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Hashtag Ladders

The Secret to Massive Instagram Growth that Anyone Can Use

Connor McCreesh
May 11, 2017 · 12 min read

Previous post in series: Go From 0–50,000 Instagram Followers, By Tomorrow.

Want to know the secret to skyrocketing your Instagram growth?

It’s probably some little known technique, hoarded away by the Instafluencers, right?

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It’s hidden in plain sight, open to for anyone to take advantage of.


My main account @TransformFitspo was launched in mid-July 2016 and crossed 200,000 followers less than 11 months later. Every day it sent ~500–1500 super-targeted buyers to my website, and for most of its existence, it took ~2 hours work a week to get those results.

So what’s the big secret?

Drumroll, please….


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Keep with me now!

Everyone knows about hashtags, but I’ve seen NO ONE nailing this in the right way.

Everyone pulls together 5–10 somewhat relevant hashtags and post them as a first comment.

Great, you may get a handful of extra likes you otherwise wouldn’t have had.

But if used correctly, you can structure your hashtags in such a way that primes your posts to get 10x the engagement.

What’s more, the extra engagement from hashtags translates into an avalanche of new followers, as the new engagement doesn’t come from your existing followers.

Before selling the business, I used this strategy to grow @TransformFitspo at 10 times the rate of other pages the same size as it, posting the same content as I do (trust me, I monitor my competition closely).

It posts female transformation pictures, and despite not being the largest of its kind on Instagram, it was the fastest-growing largely due to this hashtag strategy.

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But that’s just because you’re posting inspiring fitness pictures I hear you say?

Sure, and perhaps that helps me get 10x the growth expected, but I’ve translated this growth to a number of other accounts with almost as impressive results!

I grew 10 accounts across the whole range of fitness niches (hot gals, hot guys, gym jokes, female transformations, male transformations etc.) to 5,000–10,000 followers on autopilot in 3 months, in total each account took perhaps 10–15 hours to set up and automate each.

I’ve done the same for accounts for art, travel, fashion, and sport, food, and more.

I’ve also applied this to client accounts, growing a success quote account with ~100,000 followers at the rate of similar accounts with 300,000–400,000 followers.

So, hopefully, you get it.

Nail this, and you’re not only making your life much easier, but you’re also in on something that 99.999% of Instagram is completely fucking up.

So, hashtags, what are they?

For most, they will be a familiar concept, but with regards to Instagram, #hashtags are a particularly important as they make up one of the major organic discovery mechanics of the site (the second being the explore page, the third-ish is other accounts engaging with you in various forms).

Hashtags are a mechanic that anyone can nail from the start, and using them incorrectly is unlikely to hurt your account (unlike careless engagement automation)

Each hashtag on Instagram has a feed that people can search for content relating to that tag. The results page for each hashtag now has a “TOP” section, with popular posts (decided by the algorithm), and “RECENT”, showing posts using the hashtag in chronological order.

If we can get our posts in that Top section, we will get more likes, more comments and more followers.

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So we need 30 hashtags, but which ones to pick?

To get into the popular results of any hashtag, you need to quickly build up engagement on your post.

If your account has a lot of followers, this is simple, as your followers will engage with your posts, and you’ll hit the popular section for the hashtags you use for that post.

Trouble is, most people don’t have lots of followers! On top of this, even with a “great” engagement (~5% of your followers liking anything you post), you’re unlikely to rank in the popular results for hashtags that are large enough to give you much of a boost.

Let me give you an example to illustrate.

Say you’ve got 5,000 followers, so a 5% engagement rate would be 250 people liking one of your photos. Using a classical hashtag strategy, that 250 likes is unlikely to get you to appear in the popular results for most of the hashtags you’re using, they’re just too competitive.

For the tags you do rank in, you may be an extra 10–20 likes, so it’s not enough to get any crazy growth.

So what’s the solution?

Hashtag ladders!

The theory is that by having a set of 30 hashtags, ranging from easy to difficult to rank for, you can start to hit the popular results for the easy ones, gain some engagement, rank for more difficult ones, grab more engagement and so on up the ladder.

