Hashtag Science: How to find the best Instagram hashtags tailored to your business

Recently, I had the opportunity to help a Miami-based marketing agency with its clients’ social media strategy. The agency wanted to speed up the onboarding of new clients by applying a data-driven approach.

One of their needs was to identify the best working hashtags to improve the visibility of Instagram posts and grow the follower base. They did not want to use basic suggestions from Instagram, nor use a black-box type of solution that provides a “magical” list of best hashtags. Having worked in data marketing for quite a while, I shared with them a methodology I had applied to my clients based on the Instagram posts’ data analysis.

In this article, you can find a step-by-step approach explaining the whole process of how to find the most suitable hashtags for your own or your client’s business.

Step 1: Define the scope of data to be analyzed.

Hashtags are used to tag and categorize the content of a post to make it easier to be classified and identified by other users. Today, most Instagram posts contain a few hashtags, up to 30 (current limit), that are usually connected. Hence, analyzing a statistically significant number of relevant posts will help to eliminate non-correlated hashtags.

We have all heard the saying “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” In this case, using the wrong hashtags in your posts can result in attracting the wrong audience and having low engagement and conversion rates. Hence, it is essential to define first the scope of data to be analyzed — the more precise it is, the better actionable insights can be obtained.

So, how to ensure the data is accurate and relevant? There are several ways to do it. Depending on the objectives, below the most common strategies.

  1. Define a key hashtag. It should be not too generic, but at the same time have enough posts to be analyzed. I recommend analyzing at least 10k posts per hashtag to improve accuracy. Also, in case you have more hashtags, you can use them in the same way for even more precision. In our case, for their medspa client, we have decided to use “#skincare” and “#medspa” as key hashtags.
  2. Define a combination of two key hashtags. In case you’d like to be more specific, you can work with posts that have both hashtags. For instance, if you are an owner of a sushi shop on Miami beach, you could try “#sushi” and “#miamibeach.”
  3. Apply geolocation. The idea behind this is to analyze location-based Instagram posts. This is a great way to target your potential audience better by using their vocabulary. This approach can be useful for events, places, venues, etc. Let’s say you are an event planner and you’d like to know what #s are the most used for your location or event.
  4. Apply geolocation and a key hashtag: Similar to case #2, the goal is to narrow down the selection of posts by adding a new condition, the geolocation (case #3). Let’s say you are the owner of a running store in Manhattan and you’d like to target local runners. You can decide to analyze Instagram posts tagged in Central Park and including the hashtag of your choice (could be “#runner” or #nyrunner” etc.).
  5. Analyze the posts of the competition. This is one of my favorite approaches, as it helps not only to know how your competition is doing on Instagram but also to get new insights. You can analyze either all of their posts or a selection (in case there is over 10k posts). Hint — when it comes to the competition, you can also further examine the posts with their own branded hashtags (cases #1 or #2), or analyze posts where they are tagged or where people checked-in at one of their physical locations (store, shop, office, etc.).

Ultimately, you can apply all or a part of these tactics, depending on your needs and availability of data.

Step 2: Extract the data from Instagram.

Instagram has an API (application programming interface) that allows for extracting some data, including the posts containing specific hashtags, locations, or published by a user. Although accessing the data through this API can be challenging for non-developers, there are a variety of tools that can be used by marketers that do not require specific IT skills. A simple search on Google will suffice to find them. If you are not sure what tools to use, you can get in touch with me for some recommendations.

Once you have defined the criteria in step one, you can set your extraction query in the tool of your choice and get the required data, which will, most of the time, include the post descriptions containing the hashtags we’d like to analyze.

Step 3: Process the text from extracted posts.

Once the content is ready, the next step is to process the text to isolate the distinct hashtags used in the description. Sometimes, the body text does not include any hashtags — it happens when the user decides to add them in the first comment instead of the post description. In case you would like to include the comments, you will need to get them as well, along with the post description (please refer to step 2). From a statistical point of view, increasing the number of posts to analyze reduces the need for going after the hashtags in the comments section.

In this step, the goal is to run text processing to exclude all words not containing a “#” in the beginning. Again, as for phase 2, there are plenty of tools and scripts that automate this processing. The most important thing is to make sure you can count each occurrence of each hashtag individually. I’m used to organizing them in columns to simplify the last step: analytics.

Step 4: Perform analytics.

The last step involves the simple analytics of the prepared data. If you are familiar with PivotTables on Excel, you should be able to count the occurrence of each hashtag easily and sort them from largest to smallest to get the most used ones.

You can use any other tool that you are familiar with and run such an analysis. I have even seen online tools where you can simply paste the content, and it will automatically create Pivot Tables for you.

Use case, simple application

To highlight the importance of the custom hashtag research, I have performed a simple comparison between two keywords linked to my passion: running. I have decided to analyze the top hashtags used by Miami and NYC runners to understand if there are a lot of differences.

Step 1: Define the scope of data to be analyzed.

I have chosen to start with a simple case and analyze the following keywords: #runnyc and #runmiami.

Step 2: Extract the data from Instagram.

I have extracted the latest 10k posts for each keyword, allowing me to be aware of the latest trends, if any.

Step 3: Process the text from extracted posts.

In less than 15 minutes, I was able to cleanse and isolate #s used in the body text. Without having to check the comments for additional hashtags in the comments section, I have extracted 172k hashtags, a large enough population to ensure a normal distribution.

Step 4: Perform analytics.

Some key indicators:

  • Total number of hashtags used: 171,816 (120,793 for Miami and 51,023 for NYC)
  • The unique number of hashtags used: 17,606
  • Overlap between top 25 hahtags for Miami and NYC: nine hashtags, meaning there are 16 hashtags that are more adapted for each city.

You can access the results in the table below.


With this simple example, you now have an idea of how important it is to rely on the actual data to step up your hashtags game. Relying on the popular hashtags suggested by Instagram is not enough, since none of the suggestions for #runnyc were in the top 25 hashtags. When you know that you can only add up to 30 per post, the risk of missing your target audience is quite significant. For a business, knowing what works best to attract your target audience is key to be seen and stay relevant in this fast-paced environment.

Associated hashtags suggested by Instagram: #nyrr #weekendrun #solorun #shortrun #getoutandrun #rwrunstreak #longrun #outdoorrunning #runclub #runnersofinstagram

I hope this article will help you with your hashtag research, competitive benchmark or even identification of influencers. Indeed, the same content can be used to identify users creating content with the keywords of your choice, and keep those who use them frequently and combine with their average engagement rates for these specific topics. I will post another article on this in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, if you are looking for help finding your ideal hashtags or need a little advice on the tools to use for each step, please drop me a message, I’ll be happy to help.

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