What the Hashtag?: A Brief Guide to Using Hashtags for Your Business

Social media is a growing part of online marketing and branding, and it is one that should not be ignored. As potential customers often turn to Twitter, Facebook, etc. to get a feel for your brand, it is important to avoid social media missteps that could negatively affect your business. Hashtags have proven thus far to be a lasting part of current online culture, and using them strategically can be a great way to gain new fans, followers, and customers.

Chris Messina, taking inspiration from IRC networks, is credited with unleashing the hashtag upon the social media world in 2007 with a simple tweet:

Twitter then began linking hashtags to dedicated search pages in 2009 and displaying trending hashtags on the front page in 2010 (which happens to be the same year that the word was added to the New Oxford American Dictionary).

hashtag definition


And though they got their start on Twitter, hashtags have permeated virtually all of the big social media networks. Facebook, Instagram, Google+, and Pinterest all sport hashtag features of their own, though they all tend to be used in slightly different ways.

In case you’ve been off the grid for the past few years, here’s a quick rundown on the hashtag:

1. They’re denoted by prefixing a word with an octothorp/number sign/pound sign/hash symbol/whatever you want to call this thing: #. (e.g. #hashtag).

2. They’re primarily used to group messages about common topics together. (e.g. #shutdown would be affixed to posts about the government shutdown.)

3. They’re also used as sub-thought or punch lines of sorts to comment on the accompanying tweet/post. (e.g. “On this day, The Seljuk Turks defeated the Byzantine Army at Manzikert. #didntevenneedwikipedia” via Conan O’Brien, or “#hipstercongress passed a bill once, you’ve probably never heard of it, it’s pretty obscure.” via Hillary Kwiatek)

4. They never include spaces or punctuation.

Why Should Companies Use Hashtags?

Essentially, hashtags make it easy for social media users to see what everyone else is saying about any given topic in real time. It’s a way to gather information from the entire social community outside of the individuals that you follow specifically.

And beyond that, they make it easy for businesses to communicate with and aggregate content from their user/consumer base. Lululemon encourages customers to use #thesweatlife to tag photos of themselves using their products on Instagram. Starbucks is taking advantage of the popularity of its Pumpkin Spice Lattes to encourage the use of #PSL on all of its networks. A group of yogis on Instagram pair with a different yoga apparel retailers every month and host pose-a-day challenges that are organized through hashtags. The possibilities are pretty limitless.

How to Choose a Hashtag

Using a unique hashtag is a simple way to brand yourself. When done right, it shows personality, promotes interaction, and keeps your company relevant. As is the case with search keywords, long hashtags are less commonly used and thus easier for a brand to “claim,” but that comes with the downside of being harder to stumble upon and more difficult to remember. Another thing to remember is that any hashtag can be used by any person for any reason–so if you think your hashtag might be misconstrued or misrepresented, you may want to reconsider (remember Cher fans’ dismay when #nowthatcherisdead began trending upon Margaret Thatcher’s death, or the less-than-positive reviews from McDonalds’ #McDStories campaign?).

There are also a number of hashtags that are commonly used on individual networks. On Instagram, for example, taking advantage of #throwbackthursday (or #tbt) can help put your photos in front of the countless people who browse that tag every week. #FollowFriday (or #FF) is used to make recommendations for who to follow on Twitter, and it’s a good way to reach out to influencers and show general appreciation for others.

A Few Final Things to Keep in Mind

1. Keep it simple. Though descriptive, #BlogPostAboutHashtags probably won’t help this post be discovered by anyone, but #SmallBiz or #HowTo might reach a larger audience.

2. Don’t use a popular/trending hashtag to get attention. Kenneth Cole famously marketed his products using #Cairo during the protests in Egypt and became the target of much Internet outrage, and even something seemingly harmless like posting “New blog post about how to use hashtags! #ObamaCare #starbucksdrakehands” would just make you seem desperate.

3. More isn’t always better. Especially given Twitter’s character limit, a single tweet shouldn’t contain more than two or three hashtags—bonus points if you incorporate them into your sentence rather than tacking them on at the end. And even on networks without character limits, large blocks of hashtags tend to be visually unappealing.

Have any other tips? Share them with us on Twitter!

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