This post is part of a series on using Instagram to grow your online business. Check out the previous post: How to Build Your Instagram Sales Funnel

There are dozens of ways to get more exposure for your online business, like hosting webinars, guest posting, blogging, getting interviewed on podcasts, emailing your list, social media, and more. 

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I’m going to show you how to use social media—Instagram, to be exact—to help more people find out about your online course or other product. (Over 400 million people use Instagram every day, and you can tap into that.)

Instagram is all about sharing visuals that your audience can engage with by marking your images as “favorites” and commenting on them. The platform is designed for building community around a common interest, and you can use it to drive awareness of your brand and product, and even build a relationship with audiences that are already interested in your course topic.

For example, if you are creating an online course about running, you can use Instagram to find other runners and running communities. Now, rather than putting your course out there and hoping students enroll, you can promote your running program to a group of people who already love running.

So how do you find your audience on Instagram? And how do they find you?

That’s where hashtags come in.

Hashtags are sort of like categories, and they are the key to using Instagram to drive people to your product.

If you mark your post with a hashtag, any Instagrammer can find it by scrolling through all the posts using that hashtag. What this means for you is that millions of people who don’t even follow your Instagram account can find and engage with your posts.

In this post you’re getting a step-by-step guide to using Instagram hashtags to get exposure for your brand and dial in on your target audience.

I’ll show you:

  1. Exactly how to find the right hashtags to use
  2. When and how to use them
  3. How to use the Instagram algorithm to your advantage

I’ll even share a few tips on how to avoid the dreaded Instagram Shadowban. (Not sure what a Shadowban is? I explained it all below!)

Side note: To help give you a boost if you're just getting started, we created a cheatsheet for the best Instagram hashtags to use across 10 different industry verticals.

Download the Instagram hashtag cheatsheet!

Step 1: Do Your Hashtag Research

Before you start tagging your Instagram posts with hashtags you should research which ones are the best for your industry.

Start by considering which keywords describe your product or service. For example, if you sell running shoes some keywords that come to mind would be: running, runner and running shoes.

Now go to the Instagram search bar and pop those keywords in to see if there are any related hashtags and how many people are using those hashtags.

Here I’ve typed in #running and I can see that not only is #running a popular hashtag that has been used over 32 million times, but that there are also many related hashtags that are similarly popular.

For example: #runningmom has almost 300,000 uses and #runningman has over 1 million uses.  

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Before you note down a potential hashtag for use you’ll want to actually click into it to see what kind of posts are using it.

For example, when you click into #runningmom you get a bunch of pictures of female runners posting about their accomplishments. That is a good hashtag for a running shoe company to use to reach female customers.  

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However, the hashtag #runningmanchallenge, which sounds like something specific, brings up a totally different set of images that are just memes unrelated to the sport of running. That would be a hashtag for a running shoe company to avoid even though Instagram shows it as a related hashtag.

Be sure to click through all of the related hashtags before you use them to double check that they are relevant to your brand. Not just because you want your images to show up to people in your target audience, but also because you want your images to show up among other pictures that represent your brand and the community you want to build.

In addition to searching in Instagram you can also look at the hashtags that your competitors are using, or that your customers are using.

Combining all three research methods will ensure you pick all of the right hashtags for getting your Instagram posts maximum exposure. Not only will this help you get exposure, but it’s also a tactic many brands use for getting Instagram followers.

Step 2: Optimize Your Hashtags to Reach More People

Instagram allows users to tag each post with up to 30 hashtags. While you don’t want to use random hashtags just for the sake of getting in 30, you do want to use as many relevant hashtags as possible.

The more hashtags you use the bigger your organic reach will be. Reach just means the number of potential people who can see your post. If your post is showing up in 30 hashtags feeds that means all the people who use that hashtag could potentially see your post.

If you don’t maximize your reach by using hashtags you’ll need to boost your posts with ad money. If that’s within your budget, it’s definitely something to consider; however, you should still maximize your organic reach since it’s free!

Depending on what you sell, you may want to create different hashtags for different types of posts. For example, track runners might use #trackrun, #trackrunner, #trackrunning and so on.   3.png

Alternatively, trail runners would use #trailrunner related hashtags. 

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You can keep a note on your phone that includes different sets of hashtags for different post types. That way you can simply copy and paste your hashtags as needed. 

