What you should know about Instagram’s ‘follow hashtags’

In December Instagram launched the new follow hashtags feature, promising users that “Now it’s even easier to stay connected with the interests, hobbies, passions, and communities that you care about.” The new feature offers a new way for users to find content, as well as a way for brands and campaigns to find new audiences.  In this blog post, we’ll take a deep dive into the follow hashtags feature, looking at what it is and how brands can benefit from it. We’ll also consider potential pitfalls and how to avoid them, and how to choose your own branded hashtag.

What is The ‘Follow Hashtags’ Feature?

With the follow hashtags feature, Instagram now allows you to follow not only accounts but hashtags as well. For example, if you want to check out what happened at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, you can follow #whywewearblack instead of following several stars who attended the event.

The man behind the new feature is Matthew Ogle, who also came up with the Discover Weekly feature for Spotify. While the products are different, they share the goal of combining algorithms and human curation to create a more personalized experience. The current version of the product is only the beginning:

It’s a first step that next year [2018] we can layer all kinds of cool stuff on top of, with hashtags as our atomic unit for interest on Instagram (Matthew Ogle to The Verge)

For now, the main takeaway is that the new feature makes the use of hashtags more relevant to Instagram users. But what does that mean for your brand’s hashtag use?  Just like any other great idea, the new feature brings many advantages and a few hidden pitfalls.

Before we take a closer look at the follow hashtags feature, let’s quickly revisit the different types of hashtags. If you consider yourself to be a hashtag expert, feel free to skip this part.

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Hashtag Types You Should Be Aware Of

We can differentiate three different types of hashtags:

  • Branded hashtags
  • Community hashtags
  • Trending hashtags

The differences are easy to distinguish.

Branded hashtags

Any hashtag that refers to your brand. This can be a unique hashtag you use throughout your entire social media strategy (e.g. #Airbnb) or a specific campaign hashtag (e.g. #weaccept).

Community hashtags

In general, these hashtags are content-related and used by people who share a common interest. Well-known community hashtags include #ootd (outfit of the day) and #veganfood. You can further subdivide these hashtags into location hashtags (quite useful for local business owners) or product hashtags.

When choosing product hashtags, consider what’s unique about the good or service you offer to find an appropriate hashtag (e.g. #ecofriendly). Using these hashtags makes it easier for your target audiences to find you.

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Trending hashtags

They refer to a more specific topic that has gone viral through a content piece on social media or an inspiring campaign. These hashtags usually last only for a few weeks. Recent trending hashtags are #timesup and #metoo.

Advantages Of The New Feature

One of the most important questions you probably ask yourself is in what way you can benefit from the new feature. Consider the following three benefits.

Be Discovered On The Explore Page

One major benefit of the new feature is that it makes it easier for users to find what they are interested in — including your brand or campaign. Instagram still uses hashtags to show your posting on Instagram search but also to rank your posting on the explore page. If users are interested in a specific hashtag you use, your posting is likely to be shown on their explore page.

Instagram Exlore Page

Example of Instagram’s explore page

Instagram is highly interested in showing us what Instagram thinks we want to see, and the new feature improves their ability to do so. At its core, following hashtags is a new way for Instagram to offer users content they might like, which in turn offers brands a way to connect with more users.

Heads-up: Instagram is already testing another feature that displays recommendations for you in your feed.

Side note: Did you know that you can add up to 10 hashtags in your Instagram story? You can also hide them by adding, for example, an emoji as a second layer over the hashtag. People won’t be able to see your hashtags but the hashtags will still affect your ranking on the explore page.

Engage Differently With Your Targets

Following hashtags also allows users to engage with your content in a new way. Now, users can view, share, and comment on your brand-related content by following the brand or a campaign hashtag even if they don’t follow your brand’s account.

If the content associated with the hashtag users are interested in is skyrocketing in popularity, it might be a new opportunity to attract new followers to your Instagram account.

Instagram Hashtag Following

Example of Instagram’s Following Hashtags

Additionally, this feature lets you see what hashtags your followings follow. So you can actually check what hashtags your current audience is interested in.

Side note: You can track hashtags with the InfluencerDB monitoring feature. Whether you research branded, campaign, trending or community hashtags, you can sort them by newest posts, highest media value, most followers or most likes.

InfluencerDB Monitor Feature

Example of InfluencerDB Monitoring 

Reach A Whole New Audience

Last but not least, the new feature improves your ability to reach an audience beyond your own followers. This also comes in handy when using influencers for your marketing strategy. Users who follow campaign hashtags will be exposed to several influencer postings as long as these influencers use the hashtag.

So even if users follow just one of the influencers your brand is cooperating with, they’ll be shown other sponsored postings related to your brand as well.

Users will also be able to see how popular your product is if your customers use the hashtag as well. Your hashtag followers will be exposed to the content your fans share.

The new feature makes savvy use of your brand hashtags even more important.

How People Misuse The New Feature

While the new feature has many upsides, you’ll need to watch out for some pitfalls as you integrate it into your brand strategy. Being found through hashtags more easily makes it attractive for unauthentic channels to abuse trending hashtags to appear in multiple feeds.

Of course, Instagram was aware of this issue while testing their new feature, and their algorithm helps to counteract it. To ensure that you’ll be exposed to the content you’re interested in, you can mark an irrelevant or offensive posting with “Don’t Show For This Hashtag”. In this way, the algorithm learns what content a user is interested in and what he or she isn’t. So people following the same hashtag might be exposed to different content.

We don’t yet know if Instagram might shut out the brands content completely if one specific content piece is marked as irrelevant by a user. While the “Don’t Show For This Hashtag” button was designed to improve the user experience for Instagram users, it’s not clear yet to what extent some content pieces will be shut out completely.

Choosing Your Own Branded Hashtag

Finding a hashtag for your brand might seem easy but it can actually be quite tricky as the importance of a good hashtag is often underestimated. Considering the criteria used by the Instagram algorithm to rank content, your brand hashtag should be somehow related to a trending topic (to be easy to find and to appear in top posts).

On the other hand, it should be unique and used consistently on your social media accounts. You do not need to include your company’s name but you might want to consider doing so if your brand is smaller and still needs to make its mark against its competitors.

Guess which brand uses #HaveABreak as a branded hashtag? You probably got it right– it’s KitKat! The brand does not need to include its name because everyone associates the hashtag with the brand’s slogan immediately.

These hashtags can be integrated into a caption smoothly and are therefore more likely to be used by other accounts. Unless your brand sells a product that confers a certain status symbol people might prefer using #HaveABreak instead of #Kitkat.

The Takeaway

With the new feature, Instagram wants to optimize its user experience by pre-filtering content. For brands, this means that savvy hashtag usage is more important than ever, and brands should not underestimate the correct use of the symbol. With effective hashtag use, the new feature offers many advantages: be discovered, reach a new audience, and engage with your targets differently.

You know your brand best, so keep in mind the pitfalls along the way when choosing your brand or campaign hashtag, and then, as Nike would put it, #justdoit!