Social media platforms are forever evolving – adopting new features and discarding old ones. It can be hard to stay on top of all the changes, but one thing’s for sure… While some people will still feebly try to claim that social media is just a passing fad, it’s definitely here to stay.
The value of social media marketing for businesses across all sorts of industries cannot be underestimated. Just look at the statistical evidence that social media is thriving: almost 8 in 10 people now use social media and 59% of those people access social media every day. More than a third check social media over five times a day.
It’s fair to assume that social media is destined for additional growth – and if you really want to get ahead of your game on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube, you need to master one of the social media fundamentals.
I’m talking about hashtags.
It’s been a long time since the word ‘hashtag’ sounded silly when used in everyday conversation. Like ‘tweeting’ or ‘liking’, it’s become a part of everyday vernacular, and even your Granny probably knows that there’s a big difference between a Facebook hashtag and a hash brown!
Here’s a crash course on hashtags, why they get used by millions of social media users, and how to use them to systematically explode your brand’s reach on social media.
A short history of hashtags
Legend has it that the first hashtag was used on Twitter in August 2007 by a social media maestro called Chris Messina. He posted the hashtag #barcamp in a tweet with the intention to categorize responses and exchanges regarding Barcamp, a long-running international network of user-generated conferences.
People responded positively, and hashtags quickly spread to other corners of the internet and began to proliferate on social media sites. Despite the fact that Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter, supposedly said to Messina that he didn’t think hashtags were going to take off due to their ‘technical’ nature, he was proven wrong very quickly.
It’s important to note that hashtags were also used in Internet Relay Chats (IRCs) before Twitter was started, but in terms of the way they’re currently used in the digital sphere, Messina was pretty much the pioneer.
How exactly do hashtags work?
Hashtags at their best have the power to matter more than the actual content being shared. They’re present on every social media platform you can think of – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube all have them.
Essentially, they’re used to categorize content and track topics, and help like-minded people or communities find one another. The best hashtags come about organically, and escalate to reach a big audience and user base. A great example of this in action is the #amwriting hashtag invented by Johanna Harness in 2009. Today, it’s the most popular hashtag used by writers around the world to participate in discussions about writing.
Some hashtags gain viral status overnight. These are usually hashtags that relate to current events that people are discussing around the world – for example, #BasketOfDeplorables gained almost instant notoriety after Hillary Clinton said that you could put ‘half of Trump supporters’ into said basket during the 2016 US election campaign. It quickly became the most popular hashtag of her presidential candidacy.
But hashtags aren’t just for politics or people. Businesses can use them strategically to grow their brand’s reach, which is particularly important now that social platforms are systematically making it harder to achieve organic reach. Hashtags truly are one of the the best tools you can use to fight back against this.
Viewed from this perspective, hashtags are simply a means to organize and advertise an idea.
How do I get started with hash browns… I mean, hashtags?
You should start by familiarizing yourself with this little symbol: ‘#’. You’ll be using it a lot.
Next, you should think about what sort of hashtags will work for your brand if your goal is to accumulate new followers rather than create buzz among your current audience. It’s not enough to tap into trending hashtags – you need to be strategic and think about what distinguishes your brand. Not all hashtags are created equal, and there’s no point in using the hashtag #coffee to promote your business if you’re offering an SEO writing service.
Here are some basic hashtag principles to acquaint yourself with:
- Hashtags can be inserted at the beginning, middle, or end of your post
- A hashtag should always be short and memorable
- Don’t piggyback on another brand’s unique hashtag to divert traffic
- Informative hashtags are invariably better than abstract ones
- A hashtag should be free from spelling errors, or you’ll just look silly
- Have a backup plan for if a hashtag gets trolled or co-opted by another brand
- Don’t use hashtags to ask questions
- Don’t use swear words or offensive language in hashtags
- Use capitalization to distinguish words in #LongerHashtags, or they can end up #beingreallyhardtoread
- Avoid using too many hashtags at once
There are small differences in the way hashtags are used across different social media platforms, but the main one to be aware of is that you can get away with using up to 30 hashtags on Instagram. On other platforms, limit yourself to 3 or 4, or you’ll look spammy.
Do I need to create my own branded hashtag?
Basically, yes. If you want to encourage people to engage with your brand and explode your following, you need to help spread the word about your product or service. When you create a unique hashtag for your business, you make your brand more discoverable and gain more user-generated content. Hashtag searches occur all the time across all social media platforms so once you’re optimized for discovery, you’ll see an increase in social media traffic.
Before you start brainstorming, identify which hashtags are currently popular (trending) on various social media platforms using the following sites:
- Trendsmap – gives you a visual map to see geographic hashtag trends
- Hashtags – finds trending, declining and constant trends, as well as metrics
- RiteTag – tells you the the best hashtags for certain topics
- Hashtagify – gives you basic analytics data as well as trending hashtags
Now, think about which words or slogans define your brand. Creating your own catchy, branded hashtag isn’t easy, but the aim is to make it applicable to all or most of your posts. It’s basically a glorified tagline – and it should be a way to build brand dialogue.
Branded hashtags can also be used to promote a short-term marketing campaign, product launch or online Q+A, but it never hurts to have a standalone hashtag that you use every time. It will be the one your followers use when they post about your brand and will streamline your social media marketing efforts more efficiently.
Okay, but how do I actually create a branded hashtag?
