When using hashtags to grow your Instagram followers organically, you have to know why they matter.

For a long time now, hashtags have become something similar to a second language in which you have people who are fluent at it.

Beyond its function on social media, we sometimes use it to express our emotions or to convey a message quickly.

Made famous by Twitter, hashtags now play a significant role in pop culture.

It’s not for no reason so that the Oxford Dictionary included it in 2010, and the Scrabble Dictionary in 2014.

But the real question here is; how is this relevant to you as a brand or digital marketer?

You’re most likely aware of the significance of hashtags, but have you ever wondered how its value impacts growth and engagement on social media?

I know I did, and so did Simply Measured.

Through one of their Instagram studies, they came to the conclusion that posts with at least one hashtag average 12.6% more engagement.

This statement becomes even more evident when we look at the following chart:

grow instagram followers organically

It shows you the increase of engagement by the number of hashtags used within a post.

Contrary to popular belief, it seems the more you use them, the more people will engage with your post.

It isn’t something that happens randomly.

It’s the fact that so many people use the search & explore feature within Instagram.

According to WordStream:

“51% of Instagram users access the platform daily, and 35% look at the platform several times per day.”

With all this activity, one can only assume the enormous amount of incoming traffic the explore page receives on a daily basis.

I consider this a key factor in why you must incorporate a hashtagging strategy.

Every day, millions of people use hashtags to search for content that will inspire or entertain them.

Organic search is the real power behind using them to grow your following on Instagram.

When you keep that in mind every time you use it, you’ll already be ahead of your competitors.

Within this post, I’ll show you step-by-step how to find hashtags that are perfect for your brand or clients.

I’ll then show you how to manage and track your target hashtags correctly.

It’s vital in knowing what works and what doesn’t.

Then, it’s time to put it all to use.

I’ll show you exactly how and when to use your hashtags.

I even included a sneaky little trick that will get you on the radar of influencers on Instagram to further catapult your results.

So, are you ready to put this all to test?

Great, here we go!

How to find the right hashtags for your brand to utilize it for growth.

The most common mistake most brands make when searching for hashtags to use, is when they go for broad ones that get the most activity.

The problem with this is that you’re going to compete with users who have a huge following.

They tend to usually dominate Instagram’s Top Posts section for very popular hashtags.

Of course, you can still use them, but to quote Instagram:

“Using very general tags like #photo might get you a few likes, but with over 700,000 photos tagged #photo, it isn’t the best way to make your photos stand out.”

You have to look for specific hashtags that are of interest to your target persona.

No matter the market, there are always four types of hashtags that can be researched and utilized if relevant.

They are:

  1. Broad (#watch)
  2. Branded (#patekphilippe)
  3. Community (#watchesofinstagram)
  4. Descriptive (#swisswatches)

Notice how the last three are more accurate and contain at least two words.

There are countless of variations and niche-specific hashtags that fall under the branded, community, and descriptive categories.

If you’re going after high-end watch collectors, then you might want to research brands who are active within that space.

Patek Philippe is such a brand.

You can then go more specific and see if there’s a hashtag like #patekwatches or #patekphillipewatch.

Your chances of getting results from those are much higher than #watch or #watches.

It’s good to keep in mind that going after the lower hanging fruit increases the odds of being featured as a top post.

Since this is one of our objectives, we have to ensure we only make use of hashtags that meet that criteria.

Once we go through a quality scoring checklist, we’ll be able to assess the ones we found and determine whether or not to throw them in the mix.

For the sake of this post, let’s assume I want to target users for a reseller of high-end watches.

From time to time, they ought to post shots of watches they have in their inventory and watches they simply love.

Let’s assume they want to go after watch connoisseurs.

It would then be important to know what hashtags such users would use when searching for relevant content.

Let’s now use this example to go through the following steps.

Step 1. Create a target persona.

As mentioned above, it’s imperative to know who your target persona is.

Knowing this allows you to keep that in mind for your hashtag discovery.

It’s also beneficial for when posting and writing captions.

If you don’t know who you’re communicating with, then what you share might not always land right.

I use Facebook Audience Insights to find ideas and data based on my target audience.

I can then use that to build a target persona around it.

It’s a relatively simple tool to use, but precious if you like to tap into Facebook’s massive database of users.

