Hashtags have been around for the last decade and are growing more versatile and universal, spreading past their original platform on Twitter to various social media platforms and websites.
Proper hashtag usage can skyrocket views on your post, creating online forums and generating greater user engagement. Learn the history of the hashtag, it’s various uses, and the best practices and tips on how to include hashtags on your social media.
Merriam-Webster defines a hashtag as “a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that classifies or categorizes the accompanying text (such as a tweet).” Hashtags are used primarily on social media platforms to group related content or find similar posts to their own. The hashtag essentially creates a link to every post that has used that same hashtag, including top posts and most recent posts in live time.
The actual hashtag symbol is also called a hash sign, a pound sign, or, formally, an octothorpe. The pound symbol, prior to its rebranding as the hashtag, was primarily used on telephones. Now, the octothorpe is widely known for its function on social media. Since hashtags help your post reach other users that may not follow you, they can be used to spread information or as a marketing technique to connect to a larger audience.
Hashtags were first used and created on Twitter. Twitter launched in 2006, and in 2007 web developer and Twitter user Chris Messina came up with the idea for the hashtag as a way to group related tweets. Twitter initially rejected the idea until a few months later, when Twitter users in San Diego began using hashtags to share updates on forest fires with the hashtag #SanDiegoFire. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since the inception of the hashtag, it has grown from a Twitter-specific tool to a commonly understood and widely used function across a variety of social media platforms. Depending on your intentions and your social media of choice, there are various tips and tricks to best use hashtags.
To add a hashtag to your post, simply type the hashtag symbol (#) and type the word or phrase that you want to hashtag. Popular suggestions may come up as you type, and you can easily join in on an existing hashtag or create your own unique hashtag.
There are a few rules to follow for your hashtag to work properly:
Don’t include spaces in your hashtag. The tag only works if the whole hashtag is connected. If you want to hashtag the words “Party Time” for example, you’d use #PartyTime, not #Party Time, which would only create a hashtag for the word party.
Don’t include punctuation or special characters in your hashtag. This also breaks the link starting where the punctuation occurs, so #Party-Time would also only create the hashtag #Party. Some special characters to avoid: ?, /, *, &, !, +, ., ^. Underscores ( _ ) can be used in hashtags.
Numbers can be used in hashtags, but a hashtag cannot include solely numbers depending on the platform or website you’re using. For example, you cannot use the hashtag #2019 on Twitter, but #2019Goals works. On Instagram, however, both hashtags would work.
If you’re not creating your own hashtag or using it to share your own content, you can use hashtags to follow specific trends, events, or groups online. To browse through a hashtag, simply use the search bar on the social media platform of your choice and type in what you’re looking for. From there, you can see the top posts using that hashtag as well as the most recent uses all the way back to the first time the hashtag was used.
You may know the technical rules for creating and using a hashtag, but there are many commonly accepted “rules of thumb” to follow as well to ensure that you’re hashtagging in the best possible way.
Use relevant hashtags: No one wants their social media feeds or hashtag pages clogged with spam or totally irrelevant posts. The hashtag or tags that you use should relate to your content. Think of your audience when hashtagging, and ask yourself, “If I was browsing through this hashtag, would I want to see this post?” If the answer is no, try a different hashtag that better fits your content.
Consider the length of your hashtag: If you’re looking to share your posts with other users and group it with similar content, the simpler the hashtag, the better. Twitter recommends keeping hashtags at six characters or shorter. Longer hashtags have gone viral, but simplicity is key.
Consider Clarity: Is the intended content and audience of your hashtag clear? This is another reason that shorter is sweeter when it comes to hashtags. For hashtags containing more than one word or a phrase, it often helps to capitalize the first letter of each word since spaces are not allowed. An example of this could be #StateOfTheUnion instead of #stateoftheunion. A bunch of words mashed together can create confusion or have a totally different meaning to someone else reading it.
Be Specific: According to Hootsuite, “The more specific you can get with your hashtag, the more targeted your audience will be—and a targeted audience generally means better engagement.” Using broad, generic hashtags may help you reach a larger audience, but your post may get lost in an overpopulated hashtag. Using #food to reach an audience of food-lovers is okay, but a more niche hashtag like #EggsBenedict will improve engagement with a more specific audience and fewer posts to compete with.
Hashtags can be whatever you want them to be, but there are some common uses and tropes. Since the hashtag began as a way to group posts, many hashtags are used to create a forum or collect posts related to the same topic.
The first hashtag that really took off, #SanDiegoFire, was used to share information and thoughts on a specific event (the forest fires around San Diego in 2007). Similarly, big events often have specific hashtags. TV Events like the Olympics often create their own hashtag and share it on television so that people watching know to use that hashtag to share their comments. NBC has already created a verified hashtag, #TokyoOlympics, for the 2020 Olympics.
Politics is a highly hashtagged subject, and social media users often apply hashtags to discuss specific events, laws, or political events
Social justice movements have also gained traction and exposure via hashtags. The famous #MeToo movement that began in 2017 used a hashtag to spread awareness about sexual harassment and assault. The creators of #MeToo have continued this practice with the hashtag #MuteRKelly, using an online platform to share stories and bring support to their movement to end violence against women.
Aside from creating an online community, hashtags are commonly used to promote one’s own posts. Hashtags make your posts easily discoverable by other users, leading to more likes, favorites, retweets, comments, and overall engagement.
Social media is a great outlet for businesses to share their brand and market to customers. Smart use of hashtags can help businesses reach new customers and increase exposure to their product or service. There are various ways that hashtags can be used to market a product, service, or brand.
A simple way that hashtags can be used as a marketing tool is by using relevant hashtags to brand posts. A real estate company looking to increase visibility on a post to bring in more clients could use hashtags like #OpenHouse, #NewHome, or #PhiladelphiaRealtor. In many cases, it is helpful to include location to cater to a local audience and find a more targeted audience. Bloggers and online influencers often use these related keywords as hashtags to grow their followers, like #FoodBlogger or #PhillyFoodie.
Creating a branded hashtag specific to your company can generate buzz online and engage with users that may not have otherwise felt inclined to post about your brand. An excellent example of this is Coca-Cola’s hashtags #ShareACoke. Coca-Cola encouraged users to share photos of themselves with their soda, leading to great online exposure as users jumped on the trend.
Some brands will use hashtags for giveaways or sweepstakes, where users can add a certain hashtag to enter the contest and potentially win prizes. Domino’s Pizza held a photo contest where users had to hashtag #PieceOfThePie on a picture that proved their super fandom to win a $10,000 prize. Smaller companies probably can’t afford to give away ten grand, but small prizes are incentive enough to promote their brand online.
Hashtags also offer opportunities for businesses to jump on a viral, high exposure trend. One example of this is the annual hashtag #NationalBestFriendsDay, used in this case by Nintendo to promote their brand and gain some Twitter love for a funny tweet.
The intended tone of a hashtag may change its meaning, and hashtags are often meant with comedic or sarcastic inflection. Some hashtags are meant as a sort of afterthought to the actual content of the post, almost like a muffled fake cough gag. In these cases, the hashtag isn’t really intended to start a conversation or to create a group with similar content.
Using hashtags to curate a certain voice online is especially prominent on Twitter. An example of a hashtag used for tone rather than promotion could be adding a #rude at the end of a Tweet complaining about an inconsiderate person, or the #kidding after a sarcastic post.
Since funny hashtags aren’t meant to consolidate related content online, they are often longer than the typical hashtag. The length of your hashtag may add to your joke or act as a parody of users who overdo their hashtagging.
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