By structuring your hashtags in this way you can start to have posts that get 10x the engagement you’re used to.

Now this won’t happen all the time, but it can set you up for these spikes every 5–10 posts, which come with big followers boosts.

More detail?

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I’d suggest that for an account below 10,000 followers, you want to find a range of 60–100 RELEVANT hashtags that have been used between 10,000 and 250,000 times (maybe 4–5 being larger).

The key here is that your posts normally couldn’t rank in the popular results for the hashtags that have been used 250,000 times, but they could easily rank for those that have been used 10–20,000 times. So you get some engagement from those, which pushes you into the results for the 20–40,000 tags and so on, “up the ladder”.

Off course, the more content you post (to a degree), and the better quality that content, the more runaway successes you’ll have. The key point here is that if you don’t have this hashtag ladder in place, it’s much more difficult, if not impossible to get any viral results from your Instagram posts with a small account.

Ladder Hacks.

You’ve already made a big start. Remember when you copied all of the hashtags that you saw competition using (in “The Instagram Test That 20x’ed My Earnings”)

We’re going to start with those!

I’d suggest you make a Google spreadsheet and paste all of those hashtags in as the first column. Make sure to remove the “#” from them. I’ve come up with some formula to save you time, so this is worth it.

Just a point I want to mention, if the following section freaks you out, you can do all of this manually. You can go into Instagram and search for every hashtag you’ve found and note down the number of times they’ve been used.

It’s just going to take you several hours instead of maybe 30–60 minutes.

So, make a Google Sheet and paste all of your hashtags in to the first column:

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In the first row of the second column, type:


This will delete any duplicate hashtags from your list. So if you have 30 hashtags, you’d put this in the B1 cell:


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I’d suggest you copy this entire hashtag list with its duplicates removed, and then right-click in the first cell of the column (B1 in this case) and click Ctrl + Shift + V. This will basically remove the UNIQUE formula and just paste the text values of the hashtags.

This is important as later as when you try to sort the list, it can mess up.

Next, you add these hashtags into Instagram links so we can pull their use counts.

In your next column, add:


This just takes the hashtag you have in cell B1 and adds it to the end of that URL so it makes a link to the results for that hashtag. Drag that down to the bottom of your column of hashtags to make links for all of them.

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Next we want to pull the amount of time each of these hashtags has been used, so in the next row add:


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Double check the formatting.

Now I know this looks intimidating, but basically it’s just pulling the written content for the result, looking for the number that comes before “Posts” and then adding that.

It’s repeated 3 times over to replace “k” with 1,000, and “m” with 1,000,000 so that it’s easier for us to arrange the hashtags by post count.

This formula will act on the cell “C1”, so if you’re arranging your sheet differently, make sure to change all 5 instances of that.

Again, add that in (to D1) in this case, and drag it down to the bottom of your column.

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Next step is to order them by post count, so select everything in your sheet that isn’t in the first column:

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Then click the “Data” menu at the top of the page, and from the dropdown menu, select “Sort Range”.

In this case, we want to sort by “Column D”, as that’s the column the post counts are in, and sort from Z -> A (or largest to smallest in the case of numbers).

The example screenshots are a great example of the problem with most people’s hashtag use, they’re all over 250,000 uses. Even for my accounts with 50,000+ followers, I stick below 1,000,000 uses for most hashtags.

Keep any tags with over 10,000 uses and under 250,000 uses.

The hashtags with more uses can still be valuable for research as you can search for those to see what other suggestions come up.

The main point of this sheet is to speed up the process of checking how many uses these hashtags have as this takes a lot of time.

So, we want 60–100 RELEVANT hashtags, so we’re likely to need many more crap ones to filter through before we find them.

Here are some ways to easily find more hashtags to add in to your list:

1. Click all of the links that have been created in your spreadsheet to open the popular results for these hashtags.

The 9 popular posts for each of these are likely to use a wide range of hashtags, so open those posts and paste those into your first column to run them through again.

