad idea. Making up your own hashtags for your business or a campaign you’re running can be smart from a branding perspective. (We all remember the ALS Foundation’s famous #icebucketchallenge of 2014, right?) But for most small businesses, those hashtags are so specific they won’t actually result in more views. Go ahead and include one in your post, but be sure to pack in some vetted industry hashtags as well!



To create a winning hashtag strategy, do a little upfront research and then check in on your hashtags from time to time to adjust your list.

You also want to make sure you’re using the right hashtags for each platform. (Yes, they should differ just a bit!) In one of our past blogs, we break down how your hashtag strategy should be tweaked for Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Check it out here.

For more information about how we optimize hashtags for Instagram for our clients and how you can do the same, feel free to reach out at any time.