The Do’s and Don’ts of How to Use Hashtags

By Evan LePage

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Hashtags are such a prominent part of tech 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 earlier this year (#standards). 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, Vine 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.

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. To use an example from Instagram’s own tips for using hashtags, if you’re after Volkswagen lovers the hashtag #vwvan will earn you a lot more of your desired followers than #van will. Twitter has created a helpful infographic to help you choose the right hashtag.

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. In terms of use, Instagram hashtags, for example, are often more focused on description of the photo and the tools used to take it than on a broader story or theme. 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 is Twitter’s). 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. Herschel Supply Co. offers a prime example of what this means. The bag and accessories brand created a hashtag called #welltravelled, which they used to share beautiful travel photos featuring their products taken by their employees and followers. Seeing photos from regular people on the official Herschel account quickly prompted more of their followers to embrace the hashtag and share their own Herschel photos. As such, the company has created a growing movement that supplies them with fantastic, follower-generated content to use on their social accounts.

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 “#NewYorkCronutLovers” 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 (#CroNYts?) 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 #NYcronuts.

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 5 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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