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2. Type the larger hashtags into Instagram’s TAGS search on your phone (or use a phone emulator such as BlueStacks to use Instagram’s mobile version from your computer — quicker to type than it is to use your thumbs).

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It will suggest hashtags that start with the word you added in, as well as showing you how many posts that hashtag has (unless you’re following someone that follows the hashtag, so it can be good to do this with a new account).

Add any hashtags in the right range to your list. It’s a nice quick way to increase the number of hashtags you’re analyzing.

You can also click on these individual hashtags to get suggested hashtags at the top:

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At the top of the page, you can see related hashtags. This is useful as they won’t need to contain the root hashtag you added in, so it’s easy to find more varied hashtags this way.

An alternate way to generate these suggested hashtags is using the “Users and Hashtags” tool in Jarvee.

This is faster for generating lots of suggestions but if you’re already in Instagram and don’t need many more hashtags to complete your set of ~100, then just finding them in the app may be better.

To access this, you simply select “Tools” from the left-hand menu, select “Users and Hashtags” from the list of tabs at the top of the page, and then you paste in your hashtags to the relevant box, without “#” and separated by commas.

You then hit “SEARCH RELATED HASHTAGS” and it will pull up a list of these suggested hashtags, sorted by post count.

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This means you can just scroll down until your under a post count of 250,000, and then add those to your spreadsheet of hashtags to investigate further.

Using these two methods, you can just try to dump as many results into your spreadsheet as possible.

We’re almost there, this is worth it, trust me!

The final check is just to look at the Popular Results for each of your hashtags. This is because sometimes a hashtag sounds like it may be relevant, but when you look at the type of content people are using it for, it’s not relevant.

As you can only use 30 hashtags for your posts, you want to make sure that every single one is useful.

Doing this is simple, just click the links for each hashtag we made in our spreadsheet and look at the top 9 results.

You want these hashtags to be related directly to your sub-niche, not just your niche in general. It will make them more powerful and gain more engagements and viral successes for your content.

So just go through your list and delete any that don’t have relevant top results.

Final, final step — making the ladders.

Once again, you want at least 60 hashtags by this point.

They should have 10,000–250,000 uses each, and their results should look relevant.. If you don’t have that many, keep repeating this process.

If you have more than 60, even better!

These hashtags should be sorted in order of their post counts as shown before. What you basically have now is one large hashtag ladder.

We want two.

The point of having two ladders is that we can use Jarvee to randomly blend together hashtags from each of our two ladders.

The more hashtags you have in each ladder, the more variety you’ll have in the hashtags you use, and the better the algorithm will favour your posts.

This is why you need at least 60 hashtags, so we have 30+ on each ladder.

Jarvee will randomly select 15 from each ladder, so this adds in the variance we want. 50+ per ladder is even better.

To make your ladders, you just want to have the highest use 50% of hashtags as one ladder, and the lowest 50% as one ladder.

This split ensures we always have high and low use hashtags.

Bonus: If you’ve got an established account, with at least ~10,000 followers, you can do an even better job.

If you figure out your posts average likes (over the last 12 or so posts), and then you also average the likes of the Top 9 results for each hashtag you’ve found.

Then make ladders going from half of your average likes, up to about 5x your average likes (with a few that are 10x or 20x).

I’ve found this can work even better, though it is far more work to research.


1. Create a spreadsheet and add all of the hashtags you found in your account research, removing any duplicates.

2. Search the popular results for each hashtag to find posts with more potential hashtags.

3. Use the hashtag search to find longer hashtags that start with a relevant root word.

4. Use Instagram search or Jarvee to find “related hashtags”.

5. Remove any with use counts below 10,000 or above 250,000 (unless you’ve purchased larger accounts, then you can try higher use counts).

6. For each hashtag that remains, check the popular results to see if the ranking pictures look relevant to your target audience.

7. Repeat this entire process until you have at least 60 relevant hashtags. Ideally 100+.

8. Split your hashtags into two ladders.

Next, I’ll show you how to set this all up in Jarvee as we automate content curation.

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