Episode 266 — Instagram Hashtags


EPISODE 266 — Instagram Hashtags

Instagram is the number one platform to get exposure and to build your name, to build a following and to get known, and of course, to land clients as well. But how do you take advantage of this if no one is seeing your posts? If you’re posting with bad hashtags, your posts are going to get pushed to the side. A lot of us like using lots of hashtags, but that means that our posts will get lost in the shuffle because some of the hashtags weren’t laser focused — while the right hashtags will increase visibility. That’s what you need to realize:

Hashtags are everything!

In this Podcast, Allan McKay breaks down the science of using hashtags and the secret to how to build successful posts. Hashtags: What they are, why you need them and how to use them as a frigging ninja!



[04:20] Beginning at Zero
[05:18] How to Use Hashtags Successfully
[07:49] How Hashtags Work
[11:21] Common Mistakes Artists Make with Hashtags
[12:06] Staying Within Your “Weight Class”
[14:59] How to Find the Right Hashtags
[19:38] The Don’ts of Hashtags
[26:22] The Step-by-Step of How Allan Figures out His Hashtags
[33:37] Is There Such a Thing as “The Best Hashtags”
[34:27] How to Make Sure Your Posts Get More Likes
[39:29] Where to Place Hashtags in the Post
[40:48] How to Know if You’re Shadow Banned
[42:20] Hashtags Strategies
[47:51] Recap



Hello, everyone! This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 266! I’m going to talk about Instagram and hashtags, and understanding how they work — and how to use them to you advantage. I’m going to talk about how to use hashtags based on your weight class, how much status your account has, your engagement rates, all that good stuff. So we’re going to get into the science of it.

I think this is such a critical thing: How to get exposure via Instagram. We’re going to get into the science of Instagram and really cool stuff around this. You might need to listen to it a couple of time. We’re going talk through all of it:

  • Starting out from zero;
  • How hashtags work;
  • Common mistakes artists make with hashtags;
  • Staying within your weight class;
  • The don’ts of hashtags;
  • Whether there is such a thing as “the best hashtag”;
  • How not to get shadow banned — and how to know if you have been shadow banned.

Please make sure to share this Episode with others. Be one of the cool kids! And I’d love to hear from you.

Next week, I will be talking about how much money I spend on learning every year.

Let’s dive in!



[01:15] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write The Ultimate Demo Reel Guide from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. You can get this book for free right now at www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[49:24] One of the biggest problems we face as artists is figuring out how much we’re worth. I’ve put together a website. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com! This is a chance for you to put in your level of experience, your discipline, your location — and it will give you an accurate idea what you and everyone else in your discipline should be charging. Check it out: www.VFXRates.com!



[04:20] So I’m going to go all out this month on the subject of how to build your brand as creatives, as well as how to leverage Instagram as a platform to build your following, to build your brand and how to land jobs in the creative industry. We all know that Instagram is the number one platform to get exposure and to build our name, to build a following and to get known, and of course, to land clients as well. But how do you take advantage of this if no one is seeing your posts? Some people’s accounts blow up but most of our accounts fizzle. One reassuring thing to think about is that everyone’s accounts begin at zero. We are all the same, but some of us find a way to leverage our accounts in the right way. That’s what you need to realize:


I want to break down the science of using hashtags and the secret to how to build successful posts. Hashtags: What they are, why you need them and how to use them as a frigging ninja!



[05:18] As I mentioned before, hashtags can increase your visibility by 40 percent, as well as increase reach engagement and grow your following. But what the heck are they? I want you to think of your images and videos that you post as being put in a folder: Every time you post something, we need place to compartmentalize [that post] in. With hashtags, that’s what we’re doing. We’re putting something into a specific folder for other people to go into and look at. If you were organizing your family vacations and you wanted to go look at the photos from Fiji, you would do #Fiji and see all the photos that were from that trip. If there are photos of me eating #dessert or going to #work, those would be under different folders. My #artwork would go into yet another folder. I’m using hashtags not only to organize the content, but so that it’s easy for me to find those pictures again. I can do a quick search for Fiji and all the photos are going to show up in the right place.

