Love them or hate them, hashtags are an effective way to make social media posts go further, reach a wider audience and drive engagement.
News organisations are increasingly looking to Instagram to appeal to younger audiences. Hashtags allow users to follow topics and makes posts appear in their explore menu, making it a useful tool for news organisations to build a following.
However, their use tends to differ greatly by publication. Some newer organisations put a few hashtags in the post caption, while others do not bother at all. Others will save hashtags for the first comment, while some hide the hashtags in the 'more' section of posts to appear clutter-free.
So, how do you make informed choices about hashtags? What is the magic number and where should you put them?
One study from analytics tool SocialInsider looked at almost 650,000 brand posts from around 6,700 brands to determine the most effective use, looking at quantity, combination and placement of hashtags.
"The problem with Instagram hashtags is that there is no clear cut magic formula that will work for everyone," said Teodora Lozan, SocialInsider, author of the study. "That's why there's so much confusion around the topic."
"The purpose of the study was to get the insights that would narrow down a few guides that would help brands improve their strategies and give their posts the best chances at high engagement. But ultimately, the nature of the brand still has a big role to play, as well as the size of the profile."
Seven is the magic number
An important finding for news organisations to consider is that 94 per cent of brands put hashtags in the caption, though the number of followers is a decisive factor.
Profiles under 100k followers that put hashtags in the captions experience higher reach and impressions generally. This is particularly true for profiles with fewer than 5k followers, that register nearly 37 per cent more reach and nearly 50 per cent more impressions.
Profiles over that 100k ceiling tend to fare better when putting hashtags in the first comment instead, with around 16 per cent greater reach as a result.
Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags to be used in any one post, and many brands will go right to the limit. However, the study shows that seven hashtags in the caption seems to be the choice number amongst brands.
Looking at hashtags in the first comment, brands tend to keep it relatively low at just two. The study offers a rough guide as to how many hashtags to use depending on the number of followers you have.
- Profiles with under 5k followers: 6 hidden hashtags in the caption achieved better engagement, reach and more impressions.
- Profiles with 5k-10k followers: 5 shown hashtags in the first comment achieved better engagement (despite the reach and impression rates).
- Profiles with 10k-50k followers: 2 hidden hashtags in the caption achieved better engagement, reach and more impressions.
- Profiles with 50k-100k followers: 8 hidden hashtags in the caption achieved better engagement, reach and more impressions.
- Profiles with over 100k followers: 6 shown hashtags in the first comment achieved better engagement, reach and more impressions.
This is, of course, not a definitive rulebook. For example, The Guardian, one of the biggest news organisations on the platform, only average around 0.2 hashtags per post.
"They don't really pay attention to hashtags and don't seem to use them with a clear strategy. The sheer size of the publication is enough to bring them high engagement. And that's also because the brand name holds notoriety," said Lozan.
Similarly, The Daily Mail and The Sun tend to get high levels of engagement with little to no concerted hashtag strategy. Go to a smaller local news title on Instagram, like Bournemouth Echo, and it is common to see six or seven hashtags in any one post.
"Of course, smaller profiles or brands that are not universally known do not naturally have the audience of such a big outlet and need to use a clear strategy that can maximize their reach. This is where hashtags are more helpful than ever."
To do this, news outlets have to find their own "magic hashtag formula", by looking at their own profile size, the number of the hashtags and the placement of the hashtags as first steps.
"Test the best performing strategies and combinations from similar profiles, as shown in the study, and then look at what your analytics say: are you getting more engagement, impressions, reach? Which are your top posts?"
In terms of specific, go-to hashtags, posts can vary widely based on the topic in question and who is posting it.
Branded hashtags are the main reason why larger news organisations continue to perform well - just look at what happens when you type in #bbc - and there are hashtags for #bournemouthecho too.
Column topics including #politics and #fashion are common interest searches that audiences will seek out, but on a broader news level #royal, #photography, #charity and #family are frequently used by The Daily Mail, for example. Also, do not forget about geography such as #japan or #europe to channel into wider interests.
"These broad topics are also extremely helpful for smaller media outlets, whose brand notoriety can't bring in the impressions and engagement by itself. Therefore, adding a few broad topic hashtags to the post can make it more visible among people who are looking for information on that subject," Lozan advised.
Looking to become an Instagram pro? Sign up for our 'Mastering the art of Instagram' course with former BBC journalist Sue Llewellyn here.