Hopeless with #hashtags?

If you are an artist, a maker or just plain creative I am certainly not the first person to mention that you should be using Instagram. You are most definitely not the first person to tell me that you don't even know where to begin. Filled with @ tags and # tags and those ridiculous spaces_that_arent_spaces I certainly clicked on it and immediately off it many times before I finally took the plunge and created my first account.

# Hashtags. What are they?

A hashtag is a label, pure and simple. It categorises your image and essentially puts it somewhere with a collection of other images that are similar to it. By grouping your image with similar ones you are increasing the likelihood of someone with a particular interest seeing that image. Each hashtag is searchable on Instagram and people can follow a particular hashtag that interests them.

By clicking on the magnifying glass at the bottom of the screen you bring up the 'explore' page. Here you can search for a topic that interests you. I am going for Norwich Creative Market.

Now, at this point you can click the top option @norwichcreativemarket which takes you to all the images I have posted, or you can click #norwichcreativemarket. This will take you to the images that everyone who has an interest in the market has posted. You can also click the third one, the geotag, but that's something for another blog post.

#norwichcreativemarket is a hashtag I created just over a year ago while I was planning my first event, something I believed would be a one off thing. Now, with almost 1200 posts, our little creative community has expanded quite a bit more than anticipated. While you're there, why not give us a follow. When you follow a # hashtag the images from it will show up on your feed.

Do # Hashtags only work on Instagram?

If you were curious and clicked the orange # above then you will have learned that hashtags can be used in other web pages applications as well. You can type them into a search engine and get a selection of results. Worryingly Twitter comes up top and this is a platform I don't actively use, only passively posting on it via Instagram. Still, I really don't have the head space for any more social media in my life. Perhaps if I ever make enough money to hire an assistant!

Hashtags also work on Facebook. On Facebook a search for the #norwichcreativemarket brings up my business page at the top and a seemingly random selection of posts below it. It's not as useful as Instagram but at least it does something.

Which # Hashtags should I use?

Deciding on hashtags can be a real chore. The more you use the more audiences you are putting your work in front of. Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags per post. If you use that many every time then it will drive you crazy, believe me. A good strategy is to use a regular set of tags, maybe 10, that can be copied and pasted onto every post. However, if you constantly use the same hashtags, especially when they aren't all relevant to your post, the Instagram algorithm will flag your posts as spam and not show them to as many people. A better strategy is to create 3 sets of applicable hashtags and alternate them, roughly every third post.

I use notepad on my Ipad to store my hashtags then I can just copy them into the caption section of each relevant post. I also add hashtags specific to that post. This will include the makers unique hashtag if, I know it, and 3 or 4 linked to their art or craft. I know I often get lazy and use the same hashtags too often but sometimes my brain just can't generate anything more thoughtful. It happens.

Which # Hashtags are most effective?

Honestly, I am still working this out for myself. If I'd cracked it i'd be up there on the top posts page with hundreds of thousands of followers and sold out arena events. However, growing a following of 0-1700 in a year shows I must be doing something right.

As an example, I'm going to use a recent Instagram post by @rachelmcw. Rachel recently created some line art of a parrot and a biscuit. I've chosen this post because it has a concise set of tags which are both popular and slightly random all at the same time.

The first tag #creativewithline is Rachel's own personal tag, created so that herself and others can showcase her work. There are some photos in there of work by other people but it is predominantly hers. Creating your own unique hashtag is important if you sell your creations because it allows others to share what they have bought from you or at least are thinking of buying from you. This tag has 731 images. Hashtags of this size will be seen by only a few people but it's followers are 'the cream of the crop', a small engaged audience who will actively engage with your work, like it, share it, even buy it.

The next tag #parrotilluatration is a typing error. Only one image shows up for it. It is possible to go back and correct typing errors on your Instagram post without deleting it. When shopping on Ebay I always searched the typing errors because it meant you'd get the item cheap. On Instagram it just makes that string of letters rather irrelevant.

Next we have #amazonparrot. This is a good one to use if you offer custom pet portraits as it will mostly be seen by people who have a parrot and may consider ordering a commission. The other audience for this hashtag will be people that just like Amazon parrots. They might buy a pre-made print so again, you are increasing your likelihood of making a sale. There are 81,600 images tagged #amazonparrot on Instagram. This is considered a good amount of images if you are trying to get your work seen by a specific audience who are somewhat likely to engage with your image, meaning people in the audience will probably hit the like button and move on.

