Hashtags are such a prominent part of culture today that it’s rare to find anyone who doesn’t know what they are. In fact, the hashtag is so recognized that it was added to the Oxford dictionary in 2010, and the Scrabble Dictionary in 2014 (#official). Yet even as most people have come to know what they are, many people still don’t understand how to use hashtags.
Hashtags, once your phone’s pound sign, now have a place on most popular social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, and Pinterest. The hashtag is likely the most popular means of categorizing content on social media. It makes your own content discoverable and allows you to find relevant content from other people and businesses. The hashtag also allows you to connect with and engage other social media users based on a common theme or interest.
Knowing how to use hashtags is fundamental to your success on social media. Here are a few best practices to help you achieve that success.
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How to Use Hashtags (DO!)
Do be specific when using hashtags
Try and hone in on a passionate community that shares an interest in one specific theme. The more specific you can get with your hashtag, the more targeted your audience will be—and a targeted audience generally means better engagement. If you don’t have your own business hashtag, find one or two existing ones that really fit the photo.
Say, for example, your business sells baby products. Instead of using #parents—resulting in parents of children of all ages—opt for #newmom. The hashtag #newmom is specific to mothers of newborns—your target customer.
Do cater hashtags to the social network you’re using
While hashtags on all social networks have the same fundamental purpose of content tagging and discovery, the use of hashtags still varies by network.
As we explain in our post, The Complete Instagram Hashtag Guide for Business, hashtags on the photo- and video-sharing platform are often more focused on description of the content. This is at odds with Twitter, where hashtags tend to be more focused a topic of conversation, or a group of people (a chat for example) that you would like to engage.
Before using hashtags, do research on the proper way to use them for that particular network. Most networks will have guides for hashtag selection and use (here’s Twitter’s, and again, our own for Instagram).
Also take the time to discover the most popular and most relevant hashtags on a specific subject for each network. This extra time you invest will pay off in engagement down the road.
Do come up with relevant, unbranded hashtags
Brand hashtags don’t have to (read: shouldn’t) mention your brand name, but should represent your brand and what you stand for.
Destination British Columbia created the hashtag #exploreBC. The tourism company uses it to share scenic photos of the Canadian province taken by their employees and the community.
Seeing photos from regular people on the official Destination British Columbia account quickly prompted more of their followers to embrace the hashtag and share their own photos. As such, the company has created a growing movement that supplies them with fantastic, follower-generated content to use on their social accounts.
Brand hashtags are also great for user-generated content campaigns and contests.
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Lay’s Potato Chips used them for their “Do Us A Flavor” contest, which encourage people to pitch their best potato chip flavor ideas. With the goal to engage users and collect ideas, Lay’s launched a brand hashtag campaign using #DoUsAFlavor.
— LAY’S (@LAYS) March 6, 2017
Contest submissions have been shared over social media and featured on the contest website. Some people got very creative.
— Jack Delehanty (@JackDDelehanty) March 6, 2017
Not only does a brand hashtag drive participation and engagement, it will also organize all the posts that are tagged with it on a hashtag page. This is helpful if you’re using the hashtag to collect entries for a promotion or contest, as Lay’s was with the #DoUsAFlavor campaign.
Brand hashtags are also a great way to raise awareness for campaign and initiatives.
California’s Concordia University Irvine (CUI) used the tactic in the midst of an accreditation review from The Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), a non-profit that evaluates the quality and effectiveness of schools and postsecondary institutions. The school needed to maintain the accreditation to be eligible for financial aid and the ability to accept transfer units from other accredited schools.
With the goal to engage and educate the campus on the importance of the WASC accreditation, CUI launched a brand hashtag campaign using #askWASC. For 11 weeks the school posted questions to their social channels—primarily Twitter and Instagram—and students used the hashtag to submit their answers as well as suggestions for campus improvements.
The responses CUI received on social media allowed the school to identify strengths and weakness across campus, which were addressed in real-time. When students met with the WASC committee, CUI wasn’t caught off-guard by anything that was shared. In fact, the committee noted how impressed they were on how educated the campus was about the WASC accreditation and it’s importance.
The awareness and engagement efforts were a success, and in the end, CUI was awarded a 10-year accreditation.
How not to Use Hashtags (Don’t.)
Don’t go too long or too clever
In general, if you’re creating a branded hashtag you should try to keep it short and sweet. Even though “#AvocadoToastLovers” might target a very specific audience, no one will use the hashtag because they just don’t want to type in that many characters.
You also don’t want to try and be too clever or offbeat (#avocadotoasterstrudel) since you want people to naturally search for your tag. Hashtags are supposed to make things easier to find and engage with, but long, complicated hashtags can actually be more arduous. In this case, you’re better off with something like #avocadotoast or even, #avotoast.
Don’t have more hashtags than words
In fact, don’t even come close. Social media users often used an excessive amount of hashtags ironically or when making a joke.
But many Instagram users have also caught onto the fact that more hashtags can mean more reach and likes. So, they’ve overloaded their photos with as many hashtags as they’re allowed—which is reportedly 30. You don’t want to use 30 hashtags on a single post. You don’t even want to use five hashtags on a single post. Even if you gain followers, it’s often the wrong kind of follower—spammers or people only interested in being followed back. It generally dilutes your message and comes off as desperate. Focus instead on being specific, which we already explained above.
Don’t hashtag everything
Hashtags serve to make your content discoverable to a wide audience. The truth is, not everything you produce is going to fit into that category. If your tweet, post, or comment isn’t adding any substance to the wider conversation, you might want to consider leaving the hashtag off. For example, if a news story breaks and you simply share the news, leave the hashtag off of it. If you write a blog post that analyzes the impact of that news, then absolutely use a hashtag when you share it.
Using hashtags will allow you to make an impression on a wide social media audience. Make sure you’re sharing the best content, and making the right impression.
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This is an updated version of a post originally published in June 2015. It has been updated by Kaylynn Chong.