Suppose I told you I have proof that hashtags don’t increase Instagram engagement? That I have data that actually shows the opposite – that they may cause harm?

Well I do have this data, and I think you’re going to want to see it.

You may be tempted to stop reading right now. Of course hashtags increase engagement! How could they not?

Well, don’t be so sure. We’ve just published a massive Instagram engagement report, and the results are…interesting.

So what’s the deal? You’ll just have to keep reading to find out…

The common logic

Every piece of Instagram advice you read tells you to use hashtags. We wrote it ourselves here and here.

And all the big experts say the same thing:

Instagram hashtags are still one of the best tools for driving engagement on your posts.” – Benjamin Chacon, Later.

[Using hashtags] massively expands the reach of your post, gets you decent engagement and even grows your followers a little” – Natalie Lam, Noisy Little Monkey.

It’s been proven posts that include hashtags get over 12% more interaction, so it’s no secret that hashtags can be an easy way to boost your engagement.” – Christina Nicholson, Huffington Post.

It all makes sense. Hashtags make your posts easier to find. And the the more people that find and view your hashtags, the higher the likelihood that you’ll receive likes and comments.

Our Instagram report analyzes more than 114 million Instagram posts. And it uncovered a startling revelation.

The bombshell

Check out this graph:

Facebook Hashtags social 02@2x

Instagram posts with 0 hashtags see the highest average number of engagements! What’s more, the rate of engagement drops pretty steadily as the number of hashtags increases.

The hypotheses

Of course, we don’t think it’s as simple as “hashtags decrease engagement.” Smart, relevant hashtags will always be worth using.

So what could be causing this trend? Here are a few possibilities.

1. Instagram penalizes spammy hashtags

Compared with other social media platforms like Twitter or Snapchat, where almost anything goes, Instagram runs a tight ship. It has a clear set of community guidelines banning nudity and other offensive content, and it blurs sensitive content if some users take issue.

But it also has a (really) long list of banned hashtags, both permanent and temporary – more than 60,000!

And they’re not all obvious. Sure, some are obviously scandalous, but others seem pretty harmless on their face.

A few examples of hashtags that have been banned (at least for a while):

  • #attractive
  • #alone
  • #adulting
  • #asia

These have all been temporarily banned at one time or another. And those are just the ones starting with “A!”

Word is, they’ve banned more than 60,000 tags. And the list is ever-changing.

The effect of using banned hashtags

If you include one of these in your posts, it won’t appear in other people’s feeds. And you’re going to have a hard time getting engagements on a post that other people can’t see.

2. Famous people don’t need hashtags

There are plenty of huge names in our study. And naturally, their posts get a ton of engagements.

It’s probably safe to assume that they use fewer hashtags on average too, since they’re not fishing for views or engagements like the rest of us.

For example, the most liked in our study (and also the most liked of all time) is this one:

We would like to share our love and happiness. We have been blessed two times over. We are incredibly grateful that our family will be growing by two, and we thank you for your well wishes. – The Carters

A post shared by Beyoncé (@beyonce) on

Beyoncé doesn’t need hashtags.

In fact, none of the 10 most popular posts in our study contains a hashtag. So it’s possible that our averages are skewed as a result.

So maybe these posts are popular because they contain no hashtags. But more likely, they’re popular despite containing no hashtags.

3. If you don’t have “game,” you probably use a ton of hashtags

This is the flipside of the hypothesis above. The users most addicted to hashtags are probably the ones with few followers. They’re looking to add followers and engagement quickly, and hashtags are an easy way to do it.

These users likely also post tired content, or are just flat out bad at Instagram. As the owner of a flailing Instagram account myself, I don’t judge.

And when these posts get only a smattering of engagements, that brings the average down.

4. We’re all using the same tags

I don’t want to go so far as to say that HASHTAGS ARE DEAD! But it makes a lot of sense that the most popular hashtags on Instagram don’t help people find your post.

For instance, the most popular Instagram hashtag is “#love.” It appears in our study more than 4 million times – or 3.8% of all posts. More than 80 million photos are uploaded daily.

So using these numbers, #love is attached to more than 3 million posts per day! If you’re using this hashtag, you have a one-in-three-million shot that your post will be at the top of that list.

Good luck.

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The takeaways

Despite all those possible excuses I just offered, one thing is pretty clear: just using hashtags doesn’t increase engagement. If you want more likes and comments, you need to think a little more creatively.

1. Use better hashtags

Our data shows that hashtags on their own aren’t a sure thing. And your friend that posts those 30 identical tags for every post is not onto a winning strategy.

Our friends at quintly did their own study recently, and found that you’re better off aiming for three relevant hashtags for your post.

But it doesn’t necessarily show that no hashtags are useful. More likely, you need to find the right hashtags for your content and audience.

And this has just become even more important. In 2018, Instagram made it possible for users to follow hashtags they like. Which means that your posts could find their way into the feeds of users who don’t follow you. Which is gold!

But only a crazy person would follow #love or one of the other massively popular tags. That’d make their feed completely unusable.

Instead, users will look for niche hashtags that speak directly to them. If you can identify those tags and use them wisely, your content will become much easier to find, and engagement will almost certainly go up.

2. Stay away from banned tags

This should be obvious. Not only will banned hashtags make your content impossible to find, Instagram was issuing “shadowbans” to people who overused them. [Shadowban = your account is blocked for everyone else, but you don’t know about it!]

Apparently the shadowban isn’t such an issue anymore, but still if you search for #master or #swole, you won’t find any results.

Here’s a pretty reliable (and updated) list of banned tags, to help you out.

3. Change up your tags

Another fast-track to getting yourself a shadowban is to simply copy/paste the same list of hashtags into every post. That friend with the 30 tags? That’s a gameplan that probably won’t work for long.

The Instagram overlords are too smart for this, sorry.

A far better move is to actually use tags that relate to your photos. Imagine that! It’s sort of what they were designed for in the first place.

One simple way to do this is to look at other brands in your niche. Can you emulate what’s working for them?

Look for other companies getting good results, and see which hashtags work for them. As long as they’re relevant to your posts, you should start to see improvement.

The conclusion

Ours is a study of more than 115 million Instagram posts. They range from huge accounts (Beyoncé and Neymar), to Instagram users with no followers at all.

Over 76 million of those posts contained a hashtag. And yet by far the group of posts with the most engagements were those with no hashtags at all.

As I hope is explained above, this doesn’t mean that hashtags are cursed, or something to steer clear of. But it does mean that we need to pay more attention to the tags we’re using, and to keep working harder to produce great content.

In the end, it’s the content – not the hashtag – that really makes a difference.

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Patrick Whatman is Head of Content at Mention. He lives in Paris, loves music, and writes his own brand of cultural criticism for fun. Tweet him @mrwhatman where he mainly talks digital marketing, American sports and New Zealand trivia.

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