One of the most important steps in building trust in a relationship is consistency.

…someone should probably mention that to Instagram.

The folks over at Instagram’s HQ have been shaking things up as of late. The corporate-backed Instagram Creators account recently recommended that it’s best practice to only use 3 to 5 hashtags per post.

Instagram Creator hashtag best practices

Source: @creators

Let me repeat that: Three! To! Five!

While this seems like an innocuous hot tip, it’s a perplexing thing to hear directly from a platform that allows you to use up to 30 hashtags in each post.

This revelation from someone we trusted just begs so many questions: Was this a test? Are you tricking us? If 3 to 5 is the amount you actually want us to use… why give us the freedom to use 30 tags in the first place?

But though the ground beneath us may be shaky, and the truth may be slipping through our fingers like sand in one of those timers that you lose immediately from your Pictionary set, I refuse to join the thousands of social media managers across the globe in their existential spiral over this.

Instead, I’m getting my groove back, a.k.a, taking action to figure out what’s really, for-real, accurately true: Are 5 hashtags optimal, or 30?

Experiment time!

Bonus: Download a free guide to discover which hashtags to use to boost traffic and target customers on social media. And then learn how you can use Hootsuite to measure results.

Hypothesis: 3-5 hashtags gives you the same amount of reach as 30

Here are the facts: if you’re writing a caption for your Instagram post, you can add up to 30 hashtags. But now, Instagram itself is reporting that for best reach, you should limit your tagging to between 3 and 5.

By comparing a variety of similar posts, I will attempt to find out if a shorter, curated list of hashtags gets me just as much engagement on Instagram as maxing out. (Please DM me for an address to send McArthur Genius Grant money.)

Methodology

To make sure I had a good amount of data for this experiment, I decided to use a popular wedding-related Instagram account I have behind-the-scenes access to.

This account has over 10,000 followers, and I figured that posting extremely similar content day after day would not seem out of the ordinary to the audience. I’d keep the photos as similar as possible, and the captions themselves short and sweet to avoid skewing engagement with a particularly amazing shot or, ahem, extremely witty text.

This month, I posted 20 photos. Ten of these posts included 30 hashtags. For the other 10 posts, I limited myself to 3 to 5 hashtags.

To build my selection of 30 hashtags, I used the website Display Purposes, which generates a list of the most popular tags around a given topic — in my case, I wound up with lists related to weddings, and the location of these weddings (British Columbia, Canada).

Display Purposes popular hashtags related to weddings

For the 3 to 5 hashtag posts, I went with my gut: and my gut usually said, “tag it with #wedding and two other obvious things.”

So which method reigned supreme: restrained tagging or a more-is-more approach?

Results

TLDR: Don’t bother maxing out your hashtags — it certainly doesn’t help you, and may even be hurting your reach slightly.

Popping into my Instagram Insights to view the per-post reach, I found that my post with the highest reach hit 943 people, and my post with the smallest reach hit 257 people.

Instagram Insights per post reach

That high-ranking post? It featured just three hashtags: #weddingday, #wedding, and #weddingdecor.

The second-highest ranking post only featured four hashtags: #weddingday, #bride, #elope, and #elopement.

As we got further along down the list, though, it jumped back and forth pretty regularly between posts with lots of hashtags and posts with just a select few. I put all of the reach data into one table to figure out what the average reach was for each style of post.

The conclusion? Fewer hashtags got slightly better reach on average.

Reach of posts with 3-5 Hashtags Reach of posts with 30 hashtags
943 743
813 488
605 434
413 411
411 397
360 356
293 327
263 265
262 262
257 257
AVERAGE REACH: 462 AVERAGE REACH: 394

It’s not a larger reach by much… just 15%, in this very small, very specific, very wedding-related experiment. But still! It seems to indicate that maxing out your hashtags is, at best, a waste of time. At worst, it could actually hurt your reach. 

Bonus: Download a free guide to discover which hashtags to use to boost traffic and target customers on social media. And then learn how you can use Hootsuite to measure results.

Get the free guide right now!

Instagram publishing post reach and impressions

Taking a peek at Hootsuite Analytics, in terms of actual likes and comments, the number of hashtags didn’t seem to make much of a difference.

For instance, if we look at the six posts with the highest engagement, three of them featured minimal hashtags, and the other three had 30 hashtags each. Even-steven.

Hootsuite Analytics Instagram posts with highest engagement

What do the results mean?

As per usual, this experiment is certainly not definitive, and your mileage may vary with your own hashtaggery. But here are my personal takeaways from these results:

It’s a good idea to have some hashtags…

Compared to previous posts on this account that didn’t use any hashtags, these posts did wind up with a larger reach. So there is some value in including at least one hashtag in your post. Having 3 to 5 specifically certainly didn’t seem to hurt anything, and provided the opportunity to reach a few different potential audiences. What’ve you got to lose?!

… but don’t bother putting 30

I don’t know if I could confidently say that 3 to 5 hashtags is the optimum number to use on Instagram with this data. But what I could say is that more hashtags do not necessarily equal more reach. Maxing my hashtag count out my hashtags to 30 did not have any positive impact on these posts at all. Instead of jam-packing your caption with tags, you’re probably better off using that space to mention other accounts, spark a conversation or show off that sparkling sense of humor.

High engagement comes from great content, not the right number of tags

The engagement here was actually quite low, given the number of followers this account has. My hunch is that it was because I wasn’t offering very much juicy detail in those captions and haven’t necessarily been working to foster engagement in other ways. (For instance, asking questions, incorporating user-generated content, commenting on other accounts’ posts, and the other things we list in this guide to building Instagram engagement here.)

The point is: engagement isn’t an easy thing to drum up, and can’t be conjured up by finding the perfect combination of hashtags. It takes time and care.

Okay, that’s a wrap on this test — but there are more feats of social media science where this came from. Check out the rest of our Hootsuite Experiments here!

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