After 9 years of teaching entrepreneurs to use social media to grow their businesses, I can honestly say the thing I am asked most is “What is a hashtag?”
People who are new to Twitter or Instagram look at the seemingly complex combination of characters, abbreviations and words and feel like it’s a completely new language they must learn.
The good news is hashtags are actually quite simple.
What is the Purpose of Hashtags?
The very first hashtag was tweeted by Chris Messina in 2007 and it was a simple question about a way to help aggregate conversations in Twitter. Messina created a revolution–a whole new way of interacting on Twitter (and later other networks).
In extremely simplistic terms, the main purpose of a #hashtag is to group together people and conversations so you can easily find and follow them.The main purpose of a #hashtag is to group together people and conversations so you can easily find and follow them.Click To Tweet
It’s important to understand hashtags are first and foremost a search tool. Anywhere you see a hashtag, be it on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, clicking on it will bring you to a list of more posts containing that hashtag. It’s a way of ensuring your post is included when people are searching for others speaking about a particular topic.
Think of hashtags as a way of bringing people to you and the strategy of how to use them becomes much easier.
Hashtags Just for Fun
#AddAWordRuinAFilm was a fun hashtag game that invaded the Twitterverse recently. It gives you a chance to either be creative yourself and add to the conversation, or to simply read through the creativity of others and have a good laugh. Here are some other fun examples of this:
Hashtags to Express Emotions
Many people make up their own #hashtags simply to express an emotion. I’ve been known to tweet #GonnaThrowUp to indicate being sick. I’ve been asked why Tweeps do this? Why not just say “I feel like I’m going to throw up”? Part of it is saving space. My #GonnaThrowUp hashtag takes up a whole lot less space in my 280 character limit. So, I can easily tag it onto another sentence like “Watching teen heartthrob make girls scream on TV. #GonnaThrowUp” and it has a whole different meaning than what you expected. Hashtags are often used to indicate sarcasm, irony or an attempt at comedy.
Hashtags to Track Contest Entries
Many companies are offering prizes via Twitter to those who retweet a specific message or #hashtag. You could win everything from #cash to an #iPad for playing along. Follow your favourite companies on Twitter and Instagram and watch for their hashtag contests. Lots of local influencers run contests as part of their contracts, too.
Hashtags for Events
Many social media savvy events and speakers now encourage participants to “live-tweet” from their chair during a speech. Some go even further (too far if you ask me) by showing, in real time, the tweets on a screen behind the speaker! All it takes is a simple request from the speaker or the organizers to use #SMDH20. It allows the organizers or speakers to search later for comments and to see what really grabbed people’s attention.
For a small business the main takeaway here is that it makes tracking conversations on Twitter easier. Why not start your own #hashtag for a product you carry and see how it grows? Or try searching for some topics or brands of interest to you and see what #hashtags are being used in those conversations and jump in! If you’re really bold you can join the live tweeting conversation while attending a big event!
- During a Canadian federal election #elxn20 could be a common hashtag for an election happening this year. Adding #elxn20 to your tweet allows others interested in the discussion around the election to find you. By the same token, people who were following you, but not necessarily the election would know that what you just tweeted needed to be taken into the context of the election chatter.
- #SMDH20 is being used by people promoting and attending Social Media Day Halifax in 2020.
Hashtags for Trending Topics
Trending topics and breaking news events often develop one or more hashtags you can follow to keep up with the conversation. Because these types of events aren’t controlled by any one group, you may see multiple related hashtags circulating at the time. It’s important to check them all out to see if the conversation is the same or different. Sometimes different sides/factions develop their own hashtags, so it’s important to be sure you align with the ones you choose to use. #Covid19 and #Coronavirus are both currently being used by organizations and people to spread information about the virus. Click on those conversations on Twitter and you’ll find all kinds of information you may not be seeing elsewhere.
Hashtags for Locations
It’s very common to use hashtags to indicate the location of the information you’re sharing. You could start with the venue of an event, such as #CunardCentre or #RogersStadium. Then you can look at the city you’re in or talking about. Here in Halifax, we might you #Halifax, #HalifaxNS, #NS, #NovaScotia, or perhaps even #YHZ our airport code. You can broaden this to our region, #AtlanticCanada, #Maritimes, #EastCoast, #RightCoast. And even further you could expand to #Canada #Canadian #CanadianContent #OCanada.
There is a lot of flexibility in which location tags you might use, depending on the geographic area you might want to reach. Remember, this is about people who might be looking at the #OCanada stream of tweets finding you… you’re not specifically sending this tweet out to anyone.
Exclusive Hashtags for Instagram
There is a whole roster of hashtags that can only be used on Instagram. It’s not that they wouldn’t technically work on Twitter or Pinterest, but they don’t make sense for those platforms. Take the example of cat lovers. You could use any of the following on Instagram, but they shouldn’t appear elsewhere: #InstaCat, #CatsOfInstagram, #Catstagram, #CatsOfIG, #I❤️Cats. Because they all mention Instagram, they should only be used there. Keep in mind, hashtags are about being part of a conversation. If you want to attract cat lovers, these would be great hashtags to use, but if you’re trying to find business owners, maybe not.
Hashtags for your Industry
Similar to hashtags for topics, there may be specific hashtags for your industry. For example, because #SocialMedia has been so abused by spammers, the social media marketing industry has adopted #SMM instead. Instead of typing #CustomerService, many conversations in that industry will instead use #CustServ. The best way to find those hashtags for your industry is to look at other accounts and see what they’re using.
Things to Know About Hashtags
- Generally, nobody owns a hashtag and anyone can use any hashtag. There are some exceptions where hashtags have been trademarked by large corporations. Most notably the Superbowl and the Olympics have trademarked hashtags that are enforced and you could potentially have issues using them in your own promotions.
- It doesn’t matter if they’re written with capital letters or all in lower case. Often you’ll see them written in “camel case” with capital letters at the beginning of each word. There is no functional difference between #funeralhomeslogans and #FuneralHomeSlogans, but the latter, in camel case, is much easier to read.
- You cannot put spaces, periods or dashes in a hashtag, but on Instagram you can add emoji. #I❤️Cats is a great example of an emoji hashtag that’s well used, but only on Instagram.
How are you using hashtags?
Are you trying to use hashtags in your social media marketing? Did this article explain them in a way that changed how you’ll use them going forward? Is there a type of hashtag I’ve missed completely? Let me know in the comments!