I made a walkthrough video on how I’d use Audience Insights if I wanted to get a better understanding of my target audience.

I can then create a target persona based on that information.

You can watch it below.

For this example, I created a target persona using Smaply.

grow your instagram followers organically

Disclaimer: I’m not an affiliate of any of the tools I recommend within this blog post. Most of them are free to use or offer a free 14-day trial.

I also used Diverse UI to find an avatar picture to give a face to my target persona.

Here’s how it ended up looking like:

grow your instagram followers organically

Step 2. Mind mapping keywords.

Now that we know who our target persona is, we can start to think of some words/hashtags that will resonate with our target audience.

If you have a very technical knowledge of your industry and know the lingo, that’s great.

Just keep in mind that not all people within your target audience are as familiar with it as you.

Our goal is to come up with keywords within a structured flow that we can then use to search for moderately active but relevant hashtags.

You need to think of terms that are a combination of casual and industry specific.

If you’re getting stuck at this process, try using the Google Keyword Planner to get suggestions.

You can get recommendations based on a keyword or the URL of an authority site within your niche/market.

grow your instagram followers organically

A straightforward way to brainstorm and structure your keywords is by creating a mind map.

It will allow you to start broad and go deeper based on parent themes and categories.

The tool I use for this process is called Text 2 Mind Map.

It’s a free tool you can use that automatically converts plain text to a visual mind map.

All you have to do is list words within a text field and indent or outdent them to create a structure.

grow your instagram followers organically

You then click on “Draw Mind Map” and just like that; you’ll see an interactive mind map on the right.

Here’s an example of a mind map I created for this post:

grow your instagram followers organically

I could have also added actual watch models or hobbyist terms, so I suggest you take your time with this and go as deep as possible.

The more keywords you structure, the higher the chance of finding lower hanging fruit when searching for hashtags.

Step 3. Finding relevant hashtags.

Now that you have your mind map, we can start making variations of keywords that we’ll use to search for similar but active hashtags.

Keep in mind that to grow your Instagram followers organically, you need to tailor your targeting perfectly.

Open your mind map if you saved it somewhere, and take a good look at your keywords.

Try to combine parent themes with child themes and see if they make sense.

If they don’t, that’s fine as this will only serve as our bait to catch the fish.

Make at least 30+ hashtag variations without spaces between the words.

Make sure to include some broad hashtags because they’ll help us with our search as well.

Here’s an example of variations I made based on the mind map I created:

grow your instagram followers organically

And so the list goes on.

Once you have created your list, head on over to Display Purposes.

grow your instagram followers organically

It’s a tool I use to find relevant hashtags that actively get used by people.

Remember, we don’t want to use hashtags no-one ever uses to search for content.

We need to find that delicate balance between relevance and popularity.

Luckily for us, this tool gives you that data for each hashtag it suggests.

Before we go searching, I want you to keep an eye out for the four types of hashtags I told you about earlier.

Our job is to build up a list that contains a combination of those as it will make your targeting more dynamic and niche specific.

Once you’re at Display Purposes, look for the Tag Selection feature on the right.

Select “Manual” as this will allow you to pick the best hashtags yourself from the list of results it will show you.

You can now copy and paste your hashtags in the black search bar, and it will instantly start looking for related results per hashtag.

It will then show you something like this.

grow your instagram followers organically

As you can see, it does a great job at finding hashtags you might not have thought of yourself or didn’t think even existed.

The best part is, it shows you a relevance and popularity indicator per hashtag, so you can select the ones that are right at the sweet spot.

Look for branded, community, and descriptive hashtags that have a minimum relevance score of 40% and a maximum popularity score of 80%.

You can make exceptions for hashtags if they’re relevant enough, even though the indicator suggests otherwise.

You should never rely solely on technology.

In situations like these, use your intelligence to make a judgment call.

Once you have selected your hashtags from the lists of results, you should see your selection at the top like this:

grow your instagram followers organically

Make sure to save and classify them somewhere as your initial list of hashtags.

If you followed the steps thus far, your hashtags at this point should be relevant, active, but not too popular or broad.

Preferably, you should have a combination of branded, community and descriptive hashtags.

We’re still going to add a few more within the next step.

Once we’re finished with that, we’re going to quality score them manually on Instagram and create our final official list of target hashtags.

