Inspire Your Interiors: Let's Talk Hashtags (And What Do They Have To Do With Shadow Banning?)
Last week, Instagram introduced something pretty damn exciting - the ability to do split screen Instagram Live. It just so happened that Dee Campling was at my house on Saturday - we'd been presenting our first How To Win Friends & Influence People On Instagram workshop - and in the over excitement that came afterwards, we decided to do an online Instagram Q&A. At this point, I have to say that we'd had two glasses of Prosecco and it was only 2.00 pm which may have had something to do with it, but we enjoyed it so much that we scheduled in a 7.00 pm repeat for Monday (when we were a little more sober), mostly so that we could try out the new split screen. The theme would be how to grow your interior account on Instagram.
Forty minutes and 1,300 viewers later, it was confirmed a resounding success (aside from a few technical issues from the Campling camp and Buddy my Lhasa Apso howling outside the door). There were lots of questions, so many that we couldn't answer them all, but we found when we looked back that one of the key areas of questioning was about hashtags and how they related to engagement.
Instagram used to be so bloody simple. You'd post your content, write your caption and hashtag. Your feed would appear in chronological order, it was easy to keep track of what you'd liked and what you'd seen already. You never missed anything, it was always there. Then last year, they changed the algorithm and it all went, quite frankly, tits up. Your feed was no longer manageable - when you initially started following someone, their last five days posts would appear at the top of your feed; the big accounts would always lead and the smaller accounts were left trailing behind. But, as with all of these things, it eventually evened out and equilibrium was maintained. Phew for that.
However, it has to be said that times are hard on Instagram at the moment. There are lots of changes going on - stealth banning, or shadow banning, is commonplace (more of that later) and it's a constant struggle to maintain engagement, a fact that is particularly hard for small business who rely on it for an income. Using hashtags is the only sure fire way to make sure that you appear in as many feeds as possible. Instagram is a social media that relies mainly upon hashtags for account growth and you need to be exploiting this fact to stay ahead of the game.
Okay, What Is A Hashtag?
Let's start with the basics. A hashtag is a way of compiling similarly themed posts into one feed. The more hashtags you use, the more feeds your post will appear in. If you click on a hashtag, it will show you every post that has been hashtagged with this word. For example, #interiors will show you every single post that has been hashtagged with the word interiors. So the aim of a hashtag is to create feeds that are targeted towards what you want to see. Thus creating a creative community. Love that.
Some hashtags have a huge amount of posts assigned to them; some have only a few. If you hashtag #interiors you will find millions of posts. The other day I hashtagged #iamsuchaknob (don't ask) and I was the only post in this hashtag, a fact that actually I found quite surprising as there are quite a lot of knobs out there, I would say. Anyway, back to the point.
How Many Hashtags Can I Use?
You can use up to 30 per post. Use them all, because by using 30 hashtags you multiply your chances of likes and therefore engagement on your post by 30. Simple maths. Don't use more than than that, though - if you do, it will wipe your whole caption and only post your photo. If you can't count, like me, then 'select all' and 'copy' the whole lot before you post to be on the safe side. Use a mixture of small and large hashtags to give your post the best chance of being seen. It's essential that you use to the limit of 30 to maximise your likelihood of hitting the coveted Top Nine spot, thus helping you on the route to new followers. What's the Top Nine? If you click on a hashtag, the nine boxes at the top of the screen are the most popular in that hashtag, aka the Golden Ticket. Get into one of those boxes and you can stay there for up to three days.
But Do I Look Like A Knob If I Use Loads? Don't I Look Desperate For Followers?
The answer to this question is, WHO CARES? If you want to grow your account and capitalise on engagement, you need to use hashtags. That's all there is to it. Caption purists often put their hashtags in the comments section rather than in the main caption and then lots of dots so that it looks neater. You can do that if you want. But be aware that Instagram would prefer you to put them into the main caption and there are some sources that claim that they may penalise you for not doing this. There's so many changes going on with Instagram at the moment that it's better to just stick to the rules.
