Ever since hashtags emerged on Twitter back in 2007, they have been gradually evolving into a complex system that is often acknowledged, but poorly understood, by social media marketers. Hashtags were first created as a system of categorization; searching Twitter for a given keyword was giving mixed, mostly irrelevant results, and the introduction of the hashtag sought to change that by giving users the power to categorize their own posts.
It’s revolutionized the way people use Twitter, and has escalated to a phenomenon that extends beyond the limits of the social media platform. Hashtags are now popularly used on most other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, and are occasionally used colloquially in modern speech.
In some ways, hashtags have evolved from a simple categorization system to a meta-reference at the end of a given statement. Take these tweets for example:
“I’m working hard on our new content strategy. #marketing” is a simple way to categorize the tweet.
“Traffic is backed up for almost 10 miles. #KillMeNow” is a meta statement that applies to the tweet, but has nothing to do with categorization.
Because hashtags can “trend” by circulating in popularity, they have become a fixation for marketers looking for new ways to attract a social following. However, simply throwing hashtags at the end of your posts isn’t enough to win new favor. Like with any marketing strategy, you need to have a firm understanding of the medium and the audience before you can start to see results.
There’s a common misconception that using hashtags will instantly make your posts more visible. This is not necessarily the case. Including categorical hashtags at the end of relevant posts makes you more likely to show up in a user search for that specific keyword, but categorical searches are not as popular as you might think. Instead, hashtags are useful for trying to build momentum around a given topic, or for piggybacking on an already-trending post.
Using hashtags effectively requires forethought, research, and strategic execution. If you aren’t prepared to invest time in your hashtag strategy, you might as well continue without them.
Hashtags can be beneficial for your company in a number of ways: some try to attract new followers, some try to improve user experience, and others simply provide insights into your niche. Take a look at these potential strategies, and consider how hashtags could be most useful if integrated into your company’s social media strategy:
Categorizing your posts
It is possible to categorize your posts using hashtags, especially if those hashtags are unique. This is useful for making your content easily searchable for your users. For example, if you’re writing about marketing, you wouldn’t necessarily want to use a “#marketing” tag, because the competition is high and the number of users searching for that specific term could be looking for anything and everything to do with marketing. Instead, create specific hashtags relevant to your blog categories, or include your brand in some way. If you create something specific like “#ABMarketingSecrets”, it’s highly unlikely that other users will use that hashtag, and any user who wants to read more will be able to find all of your similar blogs almost instantaneously.
Cashing in on a trend
Another way to use hashtags is to piggyback on a currently trending topic. Rather than offering an easy system of navigation for your users like with categorization, this strategy is solely intended to increase traffic and attention to your social media profile. Twitter displays “trending” hashtags as the most popular hashtags currently being discussed. If you want to jump in on the global conversation, post something relevant containing that trending hashtag. You’ll get some outside attention from social users who are looking for updates on the trending topic, and if your post is appropriate, your current followers will see you as current and relevant.
Exciting your followers in a campaign or contest
The best way to use hashtags for most companies is a specifically created hashtag for a campaign or a contest. Create a unique, easy-to-remember hashtag for your campaign, and promote it—you could tie it to a specific in-person event, a promotional offer, or a contest that enters hashtag users into a pool for consideration. Your users will be prompted to use that hashtag in their tweets, which will extend your visibility, give insight into how people react to your messaging, and give you a chance to get your topic “trending” (thereby greatly increasing your social traffic). You could also assign a hashtag to a specific product or service you offer for a similar, but more long-term goal.
Hashtags can also be used for market research. If you’re interested in specific users with an interest in marketing, for example, you can search for “#marketing” to see what types of people tweet about marketing. Depending on what specific hashtags you search for, you could learn more about your target audience or learn more about your competition.
Several “social listening tools” exist to help you track hashtag usage and monitor any changes in its popularity, such as Hootsuite or Sprout Social. Put these tools to good use if you intend to use any of the strategies above.
It’s unwise to start blindly using hashtags, however. Using hashtags incorrectly or failing to proactively strategize can actually alienate your followers rather than entice them. When you start using hashtags, be careful to avoid these common mistakes:
Cramming all your posts full of hashtags is a surefire way to annoy your users. Hashtags are primarily a way of organizing relevant posts, but when users access their news feeds, they want to see content. If a post contains six words and nine hashtags, they may be turned off. Similarly, if all of your posts contain hashtags, you’ll be seen as overusing or failing to understand them. Use hashtags only when relevant, and in moderation.
When creating hashtags, be very careful to create something that cannot be mistaken for something else. Since interconnected words in a hashtag run together, hashtags are vulnerable to multiple interpretations. For example, take Susan Boyle’s #SusanAlbumParty travesty. It looks innocent enough, but if written in all lowercase (#susanalbumparty), it becomes the subject of ridicule and an embarrassment for the people who created it.
Twitter users can be exceptionally snarky, so if you create a hashtag or use one improperly, you could be the subject of significant negative attention. For example, when NYPD tried to use the #myNYPD tag to encourage users to post photos of themselves with officers, Twitter users instead tweeted pictures of police brutality. Careful research and regular monitoring can mitigate the risk of negative blowback.
Hashtags aren’t a magic route to more inbound traffic, nor are they appropriate for every social media campaign. However, when properly researched and executed, hashtags can be a useful tool in your social media arsenal. The key is to understand the different applications for hashtags, use them precisely rather than blindly, and follow up by monitoring your progress and adjusting your campaign accordingly.