A How-to for Hashtags

In the not-so-distant past, but a social media eon ago, the hashtag served a singular purpose on a singular social network. Twitter users could use the hashtag symbol (#) before any relevant keyword or phrase to categorize their Tweets and help them appear in a Twitter search. By clicking on any hashtagged word, Twitter users could see all Tweets marked with that word. This might sound #quaint to savvy social media users of today, but trust me; this was #cuttingedge circa 2009.

Fast forward to today. My teenage cousin recently Instagrammed a selfie before soccer practice and used 13 hashtags. #seriously. #notkidding. Hashtags are so pervasive in popular culture that your friends are dropping hashtags in your text messages, businesses are using them in advertising and Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake are doing “Tonight Show” skits about them. Which begs the question – how should we really be using hashtags?

The answer is not all that different than it was back in 2009. The primary and intended purpose of using a hashtag is to make your social media post searchable by using relevant keywords. The major difference today is that most social media platforms have adopted the hashtag, meaning you can utilize them across multiple social networks – from Facebook and Instagram to Tumblr and Pinterest. In addition to increasing the reach and searchability of your social media posts, hashtags are helpful for generating buzz and awareness about a campaign or contest and can also add personality and humor to your social content when used discerningly.

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when using hashtags to support social media content:

  • Don’t use too many. #Nobody #likes #a #million #hashtags. As a general rule, pick the two or three most relevant keywords to your content and stick to those.
  • Search for existing hashtags. You may find that a lot of social media users are already talking about a topic or event, so you want to join in the conversation with them, rather than unintentionally starting your own.
  • Do your #homework: With so many hashtags in use, make sure you understand how and in what context other users are using a hashtag. You don’t want to use a hashtag that is associated with something very different than your intended association. There are many online tools, such as tagboard, that are designed to help users identify and search for hashtags, in addition to the Twitter search functionality.
  • Use hashtags only when they are relevant to your content.  Occasionally a user will try to leverage a popular or trending hashtag to increase the reach of their content, even when it is not related to the hashtag. This is considered poor social etiquette and has landed some major brands – most recently DiGiorno’s Pizza – in the social dog house.
  • Privacy settings DO apply: Hashtags are subject to the Tweet privacy settings on your account. If your Tweets are protected, any Tweets using hashtags will not appear publicly in streams or searches for that hashtag.
  • If you ever have an occasion to start your own hashtag – this could be anything from hosting an event to launching a product or campaign – you should consider the following:
    • Keep it simple. You can use numbers and letters to create a hashtag, but don’t try to string too many words or characters together. You should also consider how your hashtag looks using uppercase and lowercase characters. (Because hashtags aren’t case sensitive, users won’t necessarily type it out specifically how you intended.) The best hashtags are concise and easy to read, which is ideal for other social users scrolling quickly through their feeds.
    • Is it available? There are a LOT of hashtags in use on social media. Make sure that the hashtag you are considering is not already being used by other parties to avoid confusion.  Again, using an online resource to search for hashtags can be helpful. In addition to tagboard, try hashtags.org.
    • Explain it. Don’t assume that your followers will automatically “get it” and start to use your new hashtag. Explain what your hashtag means to provide context and value to other users.
    • Promote it, but don’t force it. Once you’ve determined your hashtag, share it socially and beyond. If you’re hosting an event, for example, you can share your event hashtag on event signage and collateral. Begin to use your hashtag consistently and in the correct context across your social channels to gain traction, but do not schedule a tweet using the hashtag every 15 minutes. If your hashtag adds value, it will grow organically.
    • Encourage It. When followers use your hashtag be sure to engage with them. Favorite, reply, comment on or RT the content. Follow users using the hashtag.

Have any hashtag how-to’s, best practices or faux pas? Share them with us in the comments section below.

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