What the Heck is a Hashtag?

When I was your age, that was called a pound sign.

“When I was your age, we called that a pound sign.”

Hashtags. There’s no escaping them, even if you’re watching TV. But what are they, why are they important and what are we supposed to do with them?

What are Hashtags?

Hashtags are keywords, created by placing the pound (or hash) sign in front of a word or words without any spaces. On social media sites, when you create a hashtag, it becomes a link to all the other mentions of that hashtag.

For example, on “throwback Thursday,” the day of the week dedicated to sharing childhood and historical photos, you’ll probably notice a ton of #TBT hashtags accompanying these photos. If you click on the hashtag, you will see all the images and posts including that hashtag.

What is the Purpose of Hashtags?

Hashtags are a way for people to quickly and easily connect based on interests rather than location, network or social circles. For companies, it’s a great way to share products with people who are interested in them, but not (yet) a fan or socially connected to the company.

One audience I market to is Ford Mustang enthusiasts. While I am also a Mustang fan, I really enjoy marketing to other Mustang fans because they are very enthusiastic and let’s face it, Mustangs are pretty sweet.

So I can post a photo of a Mustang on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, but if I use the hashtags #Mustang #FordMustang or #Pony, I can reach an audience much larger than my current fan/follower base because those who are interested in Mustangs are going to be looking for photos using those hashtags. They love sharing and they appreciate each others’ posts, so hashtags are a great way for Mustang fans to connect.

Creating Social Buzz

In addition to connecting with others through hashtags, they can also be used to create buzz. If you watch Survivor, you’ll probably notice all the hashtags they use. This is to encourage social buzz online to get fans talking about the show and connect with others to spread exposure.

Hashtags are exciting for reality shows, because the show can flash a hashtag on the screen during particular points to get fans to start posting about the show on social media. It’s a brilliant strategy and it works.

If you watch Survivor at all, you may notice at the beginning of the show, they’ll use #survivor to get fans to start posting about the show. In fact, if a fan was online and forgot the show was on, these hashtags could remind them to turn on the TV. This benefits the advertisers during the show as well. They could easily post about the show with hashtags as well to expand their exposure.

During key parts of the show, Survivor changes up their hashtags to let fans know what to tweet about. They’ll post #ImmunityChallenge or #TribalCouncil to get social conversations going.

Some shows will even show tweets online to encourage tweeting among fans. They can ask each other who they think will win, what they think about results or who the most talented contestant is this season.

The point is, hashtags can start conversations that otherwise would not be happening and turn fans into advocates, exploding exposure through simple keywords.

How Do I Write Hashtags?

Always start a hashtag with a # and remove any spaces between words you want to include in the tag.

You may notice I capitalize each word in my hashtag. That may not be standard practice, however I do it as a courtesy and to ensure anyone reading my post knows exactly what I’m trying to convey. You can imagine the disasters that could arise if your hashtag was misread, giving it unintended meanings.

When Should I Use Hashtags?

Hashtags should be used whenever relevant. if you post a photo of a car, hashtag it with the model and fan lingo. If you post a photo of a local landmark, hashtag the name of it along with the city or general location. If you’re posting about how great it is that it’s Friday, use #TGIF. You get the idea.

Where Should I Use Hashtags?

Hashtags should almost always be used on Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram and popularity is growing on Facebook as well. You can also use them in advertising to create a social buzz about your brand or company by encouraging fans to use them on social media. Try to limit hashtags to 3-4 relevant tags for each post so you’re not bombarding your fans with too many or irrelevant hashtags.

Should I Use Trending Hashtags?

Use as relevant to expand your audience.

Use as relevant to expand your audience.

Trending hashtags are a great way to expand your audience and join in on local and global trending topics. Here’s a screenshot of what’s trending right now on Twitter  in the U.S. so if any of those topics were relevant to my business, I could use them to join in the conversation. I could also tailor it more locally.

For example, it appears people are having problems with Instagram right now. This could be a prime opportunity for a competitor to post something like “Instagram not working? Try NotInstagram instead: http://www.notinstagram.com #InstagramNotWorking” [fictional example]

So anyone looking at that would see this alternative option and the competitor could potentially get a lot of business because of a trending hashtag.

Keep in mind, however that tactics like this can backfire. In this example, tweeters could respond to that post with “NotInstagram sucks, I’d rather stare at my non-functioning Instagram. #instagramnotworking #NotInstagramIsLame”

Taking risks can lead to some of the most brilliant marketing successes, but can also lead to major PR disasters. Be cautious.

Best Practices:

  • Use hashtags when relevant
  • Limit hashtags to up to 3-4 per post
  • Capitalize each word of the hashtag to remove any confusion of what it’s meant to say
  • Think outside the box to get creative with hashtags
  • When in doubt, look up a hashtag online before using it to confirm its usage or don’t use it if you’re unsure
  • Encourage fans to use your hashtags to spread brand awareness and create social buzz
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