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Revealed: The Truth Behind Hashtags, And Where You’ve Been Going Wrong

Updated: Mar 16

Both brands and social media agencies alike put a lot of stock in the use of hashtags across all social media platforms. With the increasing pressure on using hashtags to improve engagement and gain followers, it’s a good time to look back and really assess the power of the hashtag. Where should you place them, how many should you use, and do they really help to deliver those key engagements you’re after? So what is a hashtag? Essentially it’s a word or phrase with a # symbol in front. First used on Twitter back in 2007, the word ‘hashtag’ is now even included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Putting a hashtag in front of your word or phrase will give it a metadata tag on a social media platform such as Twitter. All posts containing the hashtag will be collated, so it’s easy for others to search for. For example, a tweet could be ‘I love my #dog.’ Others would be able to search on the platform for ‘#dog’ to see this and other tweets about our adorable furry friends.

As a social media agency, some of the most frequent queries Spin Brands gets are questions on hashtags. Can we add them in? How many? Should they be broad or unique? Where shall we place them? Do they make any difference at all?

Well, the answer really does depend on your brand and what you’re hoping to achieve with your marketing campaigns. Hashtags can be useful to help build your brand, boost campaigns, reach new audiences and jump on trends. Whilst hashtags are now seen on all social media platforms, they certainly can work better or worse depending on the platform you’re posting on. Numerous studies have found different results on the number of hashtags to use. In 2016, a study by TrackMaven analysed over 65,000 posts across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. They found that for Twitter, 1 hashtag received optimal engagement alongside hashtags with 18 characters. On Instagram, that number increased to a number of 9 hashtags with longer and longer hashtags, between 21 and 24 characters performing best. For Facebook, TrackMaven found using only 1 hashtag was best, and once over 6 hashtags were used on a post engagement dramatically fell.

However, a more recent study carried out by Quintly suggested that hashtags made no difference at all. After analysing 8.1 million Instagram posts between Jan and September 2018 they found that using between 1 and 3 hashtags was most common. Yet, they found that profiles tended to get more interactions when no hashtags were used at all!

When it comes to Instagram, you can add up to 30 hashtags per post. There’s a bit of debate as to whether or not you should include these in the caption itself or add them into the first comment and if this has any impact on the reach of the hashtags and amount of resulting engagement. A study by Social Insider and Quuu studied 650k Instagram posts, and found that less than 10% of brands are placing their hashtags in the first comment and the majority are using hashtags within the caption of a post, and that the difference in reach of hashtags in a caption or in the first comment was minimal.

A quick discussion among Spin Brands Account Managers actually found that most were inclined to post hashtags within the first comment. This keeps the caption of an image looking cleaner and less spammy. Visually a post with lots of hashtags in the caption doesn’t look neat and clean. If there are only 3 or less hashtags being used than adding into the caption is fine.

Using one master hashtag on every one of your posts is also very effective and important to use as a showreel of associated posts. However, using 30 bulk hashtags in the comments or caption isn’t very effective at gaining more reach or engagement on posts. There seems to be a sweet spot on Instagram of using less, but more effective hashtags, which are a bit more niche, and more likely to help a post to be pulled into the ‘top posts’ when exploring on Instagram. Instagram is also getting very clever at recognising what is in any image posted and showing you what you’re interested in on your explore page. For example, if you post a photo from your summer holiday, Instagram will automatically tag that photo into certain tags based on what is in the image - sun, sand, sea. This will then be shared with those who have an interest in beachy holiday pics. As this technology is getting more accurate at identifying what is in your photo, this poses the question as to whether or not using hashtags is losing relevance, and will it still have a place on Instagram in the future?

When it comes to Facebook and Twitter, there are also varying opinions of the effectiveness of hashtags. Whilst you can search on Facebook for specific hashtags, you are never given recommendations based on certain hashtags, and they have a lot less reach and effectiveness than on Instagram. The majority of Facebook profiles are kept private, so the ability for brands to extend their reach is limited. Though, using certain campaign hashtags can be relatable across channels, so sharing on Facebook can help people search for your brand to interact with you on Instagram or Twitter. On both of these platforms less is definitely more. With a limited word count on Twitter, you don’t want to be using up your precious characters with multiple hashtags. The hashtag itself was actually first used on Twitter back in 2007 to help index keywords to help aid curated search results. The use of hashtags on Twitter is brilliant for staying up to date with the latest news and current affairs, and for sharing reactive content. Users of Twitter do search and follow hashtags more-so than any other platform. Any tweet including a hashtag will be visible to anyone following that hashtags stream, so your potential reach to those outside of who already follow you is a lot greater. Jumping on the bandwagon of any currently trending hashtags is a great way to keep relevant - but do make sure your tweet is relevant on the topic of the hashtag itself! To read our thought leadership on reactive content visit us here.

Hashtags aren’t just good for encouraging engagement on your platform, but they can arguable help your audience find you too. And brands can make good use of different hashtags to help build a sense of community too. For example, Nike uses different hashtags for different purposes. Their brand hashtag is simply #Nike. They also have individual product hashtags, - e.g. #NikeAir. And when it comes to community discussion there are also other further hashtags that can all be used such as #JustDoIt and #NikeWomen.

What what does the future look like for the hashtag? Whilst there is definitely still a place for hashtags to be used on your content in 2019, there is no denying that they are a lot less powerful at gaining your brand engagement than in previous years. Adding in dozens of hashtags on each post may not be encouraging as much engagement as they used to, but using key hashtags to create a portfolio of associated posts for your brand and using them to create a community discussion or reach new audiences is still useful.

Depending on your goals and key performance indicators, the use of hashtags might just help you to achieve this. For Instagram use key hashtags to create a portfolio, but don’t clutter your feed with dozens in the caption. With Facebook a few hashtags might help, but won’t gain you major traction. With Twitter the use of a few hashtags with reactive and timely content can help to gain you a spot within wider conversations. As technology continues to improve and the social media giants are making more and more unique updates to their platforms, hashtags are being used less and less. But what could replace it? Let’s watch this space…

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