:Marketing / Social media marketing

How to do Instagram hashtag research to grow your exposure

Instagram hashtag research Instagram hashtag research

Instagram hashtag research is a great idea to increase your reach. This post is part of a series on using Instagram to grow your online business and specifically will cover hashtags for Instagram growth. Check out the previous post: How to Build Your Instagram Sales Funnel

There are dozens of ways to get more exposure for your online business, like hosting webinars, guest posting, blogging, getting interviewed on podcasts, emailing your list, social media, and more.

I’m going to show you how to use social media—Instagram, to be exact—to help more people find out about your online course or other product. (Over 400 million people use Instagram every day, and you can tap into that.)

How to use hashtags on Instagram to gain followers

Instagram is all about sharing visuals that your audience can engage with by marking your images as “favorites” and commenting on them. The platform is designed for building community around a common interest, and you can use it to drive awareness of your brand and product, and even build a relationship with audiences that are already interested in your course topic.

For example, if you are creating an online course about running, you can use Instagram to find other runners and running communities. Now, rather than putting your course out there and hoping students enroll, you can promote your running program to a group of people who already love running.

So how do you find your audience on Instagram? And how do they find you?

That’s where hashtags come in.

How do hashtags work on Instagram?

Hashtags are sort of like categories, and they are the key to using Instagram to drive people to your product.

If you mark your post with a hashtag, any Instagrammer can find it by scrolling through all the posts using that hashtag. What this means for you is that millions of people who don’t even follow your Instagram account can find and engage with your posts.

In this post you’re getting a step-by-step guide to using Instagram hashtags to get exposure for your brand and dial in on your target audience.

I’ll show you:

  1. Exactly how to find the right hashtags to use
  2. When and how to use them
  3. How to use the Instagram algorithm to your advantage

I’ll even share a few tips on how to avoid the dreaded Instagram Shadowban. (Not sure what a Shadowban is? I explained it all below!)

How to use hashtags on Instagram to promote your business

Step 1: Do Your Hashtag Research

Before you start tagging your Instagram posts with hashtags, you should research which ones are the best for your industry.

Start by considering which keywords describe your product or service. For example, if you sell running shoes, some keywords that come to mind might be: running, runner, and running shoes.

Now go to the Instagram search bar, and pop those keywords in to see if there are any related or trending hashtags and how many people are using those hashtags.

Here I’ve typed in #running, and I can see that not only is #running a popular hashtag that has been used over 32 million times, but also that there are also many related hashtags that are similarly popular.

For example: #runningmom has almost 300,000 uses, and #runningman has over one million uses.

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Before you note down a potential hashtag for use, you’ll want to actually click into it to see what kind of posts are using it.

For example, when you click into #runningmom, you get a bunch of pictures of female runners posting about their accomplishments. That is a good niche hashtag for a running shoe company to use to reach female customers.

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However, the hashtag #runningmanchallenge, which sounds like something specific, brings up a totally different set of images that are just memes unrelated to the sport of running. That would be a hashtag for a running shoe company to avoid, even though Instagram shows it as a related hashtag. (That said, if the hashtag is trending, you could use it as an opportunity to increase your reach and engagement; it just might not be from your targeted audience.)

Be sure to click through all of the related hashtags before you use them to double check that they are relevant to your brand. Not just because you want your images to show up to people in your target audience, but also because you want your images to show up among other pictures that represent your brand and the community you want to build.

In addition to searching in Instagram, you can also look at the hashtags that your competitors are using or that your customers are using. To save time, you might also find it helpful to save a list of hashtags that are specific to your niche but general enough to use in future posts. Meanwhile, there are a plethora of Instagram hashtag tools, such as hashtag generator apps, to streamline the process.

Combining all three research methods will ensure you pick all of the right hashtags for getting your Instagram posts maximum exposure. Not only will this help you get exposure, but it’s also a tactic many brands use for getting Instagram followers.

Step 2: Optimize Your Hashtags to Reach More People

Instagram allows users to tag each post with up to 30 hashtags. While you don’t want to use random hashtags just for the sake of getting in 30, you do want to use as many relevant hashtags as possible.

The more hashtags you use, the bigger your organic reach will be. Reach just means the number of potential people who can see your post. If your post is showing up in 30 hashtags feeds, that means all the people who use that hashtag could potentially see your post.

If you don’t maximize your reach by using hashtags, you’ll need to boost your posts with ad money. If that’s within your budget, it’s definitely something to consider; however, you should still maximize your organic reach since it’s free!

Depending on what you sell, you may want to create different hashtags for different types of posts. For example, track runners might use #trackrun, #trackrunner, #trackrunning and so on.

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Alternatively, trail runners would use #trailrunner related hashtags.

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You can keep a note on your phone that includes different sets of hashtags for different post types. That way you can simply copy and paste your hashtags as needed.