Step 4. Reverse engineering.

This process involves looking at the hashtags competitors and influencers within your market are using.

We’re going to look at their hashtag strategy to see if we perhaps have overlooked a few good ones.

We’re also going to look at some community-based hashtags your target audience is using when posting relevant content.

I’ve created a video where I show you exactly how I do this:

If you followed the process outlined in the video above and you found new hashtags, make sure to include them in your initial list.

In the next step, we’re going to assess which ones to dump and which ones to keep to use it grow your Instagram followers organically.

Step 5. Quality scoring results.

It makes sense we should only spend our time and efforts on a strategy that will get us the best results.

It’s important to never incorporate or associate your Instagram page with hashtags that do not resonate with your target audience.

Even though we’re going to assess the quality of our hashtags, that doesn’t mean the ones that score high are going to be kept and used forever.

It will depend on how well they’ll perform for us, but we’ll cover that within the next part of this post.

For now, let’s keep it simple and apply a formula to determine the quality score of our hashtags.

Although we’ve made use of Display Purposes’ popularity and relevance indicators, we still want to confirm this manually.

The criteria we’re applying for popularity and relevance is going to be slightly different.

This process, depending on the number of hashtags you have right now, might take a bit of time, but it’ll be worth it.

The first thing I want you to do is to create a spreadsheet.

I use Google Sheets as it’s web-based and easily accessible.

Add in the Hashtag, Relevance, Type, No. of Total Posts, and Score columns like the spreadsheet you see below:

grow your instagram followers organically

Open up your list of initial hashtags and copy and paste it under the first column like this:

grow your instagram followers organically

If you’re a neat freak like me, you can sort the hashtags alphabetically.

Now we’re going to determine relevance.

We can determine this based on our target persona and by asking ourselves the following question:

Will [Name of Target Persona] use this hashtag to post about or search for content around [Topic]?

For example, this question may sound like:

“Will Joshua Jackson use this hashtag to post about or look for content around high-end watches?”

You then want to answer this question with a simple no, maybe, or yes.

Add this under the Relevance column like so:

grow your instagram followers organically

Under “Overlap” we’re going to determine whether we believe the hashtag might have an audience or content overlap.

If we have a hashtag like #watchesofinstagram, then it might be that other people use it to look for low-end watches instead of high-end ones.

Since we’re trying to sell on the upper end, this hashtag might attract overlapping audiences.

It’s good to be aware of this as it will serve as another factor in determining the quality of a hashtag.

Is there a way to scientifically measure overlap on Instagram?

Unfortunately not, but if in doubt, you can do a quick search for the hashtag and look at the associated content.

Once you have a good idea about the overlap, you can add the columns Not At All, Very Little, Moderate, or Quite a Lot under the Overlap column like so:

grow your instagram followers organically

The next column is quite easy.

Here we specify whether the hashtag is either a branded, community or descriptive hashtag.

Add the type of hashtag under the Type column as I did here:

grow your instagram followers organically

We’re now going to investigate the total amount of associated posts per hashtag.

It’s relatively easy to find this out, but if you have a long list of hashtags (which I hope you have), then it can take a bit of time.

First, go to Instagram either on the web or open up the app and go to the Explore page.

Once there, type in your hashtag (with the # character) and look for where it says “X posts” as seen below:

grow your instagram followers organically

Take the number you see and add it to the “No. of Total Posts” column inside your spreadsheet:

grow your instagram followers organically

Now that we have entered the data, we’re going to score each piece of information for each hashtag.

We do this through a rating system of 1 to max 5 points per column (except for the Type column).

The way you assign the points will differ per column:

Hashtag (strength)
1 pt = very weak, 5 pts = very strong

1 pt = very irrelevant, 5 pts = very relevant.

1 pt = a lot of overlap, 5 pts = no overlap.

No. of Total Posts
1 pt = less than 50k and more than 5m, 5 pts = more than 1m and less than 1,5m

Add the points to the corresponding cells and calculate the total amount of points per hashtag based on the formula above.

Enter the total points inside the Score column like so:

grow your instagram followers organically

Once you have given your hashtags a score, it’s time to decide which to keep, and which to remove.

My suggestion is to remove the ones that scored under 15.

They are most likely not worth the trouble and will not provide you with the desired results.

