Lessons From Instagram: Hashtags and Likes

The Vogue Indoor Swapmeet in Downtown Oxnard, CA.Sometimes you just have to pull up Microsoft Excel and hand-type some data sets for no good reason whatsoever. This is one of those times.

I decided to answer some burning questions I had about Instagram – namely, what’s the deal with likes and followers?

More specifically: how does one optimize one’s Instagram feed for likes and followers?

How a company can use Instagram to improve their business is something that will vary from company to company, so I thought I’d stick to general but universal advice.

What Instagram data was used?

When I created my data set, I used the first three hundred photos I posted on Instagram. I broke out the photo content by category, so I had subjects like cats, books, coffee, wine, nature, Aliena (my adorable baby) and so on. I also marked how many hashtags were used, and I broke down the hashtags by category as well. Finally, I marked how many likes and comments I received on those photos, and I broke those down by real-life friends who follow me vs. strangers who follow me on Instagram vs. people who liked my photo but don’t follow me at all.

Once I had this data set, it was relatively easy and relatively fun to create charts and averages and all kinds of crazy insights based on the data at hand.

Wait, back up – who the hell are you, anyway, and why do this?

I’m just some guy. I have less than 80 followers on Instagram at the time of this blog post, so I’m relatively inconsequential, and more importantly, I’m hardly an indication of what can be accomplished on Instagram. So, as a case study, my own Instagram feed may not be very useful, but the data is pure and accurate. This data is entirely centered on me and my followers and likes and my photo feed alone.

It’s completely narcissistic, but the better reason for doing this was that the insights gained from this little project will still have value because they’ll be as universal as I can present them. We’ll get to those momentarily, just keep reading.

Okay, so…Do More Hashtags Yield More Likes?

The short answer is yes. I didn’t want to bore everyone with Excel’s lame-ass data charts, so I drew my own on my clunky iPad in order to achieve “more character.” See below.

The longer answer is not necessarily, but pretty much, yeah.

Hashtags on Instagram are like hashtags on Twitter. They provide groupings of different posts from different users’ feeds into one easy-to-see stream. It’s genius.

So then, the point of leaving hashtags on your own photos is to get those photos into different groups. On Instagram, you can have up to thirty (30) hashtags per photo. Each unique hashtag creates its own unique grouping, so singular and plural forms of the same root word will yield two separate groups.

Ergo, the more hashtags you use, the more opportunities your photos have to be seen by others. If they see your photos and like them, they may choose to “like” your photo on your feed. Furthermore, there’s no real penalty for using as many hashtags as you can think of. So theoretically, more hashtags should provide more opportunities for likes.

Is this the case in reality?

Again: yes.

According to data from my Instagram feed, more hashtags tends to yield more likes.
Hand-drawn for country charm.

The data shows that higher counts of hashtags on the photos gets a higher average of likes. This data set is somewhat incomplete, in that I didn’t really get into the hashtags game until close to the 300 mark, so most of this data comes from my early days of Instagram when I wasn’t curious about the data.

Here, I removed clear outliers and worked with averages, meaning six hashtags tends to average the same amount of likes as the photos with nine hashtags. These are averages, and the general tendency is an upward slope from one to ten. Except that I’m so awesome that this graph goes to eleven.

The tendency shows a confirmation of the idea that more hashtags gets more likes. I am confident that if we experimented with even more hashtags and photos, and then zoomed out, we’d see a nice, upward slant on that graph.

Of course, what I expected was that it would be more directly upward with no dips, but the reality is that in my averages, dips are there.

Reality is close to the expectations for hashtags and likes on Instagram.
The green line is green because…I dunno.

The dips in average likes – for example, two hashtags yielding fewer average likes than one and six yielding fewer than five – can be explained by a lot of things that I don’t have any data for. Primarily, timing and photo quality. I don’t have data for timing because Instagram doesn’t show me exactly what time of what day of the week I made those posts, so I can’t speak to the exact science of timing for optimum likes. I also don’t have any data on photo quality, because that’s an intangible. I also didn’t record my subjective opinion of those three hundred photos, because I’m not getting paid to do any of this, so the hell with that.

But there’s something that needs to be said: quality matters. It’s nearly impossible to quantify how good one’s photos are, but if you appreciate photography, then you know what’s good and what’s bad. It’s not hard.

Something that’s trickier is hashtag quality. There are so many factors involved there that I couldn’t even contemplate investigating the various factors for three hundred photos and typing in numbers. So we all miss out, but I’m okay with that.

I’ve been noticing since the initial gathering of the data that timing DOES affect the likes each photo gets. I’ve also noticed that hashtags are good in quantity, but you have to be smart with what hashtags you use. Without actual data, insights have still been made that would be extremely difficult to refute using data, so I will happily record the insights here.

And now, the list…

Important insights:

  1. Hashtags provide the opportunity for people to see and like your photos, and potentially follow your feed. Whether your business is more interested in likes than followers (or something else entirely) is up to you. Followers show brand loyalty, but likes show human engagement. The important thing is that using more hashtags will tend to yield more likes.
  2. Timing matters. I’ve found that around laying out hashtags at around 7:45 PM local time is pretty effective. Further experimentation might reveal a more optimal time to post those hashtags, but further experimentation might also detract from my quality of life.
  3. Hashtags can be added later. You can post your photos any time, and whether you add the hashtags immediately or much later doesn’t matter. The photo gets added to the top of the hashtag grouping when you add the hashtag, plain and simple. It doesn’t automatically get pushed down the feed just because you added the photo hours (or days) prior. So, because timing matters, and especially because of the new “maps” feature, I’ve taken to adding the photo where I take it and waiting till about a quarter to eight to tag it. More on this in a later blog post.
  4. The quality of hashtags matters. Some of the most likeable hashtags I’ve found are #cloudporn and #skyporn – photos of clouds in the sky, or clear skies, or whatever. People LOVE those shots. Other hashtags like #instafood are incredibly popular but don’t automatically produce a bunch of likes. Likes for food shots are incredibly competitive. However, in fairness, food shots are regularly taken in dark restaurants, so higher-quality food photos are rarer than high-quality sky shots. Sky shots look great on smartphones. And this leads me to the most important takeaway of all…
  5. The quality of photos matters. This is the primary lesson of Instagram at work: post high-quality photos. If your photos are crappy, hashtags may get you SOME likes, but if your photos are seriously kick-ass – and if your hashtags are appropriate and well-timed – then yeah, you’ll get plenty of likes.

This feels like kind of a long blog post just to confirm the obvious with half-assed data, but if you read the list above, I’m happy. There will be a few more posts about this data, and if you don’t like my drivel, just look for the list of important insights. When it’s all done, I’ll have one final post of nothing but a list of all the insights together. Then…I guess I’ll move on. Right? Probably.

Maybe. We’ll see.

@BilGaines on Instagram – Follow my feed! See these insights put into practice!
Don’t have a smartphone? Desktop Instagram here.

The Log Cabin Florist van has one bitchin' paint job.
Log Cabin Florist – modern-day flower power!

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