Back to Basics: The Hashtag

Formerly known as the number or pound sign, the “hashtag” has originated and taken off in the age of social media (starting with Twitter) to mark key words or topics in a post to give users a way to categorize messages and recognize trending topics. Used properly, hashtags help people find your posts and good, consistent use of hashtags may get you new followers or interactions on social media, and even lead users to do business with you.

Used ineffectively, you get something like the #nowthatchersdead fiasco from 2013 when an organization attempted to create a hashtag notifying audiences that Margaret Thatcher had passed and Cher fans understandably misread it as the death of their idol. That being said, here are six tips on how to use hashtags the most effectively for your business.

1200x630 (1)

1. Only use hashtags that are relevant to your brand—and if they don’t exist, create them.

Using popular hashtags just to ride out a rising trend won’t do you any favors if the content under those hashtags doesn’t relate to your brand or product. Incorporate hashtags that reinforce your message and relate to your business, and if a good hashtag you’d like to use for your brand doesn’t exist yet, invent it! It will take a while for a new hashtag to catch on (these things don’t happen overnight), but a hashtag that is memorable, unique, and branded can really help your audience find and identify you.

Note that “branded” doesn’t necessarily mean that your brand name is incorporated somewhere in the hashtag. It just means that it represents what your brand stands for. Be it your business’s tagline, a campaign name, contest title, or something similar, branded hashtags just need to be interesting in such a way that encourages your audience to use and share them.

And if there’s a trending hashtag that meshes well with your brand, then you’re in luck and don’t even have to think too hard about this stuff for the time being.

2. Don’t make long, confusing hashtags.

Too many words in a hashtag will make it difficult for your audience to understand its message at a glance. This results in an overcomplicated and ineffective attempt to boost your reach. Short and sweet is generally the way to go on social media regardless, but especially when it comes to hashtags. Try to keep it down to 2-3 simple words per hashtag.

3. Mind your spelling and don’t use punctuation or spaces.

Spell checking should always be part of any content process you have—particularly on social media where more people are likely to see it. Good spelling and grammar are necessary for a capable, professional image, but spelling is especially important for hashtags. If your hashtag is spelled incorrectly, it’ll be difficult for your users to find your post.

In that same category, spaces and punctuation break up a hashtag—in other words, a phrase will only register as a complete hashtag and work the way it’s supposed to if it’s one complete string of letters. For example, this is what you should do if you want to tag your post with a reference to content strategy: #contentstrategy. This is what you shouldn’t do: #content strategy.

4. If you’re trying to tag a brand, @ them instead of #-ing them.

If you’re trying to call out another brand on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook, they most likely have a handle you can use—using the At sign (@) makes the other account more likely to see that you’re referencing them. On most platforms, the use of an At sign will also send the other account a notification, so there’s a chance you’ll get a bonus benefit of an interaction from the account you’re referencing.

5. Use capital letters to break up what you’re saying.

Since you can’t break your hashtag up with punctuation, using capital letters can make a longer hashtag easier for your users to read at a glance. If your hashtag is a single word, you don’t need to worry about capitalization—if anything, capital letters in hashtags are most necessary for making them more readable. Platforms don’t distinguish between upper- and lowercase letters, so readability is king here, meaning #learningabouthashtags and #LearningAboutHashtags will return identical results.

6. Don’t spam (overuse) hashtags.

As with many things, quality trumps quantity. Overusing hashtags is a common issue across different social media platforms—people tend to think that adding tons of hashtags will result in more interactions. However, that’s incorrect and the opposite effect may actually occur. Posts that have lots of hashtags (especially ones that have more hashtags than plain text) tend to look spammy and will make your brand come off as inexperienced, desperate, or dishonest. More than that, it’s just annoying to read and will more than likely take your users’ focus off your message. Social media analysis can help you understand which hashtags you should use and what will work best for your brand—and the more targeted you can be, the better quality engagement you will receive.

Using hashtags can really boost your business and social media outreach if you do it correctly. The silver lining here is that, while it does take knowhow and practice to see what works and what doesn’t, it’s not rocket science—as soon as you get the hang of it, it’ll be a no-brainer. Just don’t be afraid to start tagging your posts, change up what doesn’t work to find out what does, and always hashtag responsibly.