You can highlight the ones that scored under 20 as your secondary hashtags for when you’re looking for more hashtags to test.

Finally, you can highlight the ones that scored above 20 as your primary hashtags.

Once you’re done cleaning up your list, you now have your official list of target hashtags to grow your Instagram following.

Before we get into how to use them, we first have to cover something very crucial.

How to track and manage your hashtags so you know what works.

If we want to find out which of our hashtags generate the best results, we need to manage and track them.

We can do this manually without needing any apps or tools to do this for us.

Besides, doing this ourselves lets you be more hands-on and allows you to understand the impact of hashtags much better.

This process is relatively easy but extremely vital to your hashtag strategy.

We’re going to create a spreadsheet (inspired by the folks at Later) where we keep and track our hashtags.

We’ll then add in data whenever we have something new to report about how they’re performing.

Since you’ve already created a spreadsheet, you can just create a new sheet within the same file and name it something like Hashtag Tracking.

Once you’ve done that, add the following columns:

Here you insert the hashtags that have a high-quality score.

Specify whether it’s a branded, community, or descriptive hashtag.

Here you assign a group identifier to classify and segment your hashtags for future use.

Times Used
Specify how many times you’ve used the hashtag.

Recent Date
The latest date of a post where you added it.

The total amount of impressions across all related posts.

The total number of likes across all related posts.

The total amount of comments across all related posts.

The total number of saves across all related posts.

Your spreadsheet should now look like this:

grow your instagram followers organically

To be able to see Impressions and Saves for your posts on Instagram, you need to switch to a business profile.

Now the way these spreadsheets work is super simple.

Let’s say one of my hashtags is #horology and I’m adding it to the list.

I’d initially put “Descriptive” under Type and “Horology” under Group.

When I’d add another hashtag like #horophile, I’d put the same descriptors under the same columns.

So what’s the significance of grouping them like that?

Well, whenever I would post something horology related, I’d want to add exactly those that have the “Horology” group identifier.

It could be that a hashtag overlaps different groups and that’s fine, just as long as you assign them to the right groups.

It will make the targeting for my post much more accurate.

Whenever someone then searches Instagram using one of the hashtags I added to the post, they will see something relevant.

Many times, people stuff their captions with hashtags that are irrelevant to the post.

It then renders using them pretty much useless.

You have to consider users on Instagram as actual people, just like you and me.

Are you going to tap on a picture displaying a cat when you’re searching for posts about pugs?

Segment your hashtags so they make sense when you would use them within the same post.

It’s another reason why we’ve created a target persona; so we can try to anticipate what that person might search for.

We’re going to cover exactly how to use hashtags further down this post, but for now, make sure you prepare them within the spreadsheet for future use.

As for the other columns, it’s pretty simple.

Every time you use a group of hashtags, and at least 24 hours have passed, you look at the engagement you received on the corresponding post.

You then add it up to the metrics that are already there on the list.

For example, say I added a relevant group of hashtags to a new post about horology.

Now say that I have used them before and I’ve already tracked and collected some stats for them inside the spreadsheet.

Let’s say that the stats for each of the hashtags within the same group looks something like this:

grow your instagram followers organically

Then, 48 hours later, I see this new post (with the same hashtags) has received over 2,500 impressions, 220 likes, 15 comments, and 7 saves.

I’ll then go to my spreadsheet, find the hashtags I used, and add those numbers on top of the figures I’ve recorded before.

In this example, it would then look something like this:

grow your instagram followers organically

When properly updated, it will always tell me how my hashtags are performing.

You can then decide to stop using some, or perhaps switching some to different groups because they seem to work better there.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a scientific approach, it’s simply a way to organize, manage, and keep track of your hashtag strategy.

Now that you’ve found your hashtags and organized them, it’s time to go over how to use them to get more followers and grow your Instagram account.

How to actually use hashtags to grow your Instagram followers organically.

According to Instagram:

“you can use up to 30 tags on a post. If you include more than 30 tags on a single photo/video, your comment won’t post.”

There are a lot of people who’ll advise you to use only 5 or 6 at most, but I stand behind Louise Myers’ statement when she says:

“I’m a fan of using all 30 hashtags. Do people find it spammy? My engagement rates say otherwise.”

Instagram has set the limit of 30 hashtags for a reason.