I've Posted And I've Made An Error. Can I Change My Caption?
Yes, go ahead and change your caption. But be aware that if you do this, your hashtags will drop to the bottom of the hashtag heap and your post will have to climb up the hashtag feed AGAIN. The best thing to do is to draft and make sure that you are totally happy before you post.
I'm An Interior Geek. Which Hashtags Should I Use?
So a year ago this month, Fiona Cameron, Dee Campling and I created the first general UK interiors hashtag - #myhomevibe. The Americans had been doing it for years and were hot as hell on it, so we needed to compete. Obvs. What was so different about #myhomevibe was that it was inclusive, it welcomed every style of interior. Because of this, it immediately took off, in fact, it has nearly 160k posts to the feed #justsaying.
It turned out that the UK loved the idea of interior hashtags and as a result, loads of niche hashtags were introduced - before we knew it, there were too many to keep up with. Dark interiors, white interiors, vintage interiors, luxury interiors. It's all going on in the UK. Which is BLOODY BRILLIANT. But it does mean that it gets a little bit confusing when it comes to posting your pics. But don't panic - Sam from Eclectic Street produces a weekly round up of all the interior hashtags and posts it on her feed so make sure you are following her to keep up to date.
I'm New To Instagram. How Can I Use Hashtags To Engage?
When Dee Campling and I first started on Instagram 20 months ago, we took part in a hashtag challenge called #mystylephotochallenge. It's still going - it has a prompt for every day of the month so that you can post on a theme. It's not interiors based - it's wide ranging and encompasses all types of feed which is what makes it so great. What Dee and I quickly discovered was that everyone on this hashtag engaged with each other. They chatted, they liked, they followed. It was a mini community and it was fab.
If you're new to Instagram and you want to get to know people, hashtag games are a great place to start. If you're interior mad, #myhousethismonth works on a similar vein and has monthly prizes. Christmas is coming and there's a Christmas hashtag being launched by Interior Stylist Pandora Maxton and former Great Interior Design Challenge contestant, Anna Straw called #stylemychristmas that will give you a different theme to post to every day to get you into the festive mood - make sure you look out for it. They're brilliant fun, a great way to get involved and most importantly, engage.
I'm Losing Engagement! What's Going On?
Engagement overall has dropped in the last six months. It's super easy to blame everything on shadow banning and in some cases, that is the cause. But the reality is, Instagram as a social media is growing faster than we could ever have imagined. A year ago, monthly usage was 500 million. Now it's 800 million. It's the most popular and fast moving platform out there and it's only going to get bigger. And what does that mean for engagement? There's more people using it. That means more posts. That means more to look at. So the chances of your post being seen are much smaller than they were previously. Simples. My own personal engagement has dropped by 30% in the last six months and that's entirely likely to be due to the fact that Instagram is growing so quickly.
Shadow Banning?! WTF Does It Even Mean?
According to the law of Wikipedia, shadow banning (or stealth banning, it's the same thing) is the act of blocking a user and their content from an online community such as the user does not know that they have been banned. In Instagram terms, that means that your posts will not appear in hashtags to any users that do not follow you. Your posts will only appear in hashtags to people who ALREADY follow you. That makes it very difficult to gain new followers.
Why Are Instagram Imposing Shadow Bans?
Instagram have never actually said the word Shadow Ban. What they have said is that they are cracking down on the bots and automated apps that are making Instagram a far less pleasant place to be. You know those people who comment on your account with one word? Beautiful. Nice pic. Great shot. Those aren't actually people. Or they might be people who don't like saying much. But most of the time, they are bots.
These are apps that people upload that help them gain followers by commenting on their behalf, thus encouraging engagement, thus making it more likely they will gain followers. The apps pick a hashtag - for example, #interiors - and then find every post that has tagged interiors and comments on it on the users behalf.
