Hashtags were originally often under-utilized. They were the topic of ridicule – even parodied by Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake in a sketch aptly named “#Hashtag”. But now, hashtags have become an integral feature of social media. First utilized by Twitter, hashtags are now used on the biggest social media sites – Facebook (which has 1.71 billion users), Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, and Pinterest.
The influence of hashtags on social sites that house giant audiences make them a vital part of any social marketing toolbox. Of course, you need to understand how and why hashtags work before they can become a functional tool in your social media toolkit.
The History of Hashtags
Though some of us may still remember it as the pound symbol, the hashtag (as it is now most commonly called) has been used online for longer than you might imagine. According to Adweek, Relay Chats used hashtags as far back as 1988 to categorize “images, messages, video, and other content into groups,” meaning the symbol has been used for its current purpose for almost 30 years!
Although it’s been used for decades, Adweek reports that the modern hashtag didn’t come about until a tweet from designer Chris Messina suggested its use. Once the suggestion was made, Twitter users quickly embraced the trend. Since its inception, the hashtag has been used to document major events, breaking news updates, and trending pop culture references.
The Importance of Using Hashtags
While some of the hashtag trends seem ridiculous and not related to business marketing goals, the use of hashtags shouldn’t be disregarded by marketers because it greatly improves the reach of a post. Statistics show that tweets with hashtags gain twice as much engagement as those without and 55% more retweets. If you aren’t using hashtags, you’re missing out on a much wider audience and potential new customers.
How to Use Hashtags
As mentioned previously, hashtags have been used by the public to document a wide scope of topics – events, news, trends, and thoughts. Marketers can utilize hashtags in these ways as well as for a few other important purposes:
Many conferences and business events now encourage attendees to use hashtags created specifically for the event. This allows organizers to pre-promote, document success, access event photos, and remain in contact with attendees post-event. Even as an attendee, these event hashtags can be useful for gaining an audience. You can’t possibly interact with everyone at a conference, but by using the hashtag, you create opportunities to interact with attendees that you may have missed.
Another great utilization of hashtags is for research, especially for website developers interested in search engine optimization (SEO) and social media marketers looking to capitalize on the latest trends. Researching hashtags provides insight into what is popular and what audiences in a certain industry are most interested in.
Tips for Using Hashtags
- Keep it Simple. Hashtags have to be all one word, which can lead to unfortunate incidents like “#nowthatcherisdead”, which trended after Margaret Thatcher died, but lead people to assume that musician Cher had died. In addition to being easily understood, aim for hashtags that are brief, to the point and easy to read. Often capitalizing the words within the hashtag can add clarity – #NowThatcherIsDead leads to less confusion.
- Be Aware of Trends. There are certain weekly topics that trend on Twitter and Instagram like #tbt for “Throwback Thursday” or #MotivationMonday. These are easy hashtags for companies to latch onto. If a trending topic is relevant to your industry, it is important to make note and capitalize on the trend.
- Context is Key. There have been very public hashtag fails (especially on Twitter) of companies utilizing a hashtag because it is trending, only to realize that it is related to a tragedy. Additionally, being aware of any secondary connotations of a hashtag is important. Susan Boyle learned this the hard way with her album launch party hashtag – #Susanalbumparty.
- Create Your Own. Creating your own hashtag related to your business that you use across all social mediums can help you track how your company is being talked about online.
- Find the Optimal Number. For Twitter, the ideal number of hashtags per post in order to be retweeted is two. On Instagram, the more relevant hashtags you can add to each post, the better — posts with 11 hashtags get 79.5% more engagement. Facebook seems to mirror Twitter, where less is more — one to two hashtags or none at all perform best. Play around a bit with numbers to find the number combination that works best with your audience.
- Track and Analyze. Hashtags give companies another way to track their social media presence and performance. Continually reviewing the use of key hashtags and how they are performing against your other posts (or the posts of your competitors) is an easy way to confirm whether your content is being seen by the largest possible audience.
The power of the hashtag symbol is in the potential audience. Utilizing hashtags gives you the opportunity to be seen by a wider audience that may be interested in what you have to post and (hopefully) what you have to sell.