It pays to think outside of the box when brainstorming. Hashtags don’t have to relate to a topic or event – they can relate to a feeling or movement. For example, activewear brand Lorna Jane uses the hashtag #MoveNourishBelieve to elicit an emotional response from their followers while aligning with their brand values.
Sportswear giant Nike provides another great example of this – their flagship hashtag is #JustDoIt, but they also run social media campaigns with unique branded hashtags such as #BetterForIt which encourage their followers to embrace a fit lifestyle.
So, here’s how to create a unique branded hashtag:
- Think of several different hashtags that could potentially be used for your brand based on your business name, campaigns, events, etc.
- Check to see if any of them are already in use. You might be surprised how many of your favorites have been taken!
- Go back to the drawing board and innovate if you have to. For example, if #HatsForPets is in use, you could try #TheHattedPet.
- Check it has no double meanings, hidden messages or unfortunate word combinations – for example, the hashtag #susanalbumparty was created by the PR team for British singer Susan Boyle, but famously interpreted worldwide as ‘sus-anal-bum-party’.
- Add your branded hashtag to your social media bios so that your followers know it exists and ask them to use it when they post about your brand or product. You’ll need to lead by example by adding it to all of your posts.
- Monitor it! Track its momentum over the course of three, six or 12 months.
You can even use a tool like Sprout Social to gain valuable insights into specific social media analytics like hashtag usage and frequently mentioned topics.
What else can I do with hashtags to increase brand recognition?
You can do a whole range of things with hashtags. These seemingly tiny things ultimately have the power to explode your traffic, clicks and engagement so factor hashtag goals into your social media strategy.
You can use hashtags to promote:
- Career opportunities
- Cross-channel discussions
- Product launches
One of the most popular ways to use them is simply by running a hashtag-branded promotion – include the use of your hashtag as a requirement to enter a contest.
Content-reflecting hashtags are another a way of optimizing your posts for search. They’re simply tagged words that relate to a posts’ content. For example, if you are a donut-manufacturing company, you might include the hashtag #treatyoself in a post.
Make sure you use a tool to track your impressions and engagement. In fact, you can get a lot of this information for free right through your social media platform of choice (e.g., Twitter Analytics).
Did you say hashtags are different on different social media sites?
Good memory! I did. Not hugely different, but different enough to warrant a short explanation for each.
On Twitter, the hometown of hashtags, the platform is designed to automatically show you trending hashtags based on where you are and who you follow, so you can quickly find relevant ones. Just be aware that on a desktop computer, Twitter’s Trends will appear in your sidebar, offering only a few hashtags. But if you access Twitter via the phone app, you can find a whole lot more. Simply go to the Twitter search tab and look for the ‘Show more’ button under ‘Trends’ then click on it.
Facebook hashtags are a bit trickier than other social media hashtags. You have to find trending hashtags to use by exploring or through trial and error. The best practise is to copy your Twitter or Instagram hashtags over to Facebook to join more conversations and create cross-channel integration. Ritetag is a great web tool to use for optimizing your hashtags for Facebook because it tests your hashtags before you post them.
On Instagram, the native search feature is an easy and powerful way to find popular, relevant hashtags. Start by typing ‘#’ and a keyword related to your content, for example, “#running.” Instagram will instantly return a heap of hashtag suggestions, and show you how many posts currently use these hashtags. Keep in mind that just because a hashtag has a lot of posts doesn’t mean those posts get a lot of engagement. Always investigate by clicking on a hashtag and scrolling through the posts – you can usually find more relevant hashtags to use this way as well.
It’s possible on Pinterest to use hashtags in your pin’s description. You can’t click and search hashtags that appear in your account descriptions, board titles, profile names, or board descriptions – but you don’t really need hashtags for your content to appear in Pinterest search results. Keywords in your title and description are actually enough. Using the same generic hashtags you use on other social platforms isn’t necessary, and could even hurt your visibility. For example, if you choose to use the hashtag #marketingautomation instead of the keyword ‘Marketing automation’ in your description, you’ll miss out on hits from people searching for the keyword, not the hashtag. Hashtag searches on Pinterest are notorious for returning poor results. Still, hashtags can serve a purpose on the platform. A unique branded hashtag can lead Pinterest users to your posts through a Pinterest contest, for example.
Hashtags on LinkedIn can help you increase your reach far beyond your immediate LinkedIn network. You can put ’em just about everywhere: your profile, your status updates, your LinkedIn Pulse articles, your company page and in your comments on other people’s updates. LinkedIn has a chequered history with hashtags, and has only recently reintroduced them. As a result, not too many people are taking advantage of them just yet. If there’s a possibility they can help you expand your network, you should be a pioneer – create a list of hashtags that relate to your industry or job function and use them appropriately.
YouTube rolled out hashtag support a while ago. You can add hashtags in two places: in your video titles and in your description. YouTube has some pretty strict policies regarding hashtag use so just make sure you check that out before getting started.
Hopefully this (very long!) post has given you a better understanding of hashtags and how they can help you explode your brand’s reach on social media. While they may seem complicated and fiddly initially, they’re actually very simple to use once you get the hang of them, and far more efficient than trying to organically grow your audience.
Let me know in the comments how you implement hashtag strategies in your brand’s marketing campaigns – or how you plan to start!
Oh, and ignore the gif above. You can’t use emojis in hashtags. That’s the final lesson I’ll leave you with.