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The more specific your hashtag is, the smaller its usage will likely be. For example #runner has 32 million users, #runningmom has 300,000 uses and #trackrunner has 7,000 uses.

Don’t worry about using hashtags that have smaller usage numbers; consider it quality over quantity. If you’re showing a track shoe to people using the #trackrunner hashtag you have almost a 100% chance of reaching your target audience. Whereas users in the #runner feed will not all be track runners.

Since you’re allowed up to 30 hashtags, you’ll want to include a mix of the right hashtags on each post. If I were posting a picture of running shoes I would use both the generic #runner hashtag as well as #trackrunner hashtag. I would not use the #trailrunner hashtag, since a track shoe is unlikely to be relevant. You don’t want to spam a hashtag feed with irrelevant content, or you’ll risk upsetting the users.

Something else to keep in mind when posting 30 hashtags is that you can potentially miss out on opportunities for branded hashtags. For example, a brand like Lulus will often ask followers for permission to repost images by asking you to use the hashtag #YesLulus.

Depending on which brand you’re targeting, it’s a good idea to post 25 hashtags instead of 30.

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Where to put hashtags on Instagram

When it comes to the placement of hashtags, you have a couple of different options. You can add them to your post caption or place them as the first comment under your post caption. Either way works. Choose whichever one you think is more aesthetically pleasing. You can also do a combination, incorporating relevant hashtags into your caption, then posting the remaining in the first comment.

Step 3: Create a Custom Hashtag

Using popular hashtags is a great way to increase your exposure. However, many other people can and will use those hashtags to meet their own goals that are totally unrelated to your brand.

If you want to track content that’s specific to your company, you can create a custom hashtag. You should only use a custom hashtag to make it easy for people to search for 100% original content that your company made.

For example, when the company I work for launched a book about entrepreneurship called Foundr Version 1.0, we created a custom hashtag (#foundrv1) to make it easier for people to search for.

Not only does it make it easier for us to see how much interest we’re generating with our product; encouraging our customers to post pictures of themselves with our custom hashtag also allows us to see who the most engaged members of our community are, creates an easy way for us to organize user-generated content, and gives us the opportunity to tap into influencer marketing.

You can use your brand or product name for the custom hashtag, or you can come up with something creative. For example, The 5th Watches uses #TimeIsWhatWeMakeIt.

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Both the brand and its customers use this hashtag to share photos of the watches. This makes it easy for someone who is considering purchasing one of their watches to see many different photos to consider different styles.

Using a custom hashtag is also a good way to keep your Instagram account from being included in a Shadowban.

What is an Instagram Shadowban?

An Instagram Shadowban is where Instagram will automatically hide your posts from users who don’t follow you – even if you use a popular hashtag.

There is no official set of reasons why an account may get banned, but experts have come up with the following list of things that are likely to get you Shadowbanned:

  • Using banned or broken hashtags. The most obvious examples would be that you’ll want to avoid are NSFW-related ones, but you’ll also want to keep an eye out for the unexpected like #elevator.
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You can check whether or not the hashtags you’re using are banned by simply scrolling down to the end of the page.

  • Using Instagram bots or other services that violate the app’s terms of service. Bots that allow you to auto-follow or like other posts for example. Instagram will notice this kind of suspicious activity and ban you if you’re not careful.
  • Having big surges in your Instagram activity following periods of inactivity
  • Being reported as spam or abuse by others

To avoid being shadowbanned, you should create and share high quality content, and avoid using spammy hashtags with posts that are not relevant to the content you’re sharing. Using your own custom hashtag is a safe move!

You can also track your post performance—without hiring a digital marketer—with Instagram analytics tools to see which are supporting your business and which aren’t.

Getting Started

Now that you know the steps for getting started with properly using hashtags on Instagram it’s time to get to work!

Remember to:

  1. Do your Instagram hashtag research: find the hashtags that are right for you and your brand.
  2. Utilize all 30 hashtags within a post to maximize your reach.
  3. Don’t be afraid to create custom hashtags to help you build your community.


Should I use hashtags on Instagram?

Yes! The more hashtags you use, the bigger your organic reach will be. If your post is showing up in 30 hashtags feeds, that means all the people who use that hashtag could potentially see your post. If you don’t maximize your reach by using hashtags, you’ll need to boost your posts with ad money. If that’s within your budget, it’s definitely something to consider; however, you should still maximize your organic reach since it’s free!

How many hashtags should I use on Instagram?

The number of hashtags Instagram allows users to tag each post with is a maximum of 30. While you don’t want to use random hashtags just for the sake of getting in 30, you do want to use as many relevant hashtags as possible.

Author: Jonathan Chan, Jonathan Chan is the Content Crafter at Foundr Magazine, a magazine for young entrepreneurs. He can often be found writing and reading anything and everything to do with entrepreneurship and the startup world. That or spending too much time pretending to be the next MMA star. Check out more of his writing over at the Foundr Blog.