The Power of Nostalgia: How to Use #TBT for Marketing

By Kendall Walters


Image via National Museum of the U.S. Navy under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Twitter, Instagram, and even Facebook feeds are flooded with old photos: baby pics, family portraits, and snaps with friends made all the better by their grain, tinted colors, and blur. It must be Thursday.

Once a week, the internet engages in a form of organized collective nostalgia known as Throwback Thursday (#TBT). The wildly popular hashtag has made it’s way across the social web, touching nearly all of the major networks.

But what is #TBT and how can make your brand part of the web’s favorite weekly trend?

What is #TBT?

#TBT—sometimes referred to as #ThrowbackThursday—is a social media trend where users post old images, typically of themselves during a different period in their lives, accompanied by (you guessed it) the hashtag #TBT. The practice is, naturally, steeped in nostalgia.

Simply put: what’s old is cool again.

Where did #TBT come from?

While the hashtag #TBT is hugely popular on image-sharing social media platform Instagram, the earliest known use of the phrase online was actually on a blog in January 2006, as the title for a series of retro cartoon character art.

From there (more or less), it moved to Twitter. According to re/code, The earliest mention of the phrase “Throwback Thursday” on Twitter was a Tweet about babies, posted by a mom blogger in August 2007. The earliest use of the hashtag on the platform was posted more than a year later, in October 2008, by a woman reminiscing about a music video by Lil’ Kim.

The first #TBT post on Instagram, according to TIME, was a shot of some Hot Wheels toy cars. The photo was shared by @bobbysanders22 on February 10, 2011.

#Hotwheels #ThrowbackThursday

A photo posted by Bobby Sanders (@bobbysanders22) on

Sanders told TIME he thought the hashtag up on a whim: “I had never seen it done or said prior to that, but I didn’t think anything of it, or that it was that original honestly. My favorite sunglasses company (Knockaround) had a sunglasses line called Throwbacks, so I had that name in my head… I guess with the filter, older cars as the subject, and it being Thursday it was just something I thought would be a funny hashtag, not something that would eventually catch on to the phenomenon it’s become.”

The irresistible attraction of nostalgia—combined with the relatively simple concept and the alliterative allure of the hashtag—ensured that #TBT would soon become an internet sensation.

How do people use #TBT?

Nostalgia is typically the most critical element of a good #TBT post, but the tradition often involves an element of self-deprecation, a sort of a collective, “Can you believe I thought it was cool to wear my hair like that?” moment shared across the web.

There exist #TBT copycats (I’m looking at you #FlashbackFriday), but of the nostalgia-saturated hashtags, #TBT is by far the most popular. It is, in fact, one of the most popular hashtags on Instagram, typically ranked among the top five most used tags on the platform.

The great thing about #TBT is: anyone can do it. Really. Don’t believe me? Guess what unlikely industry has been doing a killer job of #TBT? Banking and finance.

The internet’s fascination with nostalgia

The internet—particularly those portions dominated by Gen Y and Z—loves its nostalgia. And the science behind why we like nostalgia so much is sound.

According to a piece in The New York Times, What Is Nostalgia Good For? Quite a Bit, Research Shows, nostalgia is actually good for us: “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

The happy feelings caused by nostalgia can literally warm you up. How about that?

Constantine Sedikides, an expert in the field of nostalgia and psychology, says that people should experience nostalgia as a “prized possession.” He summed up the appeal (using a wonderfully nostalgic reference): “When Humphrey Bogart says, ‘We’ll always have Paris,’ that’s nostalgia for you. We have it, and nobody can take it away from us.”

So nostalgia is good, but what makes it good for marketing? We explore why marketers might want to pay attention to nostalgia in our blog post Why Nostalgia is an Effective Marketing Strategy, Explained by Science.

What are the rules of #TBT?

#TBT is such an internet phenomenon to have developed its own etiquette. It’s quite simple, or complicated, depending on who you ask.

