It wasn’t that long ago that hashtags were still called pound signs and were primarily used for navigating voice mail, so give yourself a break if you’re still not sure how to use them. Now hashtags are here to stay, so here are a few tips to help you become a more strategic user.
Use Hashtags for Results
Hashtags have two purposes: 1) to help you find specific information (hashtag user); and 2) to get your social media message in front of people who aren’t following you yet (hashtag publisher).
The internet is generating information faster than anyone can consume it. Hashtags can be a remarkably effective way to find specific information, particularly if people use them more effectively.
Let’s start by how to use them, because if you are a proficient user of hashtags, you will become a more effective publisher of hashtags.
How to Use Hashtags
I conducted a hashtag search just this morning. I wanted to see what was going on in live music in Chicago next weekend, so I went to Twitter and searched #chicagomusic. Next I skimmed everything in #economy and #businessnews, which I do every morning. Why did I go to Twitter? Because more people use hashtags on Twitter and Instagram than on other platforms, and also because Twitter tends to be a good source for news and current events. But if I want inspiration for a dinner party menu, I would likely go to Pinterest or Instagram and enter #dessert (if I also needed the recipe, I’d stick with Pinterest). Of course, you can always go to your Google Search Bar, enter a hashtag, and use the links from there. Hashtags are a way to find information that otherwise wouldn’t appear on your newsfeed.
Of course, there’s no central directory of hashtags, so to be an effective hashtag user you need to do a bit of research. For instance, I had to do a bit of digging before I discovered that #businessnews was the right hashtag for my morning news skim. I tried #business at first, but that hashtag is one long stream of advertisements. You can also use hashtags to refine what you are looking for. The #dessert hashtag pulls up amazing images of desserts of all types, but if you’re sitting on a pound of blueberries that are about to go bad, you might want to use the hashtag #blueberries instead.
How to Use Hashtags to Increase Your Exposure
Let’s start with a few basic rules for using hashtags:
- Don’t string a bunch of words together to make a long hashtag. It may be a funny thing to do among friends on Facebook, but outside that context it’s not very useful and can be annoying to readers.
- Don’t #annoy #readers #with #hashtags. Filling a #post with #hashtags is considered #spam, and serious social media users will stop following your posts if you do this.
- Keep your hashtags relevant to your posts. If you put #mileycyrus on a post about (anything other than Miley Cyrus) just to get eyeballs, you’re wasting people’s time, which is rude and which will likely get you muted or blocked.
Start by considering what you are trying to accomplish. Visitors to your website? Social media followers? Consumer brand awareness? Build your reputation as an expert? Once you know what you want to accomplish, think about what you will post in each social media environment and which hashtags you will use to attract the attention of your target customers.
Hashtags by Social Network
People go to Twitter to skim for interesting information, and they click the links and read more when they encounter well-crafted Tweets. Twitter posts with two or three hashtags get the best response. More than that and you’ll turn off Twitter users and eat up your limited characters. You also should focus on becoming a Twitter influencer in some area. Don’t focus on anything too broad, like #designer or #fashion, because you’ll just get lost in the noise. See if there are subsets of interest that apply to you, something fairly defined like #ethicalfashion or #organictoys. Consistent use of a few specific hashtags on Twitter can elevate you to influencer status within that category.
Pinterest accepts hashtags, but not in a very sophisticated way. For instance, hashtags are only clickable in the pin description. Pins in the username, About section, board titles, or comments are just a waste of space because you can’t click on them to see other posts with the same hashtag. Hashtags are not searchable on Pinterest, at least not yet. I recommend using one or two very specific hashtags for each post. This will help your pins show up as related content when users click on the hashtags in other pins, and in the future if Pinterest makes hashtags searchable, you’ll be ready instantly.
The best way to gain new followers on Instagram is to make liberal use of hashtags. Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags per post, and it’s OK to use all 30 of them! Instagram users don’t mind a heavily hash-tagged post. If you’re a photographer who specializes in children, and you post a picture of a baby with a dog, you would use hashtags that appeal to dog-lovers, suckers for baby pictures, and parents. A great tool for discovering which hashtags to use on Instagram is TagsForLikes.
Facebook users are still wrapping their heads around how to use hashtags. The technology in Facebook for searching by hashtag is quite sophisticated, but the usage is not as finely tuned as what you will see on Twitter and Instagram. When sharing from a business page your posts are always public, but if you’re using your personal profile, your Facebook posts are probably limited to just your friends. In that case, hashtags won’t do much for you as a publisher unless you remember to set your post privacy to “public” when you’re using hashtags. If you’re searching for hashtags, you’ll only be able to see posts that were shared publicly (by business pages or public personal posts) or by people in your personal network.
Hashtag etiquette is evolving on Facebook. Hashtagging words within sentences is considered bad form. Facebook doesn’t limit your number of characters like Twitter, so be a polite writer and put your hashtags at the end of your post or comment. Like Twitter and Pinterest, fewer is better. In fact, one study showed that 1-2 hashtags on a Facebook post may increase your engagement, but posts with three or more hashtags show a measurable drop in engagement – so two is the limit! As with Twitter, identify a few hashtags that you can use consistently to establish yourself as an expert in some area.
On YouTube, hashtags are most commonly used in the comments sections, and clicking them brings you to videos with the same hashtag in their titles. The YouTube user community is fairly sophisticated about using hashtags, so make sure yours are completely relevant and useful to those using them, and keep the number of hashtags to three or less. Also, be a good citizen on YouTube. If you just put hashtags in comments on someone’s video in order to poach their audience for one of your own titles, you’ll turn YouTubers off.
The most notable exception to the hashtag experience is LinkedIn. It just doesn’t use them. It introduced hashtags in February of 2013 and eliminated them three months later. Presumably someone at LinkedIn understands why, but they aren’t sharing.
Many other social networks use hashtags. If you use other networks, pay attention to how people on that network use hashtags. When in doubt, use the guidelines suggested at the beginning of this article.
Hashtagging a Broader Experience
One of the most powerful uses of hashtags is to get customers and/or peers to hashtag with you, amplifying a message and creating a compendium of information related to one hashtag. This is particularly true for events and experiences, like trade shows, trunk shows, public relations parties, etc. For example, the jewelry industry hosts a series of events the first week of June each year. There are two major trade events and many smaller events. Event organizers would be wise to pick one – or a maximum of two – hashtags and promote the heck out of them, encouraging all participants to use those hashtags on everything they post. The benefit is threefold: 1) an encyclopedic online expression of the event, 2) a huge loyalty builder for those who chose to attend the event, because people like feeling part of something that is bigger than themselves, and 3) an enticement to those who did not attend the event to do so in the future.
Another fun thing to do with hashtags is to enlist people to use a hashtag with you, often related to a cause. Using the example of #ethicalfashion, if you know that ethical fiber and clothing manufacture is important to your customers and it is part of your brand, you can encourage your customers to use that hashtag with you. This type of shared activity adds value and interest to the relationship. It also helps you keep an eye on the types of information your customers post using that tag, which can help you make more informed business decisions.
You can also create a hashtag that is specifically associated with your brand. The trick is to choose something that is readily associated with you, but which other people would also be inclined to use. It takes a huge dose of luck to get a hashtag to trend publicly on a social network, but you can expect to build awareness of your hashtag within your smaller online community if you use it diligently over time.
When used effectively, hashtags offer an amazing way to pull information out of the chaos of the internet. From a very narrow perspective, using hashtags effectively will expand your social media audience by attracting people with similar interests. From a much broader perspective, we can make the internet imminently more searchable and applicable by using hashtags intelligently.