• Jess Bachman

I was totally wrong about Instagram hashtags. And so are you.

How much is an Instagram hashtag worth?

I’ll tell you. It’s three cents.

Add five hashtags to your post and thats 15 cents of value. Add the full 30 hashtags you’re just shy of a dollar in added value.

Thats how I used hashtags. It’s how the rest of the world uses hashtags. And it doesn’t make any sense.

Search up Instagram hashtag strategy and you will find two main uses. Branded hashtags provide tracking, organization, and opportunities for community engagement. Community hashtags are great for new people to discover your content through the searching and following of hashtags.

I’ll show you, using data, that #2 is bullshit. Once you understand that, a new and better way to use hashtags will emerge. I’ll go through that as well. But first, a mea culpa.

I was having a back and forth with a client about the optimum number of hashtags. She argued that 9 hashtags was the right amount, because that is the best practice for most engagement. I argued that because the account only had a follower account in the mid-thousands, it was important to get the additional reach and discoverability that comes with the full 30 hashtags. Our community manager, social strategist, and account manager were all in agreement: 30 hashtags is best. But the client wouldn’t budge. I’d like to say to the client that I’m sorry for pushing so hard. I was wrong.

But so were you.

We were both wrong. And we’ve all been wrong for a very long time, because the data hasn’t been available. Well, now it is.

If you have an Instagram business account and you regularly check your post Insights, you may have noticed some extra measurements in there. One of them being impressions from hashtags.

You may have also noticed that this number rarely tops 100 impressions. We looked at the Insights data for one of our brands since this feature became available and we found that yes, if you add more hashtags, you will get more impressions. The posts with the most impressions also had the most hashtags.

When we took the total impressions from hashtags this year (1397) and divided by the total number of hashtags used (577) we end up with 2.4.

That’s 2.4 impressions per hashtag per post. It seemed unusually low so we asked for data from some of our influencers and we saw similar numbers. Around three impressions per hashtag. To be fair, there was a lot of variability in the data. Some posts had nine impressions per hashtag, and other posts had more hashtags than impressions from hashtags. You read that right. But on average, it was around three.

Three impressions per hashtag per post.

So now that you know what you are getting, you should know what it’s worth. Benchmarks for CPM (Cost per 1,000 impressions) can be hard to find. For Q1 2018, Adstage has Instagram CPMs at $7.69. Internally, at NAIL.social, our Q1 was $6.72 (we make our benchmarks public). But for client budgeting we use a $10 CPM, so let use that.

A $10 CPM means that each impression costs one cent. If you want to boost your Instagram post and get 1,000 impressions, be prepared to spend $10. This also means that the three free impressions you get from each hashtag have a value of three cents. And 30 hashtags might get 90 impressions or 90 cents in free media. But of course nothing is free, and there are costs associated with hashtags that vastly outweigh their benefits.

The aforementioned client suggested that a big mess of hashtags can look spammy, and she was right, to a point. There is a reason why influencers and brands with huge followings don’t use a lot of hashtags: they don’t need to. They already get the exposure and traffic that comes with 100K+ followers so looking spammy with a big block of hashtags just isn’t worth it.

Let’s do the math. You have 100k followers. Your organic reach is about 10% of that, sadly, resulting in 10k impressions. A full 30 hashtags might get you 100 impressions, thats about 1% of your reach.

Is 1% more impressions worth looking spammy? I’ll leave that up to you to decide, but it’s not something we recommend to clients, even with 5k followers.

Every account and brand has different goals. If you are just starting out and 100 impressions is going to make a difference, then go for it, but remember this is another cost: time.

It can cost one dollar to get 100 targeted impressions on your instagram content. How long does it take you to research and input 30 hashtags on a post? If your community manager is being paid the US average and making about $24 an hour, then every minute costs 40 cents. If they can add 30 quality hashtags in under 2 minutes then it might be a good deal, maybe. But I can think of a lot more valuable uses of their time.

Over the past year, we used 577 hashtags on one client and received less than $20 worth of impressions. Our ad budget is six figures. So, if lots of community hahstags looks spammy AND costs more in time than they result in impressions, what are they good for?

If you can restrain yourself from using more than three or four, there are two more subtle but more powerful reasons to use them.

Hashtags make excellent contextual clues. These short strings of characters with no spaces are very information dense. You don’t need to have post copy that clarifies that you are talking about sexual assault and harassment: a simple #metoo will work. If your product is low carb or vegan, save your post copy for something fun and interesting and just drop #lowcarb or #vegan in there. This may sound obvious, but these are not used to get impressions, they are used to get more information into your post. In order for this to work the viewer needs to read the hashtag, and in order for them to want to do that, there should only be a handful.

In the above image Bed Bath and Beyond is using one branded hashtag and one contextual clue hashtag. By adding #campusready they can get the viewer into that mindset when they read the hashtag. There is also another 15 hashtags stuffed in there which won’t be read so they don’t serve as context clues. And at three impressions per hashtag, this might net them 45 new impressions, which for an account with 584k followers is hardly worth it, especially considering how spammy it looks. I would recommend dropping the whole hashtag block and just keep the branded and contextual one.

The second subtle use for hashtags is as additional post content. Remember, they are information dense phrases, so it’s easy to add some extra humor or entertainment with the right hashtag. If you forget trying to get impressions from hashtags, you can really use whatever hashtag you like, even if you are the only one doing it.

Here, Titos Vodka, who have clearly aligned themselves with dog people, are using three hashtags that surely won’t bring in the impressions, but act as cute little humor boosters. There are only 400 posts with #barktender but in this case these hashtags are injecting a small dose of fun before the viewer scrolls away. I suspect it leads to more engagement. I would recommend using only two because the post is already quite long and there is also a branded hashtag in there.

Now using hashtags as context clues or as content boosters might not be novel to you, but given that community hashtags don’t drive traffic, then the above uses should take a much higher priority in your hashtag strategy.

Our current recommendation for hashtag uses is as follows.

Branded hashtags provide tracking, organization, and opportunities for community engagement. Community hashtags should be used as either context clues or content boosters, with no more than three hashtags being used in a row.

Platforms change and so does strategy. But until we see the data that hashtags lead to significant impressions it just doesn’t make sense to use them in the old way, and it might even be hurting your brand due to the spam factor.

Do you agree or disagree? Let us know in the comments, and be sure to follow our publication Blood, Sweat, and Likes for more data-based insights into social media.

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