[06:37] This is exactly what Instagram is doing when we’re using hashtags. Instagram is doing that for you, as well as for everybody else. With over one billion users every month, there is a lot of data going into these different folders. It also figures out what to show to certain people. That’s where the algorithm comes in. It figures out if you’re into this and this, and the person posting this content seems to have a lot of relevance and likability. So how about boosting their stuff to the top of the pile? When you right click and sort files by date, Instagram sorts things by what people liked. There is a lot of factors that come into place. But the main thing to think about is that it’s about constantly having to organize lots of photos and videos into which ones to show to the right people.

[07:49] The way it breaks it down is that it’s paying attention to what you like, whom you follow and whom you unfollow; how long you’re spending looking at a certain image; how you interact with it (whether you like it, or comment on it, or save it). All of these play a factor. But on top of that, it’s not just doing it for you but for one billion other people. And it uses all the information and it’s constantly evolving, trying to present you and everyone else in the best light. It also means that if you were to use the wrong hashtag (if you’re eating a burger and you use #fastcars), it makes your post irrelevant. The people who use that hashtag aren’t going to look for a photo of your eating a burger. So they would skip it. If they don’t interact with your photo, Instagram lowers its relevancy score. This is what it’s doing: It’s paying attention to how everyone is interacting with certain posts and raising or lowering the relevancy of them; which increases or lowers their visibility.

[10:06] This is important to think about. If you’re posting with bad hashtags, your posts are going to get pushed to the side. A lot of us like using lots of hashtags, but that means that [our posts] will get lost in the shuffle because some of the hashtags weren’t laser focused — while the right hashtags will increase visibility. With that same post of the burger, if I were to use #BurgerKing, that hashtag would do great. Instagram is going to see it as specific. The ultimate goal of Instagram is to keep people on their platform and enjoying it. To do that, it needs to make the platform enjoyable.



[11:21] Here is how the algorithm works: It’s all about who has the most followers, likes and the most engagement. The person with the most followers, likes and engagement will always win. There are hashtags with over a billion posts which means over a billion people have posted something with that hashtag. That also means that if they have more followers, Instagram will boost their post higher than anyone else. When you’re competing with one billion people, you have to be sure what kind of weight class you’re in.

[12:06] So think about what that would be like with one billion people. More than likely, some of these people have a much bigger following than you (which could mean that you don’t exist). What you need to do is pick hashtags that are ultra relevant but also compete with our weight class. Your “weight class” is determined by how many followers you have, your level of engagement, likes, compared to everybody else. The best way to look at this is to imagine yourself at a party with 10,000 other people. You try going into a room with 1,000 people and try to make a cool entrance. At the same time, Kanye West comes in and way more people like him already. With whom are people going to interact the most? Most likely, it will be Kanye and your own gesture will be lost. So maybe you need to find a smaller room with fewer people (fewer followers). You can go into a room with 400 people. That means that you can go into that room and have some interactions. But the flip side is that it’s only 400 people, so it’s not going to move the needle in the long run. You could create your own hashtag but not many people would be following it. You want to use those hashtags with the highest usage. You’re competing with the ones that are trending. Ultimately, you need to find the room that’s the most suitable for your audience. You can walk into a room at SIGGRAPH and everyone is nerding out about motion capture. This is your audience!

[14:59] The better example of this is finding the right hashtags. If you’re a character artist and you do a lot of Zbrush sculpting, you can post your character posts with #zbrush. That hashtag is pretty big, it has 800K posts. It means that more than likely, you won’t make a dent in that hashtag. What you can do is choose a smaller hashtag — where fewer people are competing. If you go for #charactersculpt, you’ll see it has about 81K posts which is still pretty big. You could go to #zbrushart which has 34K or #zbrushmodel which has 13K. We’re trying to figure out which size would work for us. Some of these less ambitious hashtags might be a better size for us right now. Once we’ve grown our following, we can use the bigger hashtags. On the minor level, you could go to #zbrushing which has 400+ mentions. You could crush it there but no one else is looking for that hashtag. The middle is probably where you rank. That’s something to think about.

[17:17] I mentioned your weight class and I want to explain what that is. This is my own term. The more I experimented with Instagram, the more it made sense: I would have a weight division and I could go up against smaller players and crush it. If I go and compete against a heavyweight, I’m going to get my ass kicked. So I better go compete in my own weight division. This comes down to a lot of different factors. It’s basically that you have a certain number of followers vs the other people’s: How many followers we have and how many likes we get. Allan has 1,500 likes on average, while the other person has 10,000 likes. That person is going to become more relevant and they have better content. It’s important to think about this because if you’re going through these major hashtags, you’re doing more damage than good. Or if there is other content that’s badass, it’s going to hide your stuff.



