Are you using Instagram to promote your books and writing?
This article is about hashtags, or as I like to say #hashtags . Read on for some great tips on choosing and using hashtags, and some commonsense answers to frequent hashtag questions.
Why Instagram has hashtags
Let’s start at the beginning and talk about the real purpose of hashtags, and how you can make them work for you, even while they are primarily designed to help Instagram make more money from paid advertising.
At its core, Instagram is a publishing platform; one of the publishing platforms provided ‘for free’ by the conglomerate Meta (formerly Facebook). I say ‘for free’ in quotes because Instagram is a business and like most businesses, its primary aim is to make money. It makes its money by selling advertising. The more people there are on instagram, the more people who will see the advertisements of Instagram’s real customers – paying advertisers.
Instagram is continuously improving the value they add to advertisers. One great way to add value to advertisers is to offer more eyeballs on their advertisements and an easier way to reach their ideal audience. Hashtags create a great ‘discovery’ tools. Instagram users (like you and me and our readers) click on them and end up wondering down all sorts of fascinating rabbit holes, discovering new books and authors (like you and me) along the way.
You can take advantage of this, for free, by using hashtags to create content that reaches more people organically (without using paid advertising).
How hashtags work
Think of a hashtag as a mini topic, or category. When you put a hashtag in your post you’re telling Instgram “I’d like you to include this post in this category”.
For example, when my friend Lyn Yeowart had her debut novel published in early 2021, it was hailed as a great example of rural noir, a trending sub-genre. So we put #ruralnoir hashtag in a lot of her early instagram posts, and now if you visit the #ruralnoir hashtag on Instagram, you’ll see quite a few of her posts in the feed. And also quite a few about Gary Disher’s books and others in this fascinating sub-genre.
Your hashtag is ‘for the people’
Once you’ve added a hashtag to your post, the next step is about readers… the people who read your post, see a hashtag and click on it, and get re-routed to the page with all the other posts that use the hashtag.
Or, they’re reading someone else’s post, see a hashtag that represents a topic they’re interested in, click it and see all the other posts that use that hashtag – including yours!
In short, clicking on a hashtag in Instagram takes you to a page that shows you aaalllll the other posts whose authors have tagged them with the same hashtag. If it’s a popular hashtag, you might be scrolling for a long time.
Just for fun, try it with one of instagram’s biggest hashtags #catsofinstagram
Hashtag pages are places of discovery
The top three rows of a hashtag page show the top posts that use the hashtag and underneath them are the most recent posts using that hashtag. In Instagram-speak ‘top’ seems generally means some combination of ‘most engagements’ (likes and comments) and ‘most relevant’. Which makes sense given the true purpose of Instagram (see Why Instagram has hashtags above)
And that brings us to the next part of this post – the frequently asked questions. I get a lot of questions about Instagram, and the ones I’ve answered below are both frequent AND a little bit tricky to find answers to using Google, so here goes…
Should I use hashtags that lots of other people use (like #catsofinstagram) or smaller, niche hashtags like #ruralnoir
Such a good question. I’m going to be a bit annoying by side-stepping the either/or answer and give you some information that will help you figure out what’s best for you.
If you choose a hashtag that has been used hundreds of thousands or even millions of times (see my list of some popular hashtags for Australian authors) you might find your post is lost in the huge list of other people’s posts. It will appear in the ‘most recent’ list for a few minutes (or more likely seconds) and then be pushed down, unless your Instagram has thousands or millions of followers and heaps of engagement.
If you choose to use a hashtag that’s only been used a relatively small number of times, context is really important. In the case of your author name and book name, the first time you use those hashtags may well be the first time anybody uses them.
Big tip for author hashtags: When your book first comes out, it’s a great idea to start a hashtag with your book’s name and your author name. This then (like magic) ensures that you have a hashtag page for your book and one for you as an author. Own it, baby! Can you say ‘brand‘? You can check back from time to time and make sure you’ve caught the posts that appear in there from other people. For example some people might forget to @tag you in a post (which would give you an alert) but might instead add a #hashtag of your name. (yes, this happens aallll the time!)
How many hashtags?
In my research I’ve seen so many different answers to this that i’ve come to the conclusion that there is no correct number of hashtags for every author, or even for every post by the same author.
Statistically, it seems the most common number of hashtags to use on Instagram is between 1 and 3.
At the moment, Instagram says to aim for between 3 and 5
But I would also say that I don’t know why Instagram recommends that number. Is it because they read the stats and made a recommendation based around what people are doing? Or is it because there’s a real benefit in that number?
I generally put between 5 and 20 hashtags in posts, because I want to reach a range of audiences. Harking back to #ruralnoir, the book in question is also a #debutnovel and by an #australianauthor so it’s part of the #auslit landscape. I want that post to reach people who are interested in all those topics, so why not put a hashtag in my post for each of them. Who knows, your next amazing review could come from someone who found your #ruralnoir #debutnovel on a hashtag page that they visited after clicking on the #auslit tag in the post of someone more famous.
Hashtags in the caption or the comments?
This is the Instagram equivalent to the jam-or-cream-first-on-scones-for-devonshire-tea debate! Advocates for each approach have evidence to back their claims. Personally, I always put them in the post, except when I forget (see below). I do this because:
- I am small fry, so if I’m using one of the very popular hashtags like #bookstagram, even the tiny amount of time it takes for me to post the hashtags in the comment means that my post will be way down the feed when it appears. If I put the hashtag in the caption it appears at the top of the ‘most recent feed’ – even if only for a nanosecond
- Also I read a study that said reach is better for accounts with fewer followers if they post their hashtags in the caption. Apparently when you get to millions of followers, that swaps. I’ll definitely let you know if I ever get to test that theory!
- And remember, Instagram tips and tricks go out of date faster than a post on #catsofinstagram (see what I did there?) because this is still quite a new and evolving landscape and Instagram is learning how things work just a little bit faster than we are. So be flexible, try new things, observe what others are doing that works and don’t get stuck in a rut. Such easy advice to give 🙂
What happens if I forget to add hashtags?
Nothing bad happens. And also, you can add hashtags to the comments later (see above)
The best advice? Research and play!
As an author, when it comes to something as personal and important as your presence on social media (part of your brand) it’s important to do social media in a way that’s authentic to you. My best tip if you’re feeling unsure is to follow the authors you admire on Instagram. See what they do that works and adapt it to your own feed, always acknowledging that you have to listen to what your gut tells you too.
I’ll give you an example from my own flawed processes… I hardly do any Instagram stories, but others swear by them. When my next book comes out I’ll probably gird the loins and step up to Instagram stories, but until then, I just haven’t put them on the menu. I don’t enjoy watching them, but on the other hand I see that some authors use them really effectively. My brand won’t be damaged if I don’t use them. It might be enhanced if I do.
But the best thing I can do is connect, be authentic and have fun. #Hashtags are one really easy way to do that. But there are other ways. Do some lurking, learn from your own successes and failures and those of others. The writer community on Instagram is really fantastic. Jump in and take a swim.