If your hashtags are relevant and seem to engage people, then why not use all of them if they allow you to increase your reach?

If you need proof, just look back at the chart I showed you at the beginning of this post.

It says that if you use more than 11 hashtags, you get 442% more engagement than using no hashtags at all.

It seems when it comes to hashtags, less is not more.

There’s also another interesting observation made by the people at Simply Measured.

This time it’s not about hashtags, but about @mentions:

“Posts that include another user handle in the caption net 56% more engagement.”

You might ask yourself why this would be useful for us to know since we only focus on hashtags.

Well, here’s why:

  • To have a post featured in the Top Posts sections for a hashtag, we need a lot of engagement fast.
  • Since mentioning another user in our caption will increase engagement, we stand a higher chance of our post getting featured.
  • If we refer to a user with a huge following in the same niche, we might even get them to engage back.
  • If an influential user engages on our post, their followers will see that as well, which then increases our organic growth.

As you can see, it’s quite the domino effect.

Will this always work?

No, it won’t, but it’s not about hitting a homerun every time, it’s about hitting a few of them once in awhile.

The way we’re going to put this all to use in our new posts is by:

  1. Writing a clean caption and mentioning an influencer in your niche.
  2. Adding 11+ hashtags of the same group within the 1st comment.

Step 1. Keeping your caption clean.

Your caption is to convey a message, to provide context, and to get people to engage just like the image or video your posting.

We need to keep this section of the post to the point.

My best advice in this situation is to consider your caption like a tiny story you’re telling.

Depending on your target audience and content, you want it to be both entertaining and informative at the same time.

The length of your caption should depend on what it is you’re posting and what else you have to say about it.

I have not experienced any correlation between caption length and increased engagement.

I have seen a difference when you put some effort into it vs. just randomly spouting something irrelevant.

You also don’t want to make it too short, where you’re just mentioning the name or title of the object or subject of your post.

Fundamentally speaking, you need to make use of your voice or that of your brand’s.

Write in a language that’s consistent throughout all your social media and websites.

For instance, take Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for example.

He’s a caption king and understands the power of storytelling and knows how to reel in the interest of his audience.

Here’s an example of such a caption:

grow your instagram followers organically

His picture shows him and the writer he’s going to work with.

He could have easily just said something generic and uninteresting like “Just had a lovely lunch with XYZ.”.

Instead, he tells you a story about what’s happening in his life and the significance of the person he met up with.

Now that’s a good caption!

If you think you can only apply this to major events happening in your business or life, then you’re wrong.

It can be applied to anything.

Here’s another one by Dwayne Johnson:

grow your instagram followers organically

This time it’s short, inspiring, and funny.

Who would’ve ever guessed that the world’s highest paid actor and an ex-pro wrestler could teach us a thing or two about social media?

Additional to your text, you might also want to @mention someone else within your caption to increase engagement on your post as explained earlier.

The way I apply this is by looking for a user who just recently got featured in the Top Posts section for a hashtag I’m targeting.

Once found, I’ll mention them at the beginning of my caption like so:

Re: @username {caption text}

It will make it look as if I’m responding to something the user posted.

It can also work as a way to start a public conversation through posts instead of comments or direct messages.

Btw, have you noticed how I didn’t mention anything about adding your hashtags in your caption?

Well, that’s because they don’t belong there.

Here’s where they do belong.

Step 2. Inserting your hashtags as a comment.

Most users on Instagram put hashtags inside of a caption.

That’s fine but would only make sense if you’re adding just a few and not 11 or more.

Since we want to keep our caption clean and not make it look spammy, we’re going to add our group of hashtags inside of the 1st comment of our post.

According to Instagram, your post will still appear on the hashtag page according to the time it was originally posted, not the time the hashtag was added.

It’s something to keep in mind, but it doesn’t matter much because we’re going to post the hashtag comment right after the post goes live.

Since you’ve already grouped your hashtags inside of the spreadsheet you created, you’ll have an easy time finding the right ones to use.

There is, however, a specific way to format your hashtags when adding it to your 1st comment.

You want to first create 5 line breaks by using dashes or points and then order hashtags by most relevant to least relevant.

Never use hashtags that are irrelevant to the content you’re posting.