[19:38] One thing I want to talk about the things you should be avoiding at all costs.

A. Using the same hashtags over and over again. What Instagram will do is notice that and assume you aren’t putting much thought into your posts. Instead of doing your research, your content will not be treated as relevant. You should be using original hashtags every time. If you keep using the same hashtags, Instagram is going to hide your posts. One of the questions that comes up is: How often should you recycle hashtags? Do it all the time! A lot of us tend to write out a big list of all the hashtags and copy and paste them into every post. Someone who’s using accurate hashtags will get better viewership of their posts. So don’t use the same hashtags over and over!

B. Make sure to avoid any banned hashtags (#boobs, #likeforlike). All the stuff like that will be hidden because your content will be considered controversial. Your account will be banned for up to a month, so your posts won’t be visible anywhere. It means you have to be really careful to use banned hashtags. This is a common sense factor. Don’t just throw out hashtags because they sound cool.

[22:49] Earlier, I mentioned that we’re trying to compete with the highest rated hashtags. (It’s similar to the SEO.) To right way to do this is to use hashtags that are suited for our weight class. The best way to look at that is to use some paid software. I used some of that to figure out the algorithm. If you were to look at your following and multiply it by 5, that’s your weight class. In other words, if I have 1,000 followers, I should be posting in the 5K hashtag range. That’s the best general way to look at what should be competing with. A software will also look at your engagement rate. If you were to look at your account, how many likes do you get generally? If you get an average of 500 likes and you have about 1,000 followers, you should be looking for hashtags that have 1,000 to 5,000 amount of posts in there; but then also looking through those for the average likes. That’s the general rule. You look for identical weight division you should be in. Nothing is public out there. This is based on what other companies that have tested this stuff out. Instagram hasn’t released its cheat sheet. But this is the general rule of thumb.

[26:22] Step by step, this is what I will do to figure out what hashtags to use. I’ll look at my posts and write down the five hashtags that explain what’s going on. Then I’ll go into search and type in those hashtags. Let’s say I had 10K followers. That means that I will look for hashtags of 10,000 to 15,000. If I can compete with those — great! If I can’t, I’ll click on that little arrow button next and it will give some similar hashtags. That’s a good way to find relevant hashtags. Instagram has a lot of data to figure out those hashtags. Typically, you’re capped at 30 hashtags. The general rule is to cap out at 25. If you want to use less, it’s probably better because it’s about being laser focused. Sometimes, I’m trying to introduce new hashtags. Other times, I want my posts to blow up and be really visible. If I’m trying to reach people in different areas, I will use different experimental hashtags. But if I’m trying to get my post to blow up, I will be way more specific. I will also look for hashtags that will work out well. It sounds like a lot of work, but once you start doing that, [it will become easy]. You’ll already know your stats and within a minute you’ll come up with 10 other hashtags.

[30:16] One other thing I want to talk about is really important and I’m hoping resonates with you. Let’s say you’re a character artist and you’re posting in two different hashtags. You have a creature sculpt and you want to post under #zbrushcharacter and #3D. Both of these sound identical. Instagram is going to look at these hashtags and figure out if they’re relevant. If someone is skipping over your posts, it will lower the relevancy of this post. And that’s where you have to start stepping out of your shoes and stepping into the shoes of the consumer. You have to have empathy for the people who are flipping through their phones. If you go to #zbrushcharacter, other people are looking to appreciate ZBrush work. But #3D is not the same thing. People who are going into 3D are not necessarily ZBrush people. They could be looking for character animation or 3D arch viz, for example. Because of this, they might like 3D stuff but they aren’t going there to seek that out. So 20-30% of the audience will have no interest in what you’re posting. As a result, that hashtag will lower your score. [33:15] That’s the big key takeaway. You have hashtags that are generally right but they aren’t laser focused. Because of that you’re risking Instagram hiding your posts, derailing all of your efforts thus far.



Let’s do some Q & A:


[33:37] QUESTION: What are the best hashtags?

ANSWER: There is no such thing as a good or a bad hashtag. There will be the best hashtags for you, which is based on what you’re posting. So it all depends on your weight class. There are no “best hashtags”. There are hashtags that are best for your weight class, the content you’re about to post and the analytical data.


[34:27] QUESTION: How do you get your posts to get more likes?