  1. Photos must be shared on Thursday. This one is kind of a no brainer, but it is a crucial element of #TBT success. Many social media users regard hashtags like #FlashbackFriday (or its less-popular cousin #WaybackWednesday) with something akin to disdain. Let’s be honest here, we all know #FlashbackFriday only exists because of people who forgot to participate in #TBT (with a touch of #FOMO thrown in for good measure). Steven Petrow summed it up rather well in his USA Today piece Navigating the rules of ‘Throwback Thursday: “#TBT are for Thursdays. Not Fridays. Not Wednesdays. Got that?”
  2. It should include the hashtag #TBT, #ThrowbackThursday, or both. This is pretty much Hashtag 101, but it’s important to note that your image won’t show up in #TBT searches if you forget to tag it.
  3. It has to be old. This may seem like common sense, but some users will simply post a photo from a couple of weeks ago that they forgot to put up at the time and tag it #TBT. The backlash to this is typically swift and often harsh. A true #TBT post throws back to a noticeably different period. For an individual, it should depict a point in their life when they look obviously different (childhood photos are among the most popular). For an object or place, it needs to harken back to a different time (think decades rather than mere years). E!’s Official Guide to Throwback Thursday: How to Make Your Old School Pictures Count proposes a good rule of thumb to help you weed out weak potential #TBTs: “The best throwback photos are the ones that were taken before the Internet was a thing.”
  4. Stick to one per week. This is less of a hard and fast rule—use your judgement—but the common wisdom of the internet suggest that it’s best, for ultimate impact, to keep it to one nostalgia-inducing snap each week.

In HubSpot’s Ultimate Guide to Throwback Thursday: How to Use #TBT in Your Marketing, Laura Fitton suggests that marketers choose “P.R.A.I.S.E.worthy” photos for their brand-centric throwbacks. The acronym stands for: Past, Relevant (or Relatable), Appealing, Interesting, Shareable, and Exciting—all great things to keep in mind when choosing a throwback image.

How can your brand take advantage of #TBT?

Now that you’re up to speed on what #TBT’s all about, it’s time to integrate it into your social media marketing strategy.

But how?

If your brand has a history, great: share it! If your brand is a tad newer, with a bit less history to its name, that’s okay. Approach your #TBT efforts as an exercise in creative thinking.

Need a little help figuring out what to share? Try breaking your business down into pieces and think about archival material that could be associated with each.

1. Location

Your business’ physical location can be a great place to start when you’re thinking of old photos, as archives tend to be full of architectural photographs. Throwback Thursday photos of your location could feature blueprints, construction snaps, a photo of the newly completed building, or (if it’s been standing for quite a while) a shot of the building from some other point in its history. You could also think about your location more broadly as the city, town, region, or country that your business is located in—a step that widens the pool of available content significantly.

2. Employees

Business doesn’t happen without your employees, so have a little fun sharing some behind-the-scenes shots, with a retro twist. This could be fun snaps of employees at work, old photos of some of your business’ original employees, or shots of the company founder.

3. Customers

Your customers are what it’s all about, so celebrate them with a throwback to the customers of yesteryear. This could be shots of your customers interacting with your brand, such as visiting your business location or using your product (think user generated content, but old school). Bonus points if you can find shots of customers from back in the day who are still loyal to your business, product, or service.

4. Product

This one is pretty self-explanatory, but don’t be afraid to think outside the box, particularly if your product is a little too new for there to be “old” photos of it. If that’s the case, think about what came before your product. Do you make apps for smartphones? Search the archives for quirky old photos of people using vintage phones (like the ones with rotary dials). Pair it with a fun quip about technology or a great pun and you’re golden.

5. Ads

Advertising materials—particularly vintage ones—can be fascinating products of their time, often delightfully kitschy. Ad-focused throwbacks could be printed (or even video) ad materials such as old posters, magazine ads, business cards, original product packaging, tv or radio ads, etc. The list goes on and on!

6. Events

Think about upcoming events connected to your business (perhaps they’re industry events, or maybe they happen in the city where your business operates) that have a history (an annual parade, for example), then check out the archives to see if there’s a shot of that event from back in the day. Or try digging through the relevant archives for a specific date and create an #OnThisDay or #ThisDayInHistory-style #TBT (for example: #OnThisDay in X year, X thing happened). Just don’t forget to add your #TBT hashtag as well!


Bonus points if you can pair your #TBT image with a fun (and relevant) fact about your business! If you’re having trouble choosing a photo (lucky you if you have so many options!), try thinking about important firsts for your business and throwing back to one of those.

How do you get started?

Does your company have storied history and an archive (of sorts) of its own? Perfect, start there.

If not, museums and archives are the way to go. Many have digitized their collections and made them available online in an easily searchable format.

And on another note, whether your business is new or old, start collecting photos, ads, and related materials now—it’s never too early to prepare for whatever nostalgia marketing we might be doing in the future!

Ready to get started? Find your photos and schedule your #TBT posts in Hootsuite.

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