As you can see the #amazonparrot search allows you to select a 'Top' or 'Recent' display order. The 'Top' image tab is where you want your image to be shown. Scrolling through images is a thoughtless blur for many and if your image is too far down the list people will give up before they see it. The more likes your image gets the higher it will appear on this list, theoretically, However, something called 'the algorithm' comes into play and clicking on an image in the 'Top' tab will reveal things with 500 likes and others with 500,000 side by side. You would also assume that 'Recent' is simply chronological and if you click through seconds after posting, there your image will be. Wrong again. The algorithm will still be preferential towards certain images over others, often for no visible reason. The algorithm is absolutely something to read about another day!

#linedrawing is used next. There are 1.2 million posts here. What this means is that your post has the potential to be seen by a lot of people. Sadly, the reality is that unless you regularly get a lot of likes on your pictures using this hashtag, very few people will actually be shown it on their feed. It's the algorithm again. Technology chooses who to show your post to and even then they can't be made to interact with it. However, this category has a better potential to allow your image to become 'viral', with hundreds of thousands of likes, than a category with hundreds of millions of posts or under 1000.

#artist is an absolutely gigantic hashtag. tens of thousands of posts every hour of every day. With 144 million pictures under this label it is almost pointless to use it unless you have tens of thousands of followers who are going to 'like' your picture up the list. The same goes for #illustration with 100 million images.

#jammydodger on the other hand, that's a better bet. 21,900 images here and most are photographs of, you guessed it, Jammy Dodgers. There's a slightly random dog that features quite a bit but with this less popular, slower moving hashtag Rachel's post managed to get placed high up on the 'recent' tab. This means it will get seen by people actively looking at that hashtag and if enough people like it then the image will begin to show up in more people's feeds who like Jammy Dodgers. All Rachel has to hope is that people following this hashtag follow it because they enjoy the aesthetically pleasing nature of the Jammy Dodger, not that they can happily wolf down a 12 pack during a single episode of Vikings. I am of course making no reference to myself here as I am a good parent and always share my Jammy Dodgers with my dogs. The Amazon Parrots are not alone in their addictions.

What happens if I don’t use hashtags?

Not using hashtags means that only friends and family or customers who specifically follow you will see your posts.

I will use my Mum, @Julymoonart as an example. She never uses hashtags ever. This picture was only seen by 5 people. Even I didn’t see it until actively looking at her page because I follow about 1000 people. Their posts are all battling to show up on my feed and my Mum’s just didn’t make the cut.

However, as an experiment, I posted the same image on my Instagram feed today, using hashtags that were relevant. 24 likes in 6 hours. Yes, it’s not going to go ‘viral’, nor is it going to earn anyone any money, however, it’s 19 more people than before in a lot less time. Does my audience size have an impact? Of course it does, however so do the hashtags in use.

In conclusion...

As you may have noticed, I am not an Instagram expert, nor I am not a complete convert. I think it's a little sad that artists and makers have come to rely so heavily on social media to achieve success and for many it really is over used. It kind of boils down to this. Having a fabulous time on holiday? Those 15 pictures you posted from the beach today, took time to edit, aesthetically collate, write a caption for and choose 30 thoughtful hashtags to go with, that doesn't demonstrate that anyone is actually having a good time. For me Instagram is still work, just another thing getting in the way of actual creativity or real life enjoyment.

However, if you're in the studio and decide to take a quick picture at the mid-way point, that does show you're enjoying what you're doing. It shows pride in the process, not just the product and it contributes to the story behind your work. If you were to ask anyone who consistently purchases handmade why they choose to spend the extra money, then the story, the personality, the process, these are reasons that will come up time and again. Instagram is just a quick, uncluttered way to showcase the story, promote the product and secure that sale. My rather 'old fashioned' opinions aside, I do recognise that it has helped me to increase awareness of my event, grow Norwich Creative Market and create a small but growing community for a range of local creatives.

Thanks for reading this post and I would absolutely love it if you would subscribe to notifications when I post something new. Thanks to @rachelmcw for being the guinea pig for this post. Please give her a follow on Instagram.

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