Leverage Hashtags: A How-To Guide for Social Media Marketing

This post was updated on April 26th, 2019. For our newest social insights, check out Everything You Need to Know About Social Media SEO

If you’re looking to build a high-converting social media community for your business, hashtags are the number one tool at your disposal.

A hashtag can put your content in front of an audience specifically looking for your products or services. It helps social network algorithms decide if you should turn up in search results. It even tells social platforms to recommend you to people who have been browsing similar content.

All of that from a little # sign.

I often meet reluctance from businesses starting out in social media because hashtags seem, well, silly. They’re often followed by nonsensical strung-together words, and read like conversations in a high school cafeteria. They’ve become so ridiculous that it’s inspired hilarious comedy skits. We all get that the food in a photo was probably delicious without the addition of #omnomnom, #foodporn, and #iwantitinmymouth.

But Justin Timberlake can make fun of hashtags because he doesn’t need to use them to be heard. When he posts an update, people are going to like it. For those of us with slightly less than 20 million followers, hashtags are the free, simple tool that makes our content discoverable.

The history of hashtags

Hashtags were a prehistoric computing tool used in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to label groups and subjects for members to navigate. They were introduced on Twitter in 2007, and the social media marketing landscape was forever changed.

Now they’re used on most social platforms to group content together in searchable, browsable categories. For example, searching #catsofinstagram guarantees a ton of cat photos. #NEvsDEN is where to find Twitter updates on a New England vs. Denver NFL football game, and #StarWars is pretty straightforward.

Not only do hashtags categorize content about current events, politics, sports, fashion, and other pop culture, but they’re also immensely popular ways to search shareable, informative content about industries and professions. You can easily browse articles about social media marketing while surfing social media (so meta) during your morning commute by searching relevant hashtags.

Most conferences or other large industry events have an identifiable hashtag that attendees, organizers, and presenters can use to communicate. Branded hashtags help businesses increase reach, curate user-generated content (UGC), and build a community.

Now that you’ve accepted that you need hashtags in your life, it’s time to talk proper usage. It’s important to understand how hashtags work on each social network before diving in. Otherwise you might actually end up sounding like Jimmy Fallon in the aforementioned skit.

Let’s look at the two platforms where hashtags come in handiest.

Instagram hashtags

This is where you want to use the most hashtags, for maximum reach. An Instagram photo without a hashtag is to the app like a library book without a spine label. Instagram can’t read what’s in a photo, and won’t know where to put it you unless you tell it with a tag!

You can use up to 30 tags in a single post, although that many would likely drive visitors away. Data released by TrackMaven indicates that posts using 11 or more hashtags get the most engagement. A current best practice is to put one or two hashtags in your post (or even none), and instead push them down with line breaks or symbols, or add them into the first comment. This way the tags don’t clutter your followers’ feeds.

Don’t forget, people can now follow their favourite hashtags on Instagram. Posts using those tags will appear in their feed along with photos from profiles they follow.

Which tags should you use? It depends on the nature of your content. Specific hashtags are great for finding niche audiences. General hashtags are helpful to reach broader audiences. The downside to a massively popular hashtag attached to millions of photos is that your content gets buried within seconds, when 10 more people around the world use that same tag.

If you work in a small brick and mortar business, you might consider specific and local hashtags. If your brand works with international clients or location doesn’t impact a customer’s ability to buy your products or services, a combination of broad and specific hashtags might work best. A good way to start is by looking at the hashtags used by your competitors, searching those hashtags, and finding others used in the same kinds of posts.

For example, Forge and Smith is a small web design and digital strategy business that works with international clients, but the businesses in our city are close-knit. We use a combination of fun, local, and industry hashtags to get seen by different groups while continuing to build our following.

Twitter hashtags

Twitter is the polar opposite of Instagram when it comes to tag quantity, but it’s every bit as important for businesses, especially those with smaller followings, to use them.

Twitter is a social conversation about every conceivable thing happening in the world. It’s equal parts news, dialogues, and celebrity feuds. Hashtags are how you find the conversations relevant to your interests. If you’re a social media marketer promoting your brand’s content on Twitter, hashtags are how you place that content in front of people looking for what you provide.

You might have 1000 followers, but think about this: each of them is following anywhere from 200 to several thousand other pages. Your single tweet is buried in less than a minute on their steams, unless they happen to be looking at their phones at that exact moment. Hashtags help that tweet get found by people outside your following, attracting new people to your content.

It’s recommended that you use 1-3 hashtags per tweet, although one or two is ideal. Because the number is limited, it’s extra important that you use the right ones. Hashtagify.me is a great tool for finding relevant hashtags and viewing their current performance. Another reliable method is searching a hashtag you like and seeing what other tags people are using in similar tweets.

Keep an eye on the recommended trending hashtags (and play with your trending locale to see trends in different regions!), because you never know when one might apply to your business or industry and be the perfect way to give your content an extra push.

That said, always use caution and research your tags before tweeting. Some trending tags can sound catchy but actually be about sensitive issues or events that your brand shouldn’t try to use to leverage your content.

Forge and Smith tends to use industry-specific hashtags that relate to the type of content we’re sharing. In the above example it was an article geared toward marketers, and those two popular tags helped the tweet find traction.

Other social networks

Hashtags are used on Facebook, but not as much as on Twitter or Instagram. It’s recommended that you only use 1-2 at most, and choose industry-specific tags.

Pinterest offers hashtag functionality in the Pin descriptions, and best practices suggest using no more than 20. YouTube allows hashtags in the comments.

LinkedIn now has hashtag functionality as well, to allow businesses to better categorize their content in a way that younger business professionals are used to from their favourite platforms and apps, like Tumblr.


Now that you’re an expert on proper hashtag use and etiquette, go forth and tag! Help your content find its desired audience, and build up that following. While you’re at it, check out our handy list of time-saving tools for small business social media marketers.