It's non organic, impersonal and spammy and it's not what Instagram wants. And it's not what we want, either. So what they have done is looked at the hashtags that are commonly used by bots and blocked them and sometimes, the people that use them too. It seems harsh but it's all a means to an end and a much cleaner Instagram community.
How Can I Find Out If I've Been Shadow Banned?
The only way to find this out is to get a friend to unfollow you and then see if your posts are appearing in the hashtag feeds. If they cannot see you, you have been shadow banned.
Argh! I've Been Shadow Banned! Why Am I Being Penalised?
Okay, so first of all, you are not being penalised. There are 800 million users on Instagram, they haven't singled you out. What you've done, unknowingly, is one of the following things.
1. You've used a banned hashtag or a hashtag which is broken (these are tags that are commonly used by bots and spammers). There's no way of knowing which one it is.
2. You've used the same hashtags in the same sequence on more than one of your posts. I have to admit that I have been guilty of this previously and I'm pretty sure the majority of the Instagram community have at some point copied and pasted from previous posts. Unfortunately, this makes you look like you are spam and Instagram doesn't like it.
3. You've had surges of activity on your account. You've followed lots of people, changed your bio often, used comment pods, gone on mass liking sprees. Instagram thinks this looks like non organic behaviour.
I'm So Demoralised. What Can I Do?
Okay, so I know it's demoralising being blocked from feeds. I was blocked for five weeks - yes, FIVE WEEKS. It's very galling to spend time creating content and have it not go out to the wider community. But do you know what? Your followers can still see you, so the reason that you went on Instagram to start with is still there, the creative community that we all love is still there. It's easy to say that it's not about gaining followers - I'd be lying if I said I didn't like the little blue button appearing in my notification feed - but it's temporary and it will regain equilibrium, just like the algorithm changes before it did. If you're shadow banned or want to avoid being shadow banned, this is what you need to do:
1. Keep creating the best content that you possibly can. It's all about the photo.
2. Keep posting it. Post regularly and consistently. Consistency is key. Don't change your habits.
3. Keep using 30 hashtags - use more niche ones, smaller ones that are less likely to be targeted. Use the UK ones as listed by Sam from Eclectic Street. Lots of these hashtags do weekly prizes, thus more chance of regram and having your feed shown in the general community.
4. Use Instagram Stories to get yourself out there - since it's introduction last year, there are over 200 million daily users (more than Snapchat). It's a huge marketing tool and is growing fast. Make the most of it. You can also hashtag on your stories which creates a story hashtag feed. Another layer.
5. Don't use any apps that attach themselves to Instagram - you know, those ones that tell you which people are unfollowing you and all that shit. That's another thing that's apparently being clamped down on. Tbh, you're better off not knowing that info anyway, you can get the stuff that really matters from using Business Insights.
6. Stay away from large group direct message chats. Sources say there is evidence that Instagram are monitoring comment pods (chat groups set up to notify each other on when they post so that the rest of the pod can go in and like and comment to try and raise engagement) and this type of behaviour looks non organic.
7. Don't get people to shout you out for follows - using the #followfriday hashtag is one thing (and organic as you are sharing your favourites) but doing mass follow stories is exactly the type of non organic activity that Instagram are trying to abolish.
8. Don't moan endlessly about it unless you're a small business and it's affecting your livelihood which is a whole different situation. There are people dying in Africa. It's only a social media app.
Instagram is the fastest growing social media out there - it's twice the size of Twitter - and successful posting relies almost entirely on hashtag use. The interiors community specifically is increasing day by day and using hashtags means we can see exactly what we want to see and tailor our feeds accordingly. It's constantly changing, it's exciting and it's a huge, huge marketing tool. I started doing the #mystylephotochallenge hashtag game because I loved interiors, enjoyed taking photos and wanted to gain inspiration from other, likeminded people. And 20 months later, that's still happening. Change is generally ultimately for the good, particularly when it's to keep this rapidly growing platform authentic and organic.