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The more specific your hashtag is, the smaller its usage will likely be. For example #runner has 32 million users, #runningmom has 300,000 uses and #trackrunner has 7,000 uses.

Don’t worry about using hashtags that have smaller usage numbers; consider it quality over quantity. If you’re showing a track shoe to people using the #trackrunner hashtag you have almost a 100% chance of reaching your target audience. Whereas users in the #runner feed will not all be track runners.

Since you’re allowed up to 30 hashtags you’ll want to include a mix of the right hashtags on each post. If I were posting a picture of running shoes I would use both the generic #runner hashtag as well as #trackrunner hashtag. I would not use the #trailrunner hashtag since a track shoe is unlikely to be relevant. You don’t want to spam a hashtag feed with irrelevant content or you’ll risk upsetting the users.

Something else to keep in mind when posting 30 hashtags though is that you can potentially miss out on opportunities to be reposted. For example, a brand like Lulus will often ask followers for permission to report images by asking you to use the hashtag #YesLulus.

Depending on which brand you’re targeting it’s a good idea to post 25 hashtags instead of 30.  

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When it comes to the placement of hashtags you have a couple of different options. You can add them to your post caption or place them as the first comment under your post caption. Either way works. Choose whichever one you think is more aesthetically pleasing.

Step 3: Create a Custom Hashtag

Using popular hashtags is a great way to increase your exposure. However, many other people can and will use those hashtags to meet their own goals that are totally unrelated to your brand.

If you want to track content that’s specific to your company you can create a custom hashtag. You should only use a custom hashtag to make it easy for people to search for 100% original content that your company made.

For example, when the company I work for launched a book about entrepreneurship called Foundr Version 1.0, we created a custom hashtag (#foundrv1) to make it easier for people to search for.

Not only does it make it easier for us to see how much interest we’re generating with our product. But encouraging our customers to post pictures of themselves with our custom hashtag we’re able to see who the most engaged members of our community are, along with creating an easy way for us to organise user-generated content, and give us the opportunity to tap into influencer marketing.

You can use your brand or product name for the custom hashtag, or you can come up with something creative. For example The 5th Watches uses #TimeIsWhatWeMakeIt.

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Both the brand and its customers use this hashtag to share photos of the watches. This makes it easy for someone who is considering purchasing one of their watches to see many different photos of it to see if it’s right for their style.

Using a custom hashtag is also a good way to keep your Instagram account from being included in a Shadowban.

What is an Instagram Shadowban?

An Instagram Shadowban is where Instagram will automatically hide your posts from users who don’t follow you - even if you use a popular hashtag.

There is no official set of reasons why an account may get banned, but experts have come up with the following list of things that are likely to get you Shadowbanned:

  • Using banned or broken hashtags. The most obvious examples would be that you’ll want to avoid are NSFW-related ones, but you’ll also want to keep an eye out for the unexpected like #elevator.  7.png

You can check whether or not the hashtags you’re using are banned by simply scrolling down to the end of the page.

  • Using Instagram bots or other services that violate the app’s terms of service. Bots that allow you to auto-follow or like other posts for example. Instagram will notice this kind of suspicious activity and ban you if you’re not careful.
  • Having big surges in your Instagram activity following periods of inactivity
  • Being reported as spam or abuse by others

To avoid being shadowbanned you should create and share high quality content, and avoid using spammy hashtags with posts that are not relevant to the content you’re sharing. Using your own custom hashtag is a safe move!

Bonus: Click below to download our cheatsheet containing the best hashtags to use for Instagram across 10 of the most popular and competitive industries!

Download the Instagram hashtag cheatsheet!

Getting Started

Now that you know the steps for getting started with properly using hashtags on Instagram it’s time to get to work!

Remember to:

  1. Find the hashtags that are right for you and your brand.
  2. Utilise all 30 hashtags within a post to maximise your reach.
  3. Don’t be afraid to create custom hashtags to help you build your community.

If you have any questions just leave a comment below.

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Jonathan Chan

Written by Jonathan Chan

Jonathan Chan is the Content Crafter at Foundr Magazine, a magazine for young entrepreneurs. He can often be found writing and reading anything and everything to do with entrepreneurship and the startup world. That or spending too much time pretending to be the next MMA star. Check out more of his writing over at the Foundr Blog.