Do hashtags still work in 2019?

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Hashtags used to be the number one way to gain an audience (and likes) on Instagram. Is that still the case?

With the algorithm changes, many users have realized that hashtags don’t bring them as much engagement as they used to. But not all hope is lost! To understand how to use them to your advantage still, first, we have to dive into how they work.

What are hashtags?

Hashtags are short metadata tags starting with a “hash” symbol (#). They’re searchable and easy to create - you only have to go to a social media website and type virtually anything - if it doesn't have any spaces and if it starts with #, it's a hashtag. Other users can click on it and get a listing of all public posts using it.

That’s why using the right hashtags is very important on social media: It can expose you to a broader audience or connect you to like-minded users that you would have never met otherwise.

That’s also why I advise my clients to not make up their own hashtags all the time. It’s cute that you tagged your photo with #bestpulledporkwithmymateseveromg, but who’s ever going to search for it?

Do hashtags work on Instagram?

They certainly do. Go to Instagram and start typing any hashtag at all and you’ll get tons of results. So, they're alive and well, but the way hashtags work has changed.

Users can now follow hashtags, literally.

If you like following specific hashtags, back in the olden days, you had to do it manually. When I traveled to Amsterdam for the first time (before even thinking about living there), I was so fascinated by the city that I was continually searching Instagram for anything Amsterdam related. Of course, some hashtags I followed were easy to remember (like #Amsterdam or #Iamsterdam), but some required some memory tricks (what's the difference between #amstergram and #gramsterdam).

Today, if you want to follow a hashtag, you can do it in the same way you’d follow an account. It’s so much easier to consume content that way! However, if you’re a creator, this makes it more difficult for you. Why? Because now the posts from a hashtag you use are also filtered by an algorithm!

When you follow a hashtag this way, you don’t see everything that people post with it - you only see the selected posts. That is probably one of the main reasons the engagement from hashtags is dropping - for a photo to perform well under a hashtag it has to perform well on its own.

Clicking on a hashtag on Instagram opens a page not too much unlike a profile. From there, you can follow a hashtag like you’re following a user.

Clicking on a hashtag on Instagram opens a page not too much unlike a profile. From there, you can follow a hashtag like you’re following a user.

My insights for  this  photo of Amsterdam. Almost 50% of people who saw this post got through it through hashtags!

My insights for this photo of Amsterdam. Almost 50% of people who saw this post got through it through hashtags!

How to maximize your hashtag performance?

Knowing all this brings up the question: do the hashtags still work, then? Following various hashtags on Instagram is the most convenient it’s ever been, but what does it mean for you? Here’s what you can do to make sure your strategy is working:

  1. Remember that content is king. Even if you use the most well-targeted hashtags ever, they won’t work if your content doesn’t look good. Especially now, when the photo has to get a little bit of traction to gain even more traction. (Need help creating content for your brand’s Instagram? Hit me up!)

  2. Use smaller hashtags. If you have a smaller account, try to stick with the hashtags that have under one million posts. If a hashtag is too active, that means that there’s much content being posted under it every minute, so your posts will have a very short life span.

  3. Do not rely on predefined lists. #like4like and #instagood won't get you far, although the hashtags that large might attract some activity from bots (see the previous point).

  4. Pay attention to your analytics. If you have a business account on Instagram, you can look at the insights for each of your posts. Instagram is, apparently, also rolling out a more detail breakdown of your hashtag performance so you’ll be able to see which ones work for you and which ones doesn’t.

  5. Split-test. If you’re serious about your Instagram marketing game, you can also split-test your hashtags to see which one perform better over time. Split-testing is especially useful for people who have accumulated a lot of potentially relevant hashtags over time and don’t know which ones are worth it anymore. There are services that can help you do just that. I tried SmartHash when it launched, and although I never started using it regularly (it would be an additional step in my workflow which I’m trying to keep short), in some cases I was pleasantly surprised by the results.

  6. Be patient. All this sounds like a lot, but to know if your hashtag strategy is working, you have to give it time. Moreover, to give it time, you need to make it first. So, start small, do something for a month, analyze, see what worked, and then build on top of that.

  7. Don’t forget you can also use hashtags in your Instagram stories! Many people say that THAT’S where it’s at. Instagram stories are less saturated with hashtags, so it’s easier to gain traction! Just make sure your stories tap back into your feed so you can get more eyeballs on it.


Need more tips for boosting your engagement on Instagram? Check out these articles:

What to do if your Instagram engagement suddenly drops
What are Instagram pods and should you be in one