Your comment with hashtags will then show up as [..] and be invisible to other users, like so:

grow your instagram followers organically

Only when a user clicks on the comment icon or clicks on the link to view all comments, will they be able to see your comment with hashtags:

grow your instagram followers organically

By applying this method, you will keep your hashtagging strategy clean and still get your post on the explore pages.

Something I do advise is to pre-format your groups of hashtags so you have them ready to go whenever you’re going to use them.

Reason being is to save time but also because, within Instagram’s comment section, you don’t have a return button to create line breaks.

If they did offer such a button, they would remove line breaks automatically.

It’s why we need to use dots or dashes to keep them in there.

To make this easier, you can save your groups with line breaks in a notes app on your mobile and copy them from there.

grow your instagram followers organically

If you’re experimenting with a hashtag group and are adding or removing a few, you can just create a new note instead of editing it within the same.

It will make it easier for you to try out new variations and keep track of the changes you’ve made.

It’s a simple process but just makes executing on your strategy much easier.

You’re now ready to start executing on your hashtag strategy like a pro.

It’s just a matter of time now before you grow a bigger and more active following for your page.

Growth and hashtags live or die by the law of consistency.

Congratulations, you made it this far.

When you follow the entire process outlined above, you’re going to be light years ahead of your competitors when it comes to your Instagram marketing.

Just imagine that Ex-Googler Chris Messina invented the hashtag for Twitter 10 years ago.

What he said back then and how it applies now is still relevant.

In fact, it has become an integral part of social media and online expression.

Here’s what he said back in 2007:

“It’s easy to learn and lightweight, it’s very flexible and entirely folksonomic and works with people’s current behaviors, rather than forcing anyone to learn anything radically new.”

You have to consider hashtags as a second language and a skill set that will only increase your bottom line.

But just like anything, consistency is key!

When you remain consistent and persistent while executing on a well thought through strategy, it’s almost like forcing the gods of luck to bring success your way.

Keep this in mind when taking actions on the steps we’ve discussed within this blog post.

As a recap, here’s what we covered today:

  • If you want to know how to grow your Instagram following organically, then you need to learn how to take advantage of hashtags.
  • The more of them you use, especially if they’re relevant, the higher your post engagement, and the bigger your following and organic reach will be.
  • Make sure you know who your target audience is.
  • Create a target person to understand better what hashtags they would use when searching for or creating content similar to what you will post.
  • Researching hashtags and finding the right lower hanging fruit can make all the difference when trying to grow a following on Instagram.
  • Make use of mind maps, hashtag suggestion tools, competitors, and target users on Instagram to get an idea of which ones you should use.
  • Use too broad ones, and you’re going to have a hard time getting featured within Top Posts.
  • Use too specific ones, and getting featured won’t matter at all.
  • Finding the right balance is key!
  • Determine the Quality Score of your hashtags by further researching them so you know they’re going to be worth your time.
  • Organize your target hashtags so you can easily manage and track them, as this will help you understand which of them are working and which to get rid off.
  • When posting, keep your caption clean and to the point.
  • Try to tell a story, even if it’s short, and @mention an influencer within your niche.
  • Entertain your followers to drastically increase engagement so you’ll have a better chance of getting your post featured.
  • When you use your hashtags, add them within your post’s 1st comment and not within your caption.
  • Use 5 line breaks so your comment becomes invisible when users see your post.
  • Add as many relevant hashtags (at least 11) of the same group within your 1st comment.
  • It’s impossible to create line breaks within Instagram so pre-format and save those groups within a notes app, and you’ll save time when using them again.

That’s it!

If you need help putting together a killer hashtag strategy that will help you grow your Instagram page, then don’t hesitate to contact me.

I’d be happy to help out.

Also, I’m currently building an Instagram tool that will allow you to target and naturally convert your ideal users to loyal followers on Instagram more quickly.

You can learn more about it on jolted.co

It’s currently in pre-launch and will be made available to those who will receive an invite.

So make sure you request your invitation while you still can.

Other than that, I’d love to know if you’re currently using hashtags, and if so, how?

Drop a comment below and let’s continue the conversation.


It's obvious I write everything myself on this site so I won't start with the generic "Fouad is..." cause I'm not that important 😆 Let's just say I'm a startuphile who loves to make products and grow them like Madonna's gardener. How about we connect on Twitter? Good.