Instagram’s hashtag following could be a new avenue for ads, misuse

Instagram is no longer only for following people or businesses.

On Tuesday, Instagram added an option for people to follow hashtags and have a curated selection of posts and Stories featuring that hashtag appear alongside the normal posts and Stories in a person’s corresponding feeds.

Instagram will use an algorithm to automatically select which posts are included in a hashtag’s feed and Story based on factors like recency and quality, according to an Instagram spokesperson. Instagram will not notify accounts if their posts or Stories are included in a hashtag’s feed or Story, the spokesperson said.

People will be able to follow any hashtag they see included in the caption of a post or within Instagram’s search results. People will also be able to see the hashtags that others follow in a list next to that of the non-hashtag accounts that those other people follow. If an account is private, only the people following that account will be able to see which hashtags the account follows, as is already the case with non-hashtag follows.

“When you find a hashtag you like, open the hashtag page and tap on the follow button. You’ll begin seeing top posts from that hashtag in your feed and some of the latest stories in your stories bar. You can always unfollow a hashtag at any time,” according to an Instagram blog post announcing the news.

People will be able to follow hashtags in the same way they follow their friends and other accounts.

The addition of hashtag following — and the hashtag’s role as a proxy for people’s interests and a tool to reach people with those interests — could pave a new path for ad targeting and delivery on Instagram, as well as for misuse.

Instagram is not opening up its new hashtag-following feature to advertisers at the moment, according to the spokesperson. But it’s easy to see how it could. The Facebook-owned company could sell brands on paying to have their posts inserted into a hashtag’s feed or Story. Or if it feared turning off the hashtag’s followers with an influx of sponsored posts, Instagram could add the option for brands to target their ads to the people who follow a given hashtag. It could also pitch brands on creating sponsored hashtags that people would be able to follow. Brands can already create their own hashtags and hope they take off on Instagram, but in buying a hypothetical sponsored hashtag, the brand could receive analytics on how people used the hashtag, as well as ways to target those people and others who saw posts featuring the hashtag. Instagram could also promote the hashtag as a paid placement in hashtag-related search results.

However, brands are unlikely to be the only ones looking to pounce on Instagram’s hashtag-following feature. People on Instagram — and Twitter and Facebook and any other platform that features hashtags — already hijack hashtags, adding them to the captions of otherwise unrelated posts in order to draw attention. Examples can be innocuous, like using a trending hashtag to try to get new followers, or malicious, like doing so to spread misinformation or otherwise controversial content. Now, Instagram is indirectly incentivizing this misappropriation by allowing a hashtag’s audience to organize itself and by broadcasting algorithmically selected posts using the hashtag to that audience.

Instagram has at least one measure in place to try to prevent, or at least mitigate, any potential misappropriation. According to its spokesperson, the app is adding a new “Don’t Show for This Hashtag” option in the menu attached to each post or Story in their feeds, which can be accessed by tapping the “…” in a post’s top-right corner or a Story’s bottom-left corner. People will be able to use that option when they find an irrelevant or otherwise inappropriate hashtag-related post or Story in their feeds and flag the post or Story to Instagram.

About The Author

Tim Peterson
Tim Peterson, Third Door Media's Social Media Reporter, has been covering the digital marketing industry since 2011. He has reported for Advertising Age, Adweek and Direct Marketing News. A born-and-raised Angeleno who graduated from New York University, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He has broken stories on Snapchat's ad plans, Hulu founding CEO Jason Kilar's attempt to take on YouTube and the assemblage of Amazon's ad-tech stack; analyzed YouTube's programming strategy, Facebook's ad-tech ambitions and ad blocking's rise; and documented digital video's biggest annual event VidCon, BuzzFeed's branded video production process and Snapchat Discover's ad load six months after launch. He has also developed tools to monitor brands' early adoption of live-streaming apps, compare Yahoo's and Google's search designs and examine the NFL's YouTube and Facebook video strategies.