Why Your Hashtags Suck and What to Do About It

Check in with any novice social marketer, particularly those new to Instagram, and you’ll almost always see them using copious amounts of hashtags in their posts.

The thinking is that hashtags serve as potential marketing tools in that that someone “looking” for a particular topic may click on your hashtag, find your post, and then love it so much that they start following you. And if it works for one hashtag, couldn’t that return grow exponentially by using multiple hashtags.


Hashtag Analytics

But the problem with hashtags, no matter how many “experts” extoll the virtues of using many of them or none, is that very little of today’s thinking is based in hard fact.

This is the diabolical genius of Instagram—its very lack of analytics. Yes, you know how many followers you have. And to an extent you can kind of see how much activity you get on a certain post. But the data isn’t strong, so there’s a whole lot of assuming going on.

Twitter has better analytics, but still, there’s not that much hard data about how people are actually responding to hashtags.

While tools like hashtagify.me are excellent for gaining ideas for hashtag campaigns, keep in mind that they mostly only give you information on the most popular hashtags in terms of which tags people are USING and not which tags people are actually CLICKING.

Just because a lot of people use the term #travel in their post, doesn’t necessarily mean that the hashtag itself generated any response. It could just as well be that the associated photos are so excellent, they are doing the heavy lifting.

With such a lack of intel—and here I say boo to Twitter, who should have been all over this type of metric from day one—there’s very little real intel on what actually works and what doesn’t.

And with little hard evidence proving hashtags actually drive traffic, there’s a lot of room for industry “experts” to do their own extrapolating. Which is why you’ll see experts, who are passionate in their belief that hashtags should be limited as well as plenty of experts who love to max out their Instagram tags, while celebrating how many new followers, likes and engagement that strategy nets them.

An interesting aside here, is a study released by Twitter last year, that did find people who use hashtags in their direct-response ads saw a worse response than those people who skipped the hashtags altogether. As with all things context is king and there is a lot of conjecture as to what caused this result, but one thing is certain, hashtags aren’t always the driver or new traffic marketers hope they will be.

In the end, it is always best to do what works for you. If you think a library of hashtags works for you, by all means use them. But, as with all things marketing, knowing your goals is the first step to building a successful hashtag campaign. Then back up your goals with lots and lots of testing. When planning your next hashtag campaign, here are a few tips to keep in mind.


Skip the Broad Hashtags

Yes, it can be hard to resist the urge to use tags like #love, #Instagood, #PhotoOfTheDay and the countless others that appear on so many Instagram posts. But they aren’t helping you find quality new followers. Really.

On Instagram, a recently popular tag was #Olympics. Truthfully, I hazard a guess that few users actually clicked that tag as the results were too broad and too filled with spammy posts from desperate marketers trying to get eyes on their content.

If you did happen to click on #Olympics, you would have seen that there were more than 2.3 million posts using that tag. That roughly works out to be about 150 posts every minute during the 10-day games. Or nearly 3 posts per second.

So even if you did use the tag #Olympics, and even assuming people were clicking the tag to find new accounts to follow, it would take less than two minutes for your post to disappear into the 300 image limit Instagram allows users to see. Not a lot of time to get eyeballs on your message.

Instead, find tags more closely related to your topic, especially ones that have an active community around them. If you’re posting a food-related picture, a #NYEats tag would probably hazard more response than the uber popular #foodporn.


But Be Sure to Click on Broad Hashtags

For the contrarians who insist that lots of tags bring lots of new followers, consider this. It is a known fact that the best way to get new followers on Instagram is to engage with similar-minded users by liking and commenting on their posts. Whether marketers use automated tools for this or do it manually, they all have one thing in common. They’re using these generic hashtags to find these like-minded users.

So yes, Marketer A might follow Marketer B, whom he found through the #Olympics tag, but new users aren’t always high-quality users. And there’s nothing to say Marketer A won’t go back and ditch Marketer B if they don’t follow back.

If you’re looking to grow your own audience, by all means, be sure to click on that #Olympics tag if its relevant to your own product. Then like as many posts as Instagram will allow. Engage where appropriate. You’ll attract far more new users this way than by sitting back and hoping someone clicks on the hashtag in your posts.


Double Check Your Hashtags Before You Use Them

If you want to earn success with your hashtag campaign, you must click on the hashtags you plan on using before you launch your post. Actually look at the other posts that are using that tag. If you don’t think it’s worth checking that hashtag, that tag isn’t worth using.

Don’t believe me? Just ask the tourism marketers at Ohio’s Erie Shores, who several years back started using the hashtag #Sandusky to build community during their newest tourism marketing campaign. Too bad they launched that campaign at the same time Jerry Sandusky was on trial. So instead of seeing beautiful lakeside images, most people clicking the tag just ended up getting the salacious details from the trial. A quick check by the tourism marketing board would quickly have shown that an alternate tag, perhaps #VisitSandusky, would have been a better bet.

Even if you’re not building community but just trying to tap into an existing collective, it’s still a must to check the tags in advance. A high-end grocery market client was doing a giveaway for gift certificates, so they explored the idea of using the hashtag #FreeGroceries. But when clicking the tag on Instagram, there were lots of posts for government-assistance programs. Definitely not a match for the market’s luxury clientele, so they opted to skip using that tag.


Building Community

One of my favorite reasons to use hashtags is for building a community. Obviously, hashtags remain the best way to follow a conversation at a trade show, conference or event. And they can be a great way for your clients to build a unifying message.

An example of a an incredible community campaign was the #OptOutside hashtag rolled out by REI last year when the sporting goods store announced it was ending Black Friday operating hours at its stores, and instead encouraged customers and employees to go enjoy the great outdoors. More than 1.4 million people ended up using the #OptOutside tag.

It was a genius campaign, perfectly matching REI’s brand with the zeitgeist of the moment. But REI had a lot of media support to help cover the campaign. REI knew that the media and their audiences were tired of seeing the same story about people pitching a tent outside of Best Buy on the night of Thanksgiving. The campaign gave the media a new spin which helped drive the message throughout the country.

Not every hashtag campaign will generate nationwide media. But hashtag in and of themselves are not a marketing campaign, no matter what anyone tells you. And for your hashtags to really work, it takes effort, patience, testing and oftentimes backup marketing support to make them work.