ANSWER: Again, on the surface, you can’t control that. There is a human factor in this. There are people interacting with your content. The algorithm is organizing content based on how people are interacting with it. Sometimes we post content, but at the end of the day, it’s not a magic machine — but people interacting with your stuff. So what do people want? The more you cater to that — whether it’s using captivating thumbnails for your videos or high end content — the more it matters. Less about you and more about them. All of these things, when it becomes a conversation, will keep your stuff more relevant. Like I said, weight class and the right hashtags play a factor. But it’s also making it about them rather than you. I used to do my posts educational, so that it’s more about them. I don’t want to post a picture of myself on a yacht with helicopters. A lot of people post things that are fake and everyone thinks that’s the way to do it. So it becomes very one-sided. There are accounts that blow up because of the vanity factor. If you just want to get more followers, you can just go buy more follower (and probably get banned for doing that). If that’s all you care about, it doesn’t matter about your content. I want to build an audience and a strong community to interact with. I hope that makes sense.

A good example is I posted a poster of Superman Returns from 2005. That image isn’t very interesting by itself. It’s an old movie. Most people would scroll past it. But I made the post about the story: I wrote a long description working on that film. I talked about how this was a project that I worked on for a couple of years, in 3 different countries. I worked with Kevin Spacey and Bryan Singer. I made it insightful and useful. I made it about the journey and the passion behind it. It was something that allowed people get some insight. The main thing is to make your posts really rich. It can be about the image or the story, or you’re making them laugh. Maybe you’re being vulnerable.


[39:29] QUESTION: Should I make any hashtags in the description or the comments?

ANSWER: Lots of people will post hashtags at the bottom of their posts. Others will make it clean and put the hashtags into the comment. It looks cleaner. Neither matters. It does the same thing. It’s more about user preference. I put all my hashtags at the bottom of my description. I’m not trying to hide that I use many hashtags. For me, I have no problem putting them into the description.


[40:48] QUESTION: How do I know if I’m shadow banned?

ANSWER: To find out if you are, it’s pretty straight forward. You look up your post under the hashtag, using an account that doesn’t follow you. It’s the easiest thing: Think of a hashtag that no one uses. #allansapples, for example. That hashtag will only have a couple of posts, if any. So it will be easy to find your own post. You’ll just have to log in using someone’s account who doesn’t follow you. It’s a simple as that. If they can’t see it, you’re probably shadow banned.



[42:20] I’m just going to go over some strategies. I think these are really important. This is the meat of it all.

Make sure to have a creator or business account. You just go into the settings of your account and upgrade. That way it will show you more analytical information. You can see your engagement rate. This information is really valuable!

Pay attention to analytics. If you do upgrade to a business or creator account, you can start seeing hashtags that do really well. On top of that, you can see the time of day or people in certain countries are interacting with your posts. So you can get really strategic with what you’re doing.

Pay attention to your engagement rate. You can then learn how people are interacting with your posts on average. If you have a low score, it means your engagement rate is low. It’s good to see those thing. Your ultimate goal should be quality people that interact with you.

The go-to number is 25-30 hashtags. Don’t just post hashtags to get that number though!

[45:33] It’s also fun to experiment with hashtags. I use some hashtags for people who want to change industries. I might use bad hashtags and people will get interested. I might get exposure with other audiences.

[46:26] Who likes your content matters as well. I’m in a private mastermind group. One of the guys in my group experiments with this stuff a lot. He noticed that if people with a lot of followers like his post within the first 15 minutes, it raises the visibility of that post. If you have influencers who engage with your posts, Instagram will probably feature your content on its main page. There are times, I will cater to those people if I know they’re on Instagram at a certain hour. You can get really strategic about this.



[47:51] Let’s recap!

  • Use a maximum of 25 hashtags. Even 3 is better than 20 if they’re laser focused.
  • Don’t use the same hashtags over and over. Don’t get lazy.
  • Don’t use any banned hashtags.
  • Make sure to use hashtags within your weight class. Of course, your weight class is going to change as your account grows.
  • Likes are nice but comment are better. Comments have a higher value because your audience interacts with you.
  • Focus on the quality of your content more than anything else.
  • Make sure to interact with your audience.
  • Make sure to get a creator or a business account.
  • Don’t overthink it!


I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I will be back next week, talking about how much money I spend on courses every year. And please take the time to share Episode.

I will be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!


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