You’ve seen them everywhere, right? The # symbol followed by a string of words that are sometimes obvious, sometimes don’t make sense. Why is everyone talking about hashtags?

Across social media, hashtags help categorise and organise information and posts. By using the #, any words that follow the symbol become a clickable, searchable link.  If you click on the hashtag within most social media platforms, you see all of the posts with the same hashtag, in real time.

Hashtags first became popular on Twitter, but are now used across most social media platforms with varying usage, relevance and success. Instagram and Twitter users are prolific hashtaggers. On Facebook hashtags are less popular and are impacted by privacy settings.  On Pinterest they only work in the pin descriptions, and the search also pulls in pins using the phrase, but not necessarily a hashtag.

So, first, let’s look at WHY we should use hashtags?

Put simply, hashtags have the potential to put your content in front of a wider audience – including people who don’t follow you on social media.  Whether they see the hashtag in a post and click on it, or search the keywords and stumble across the hashtag, they are then served with all of the posts containing that hashtag – including yours!

And while that’s the benefit in its most basic form, there are 5 strong reasons to start using hashtags within your social media activity.

1. RESEARCH AND DISCOVERY

Before you focus on the reach and audience you can get with hashtags, practise first by investigating them yourself.  Hashtags can be a fantastic research tool whether you’re looking for:

  • product or service providers
  • content to share with your audience
  • opinions and reactions of people to certain topics
  • people or influencers to follow.

So if you’re looking for a new mobile provider, and can’t decide, try searching #optus and #telstra and see the comments made.  If you’re interested in a new product release, find the most used hashtag and give it a whirl e.g. #macbook.  You’ll probably come across media and blog articles, reviews and opinions. 

If you’re visiting a new city, or even in your own city, and are not sure where to eat, search hashtags like #sydneyeats or #brisbanefoodie and see what you find.

Want to share great, relevant content with your audience? (You should!!) Search relevant keywords. So a gardening centre can search #gardeningtips or #gardeningideas or #greenthumb for a great range of posts.

Using hashtags for content #gardeningtips

Or a broad hashtag like #businesstips or #inspiration can give you … well … inspiration for content that people love.

Want to know what people think about the state of Australian politics? (Really? OK then.)  Search the #auspol hashtag and you’ll find individual posts and links to stories that give you a fair indication.

If you want to find people to follow or influencers, follow the most popular hashtags within your industry and pay attention to the people who attract a lot of likes, shares or retweets.  Go into their profiles and see the size of their audiences – and the quality of their posts. You might just want to follow them to gain information or build a relationship.  It’s also worth paying attention to the hashtags they use in their posts.  If they’ve built up a decent sized audience, it’s a fair assumption that they probably have their finger on the pulse as to which hashtags are worth using.

Handy Tip:  In Twitter you can save your searches so you don’t have to go through the process of typing in the search each time.  After you have searched the hashtag, at the top right hand corner you are given the option to Save.  You can then see your Saved Searches when you click in the Search field.

2. BUILD YOUR AUDIENCE

By using hashtags you can find relevant, interesting people to follow – who may just follow you back! Plus the use of hashtags makes your content discoverable to a wider range of people.  If they notice you frequently within that hashtag feed – and you are providing valuable, relevant content, you can attract them to your following.

It’s also a great way for local businesses to put yourself in front of local audiences.  A Brisbane restaurant can use hashtags like #brisbanefoodie, #brisbanedining or #brisbaneburgers and people searching or following those hashtags will come across their profile. A Melbourne beauty salon might tag #melbournebeauty.  Any locals (or visitors) searching those topics can come across your posts.

Brisbane Restaurant Hashtags

Make sure you only use hashtags that are relevant to your post.  While using generic tags like #love or #besties might push your content into very popular feeds, if it’s not related to your post or your product you will be seen as a spammer.

3. BUILD A COMMUNITY OR MOVEMENT

If you create a unique hashtag around an idea, activity or movement, you can build a strong community following. A fantastic example is Fat Mum Slim’s #fmsphotoaday.

Chantelle created a daily challenge where she releases a daily prompt, and people take a photo inspired by that prompt and share it online (Instagram and Facebook being the most popular) with the hashtag #fmsphotoaday. Over 20 million photos have been shared (the Instagram feed ALONE has over 5.25 million posts). 

The challenge (and accompany hashtag) has spawned a Facebook group with over 21,000 members, and an IOS App that flew to the top of the iTunes App store on release. It has also helped Chantelle grow her audience even further, and has had celebs like Pink and Danni Minogue join in the fun. Imagine the interest that would come from someone like Pink sharing your hashtag (with her 12 million followers – well, before she deleted her account in protest of Instagram’s terms, but that’s another story).

Now, of course, the secret to #fmsphotoaday is not just the hashtag. It’s a great concept that appeals to a lot of people, inspires creativity, is visually appealing and easy to participate in.  But the hashtag takes all of those vital qualities to the next level by creating an identifier, curating the results and making it EASY for people to be a part of something. (And we all know that one of the secrets of good marketing is making people feel like they are part of something).

Building A Community With Hashtags

Another example is Styling You’s #everydaystyle.  A couple of years ago, after readers asked Nikki to show them what she wore every day rather than just for big events, she decided to post a photo every day for a week, and gave it the hashtag #everydaystyle. After the success of that week, her posts (and the hashtag) continued, and now has a lot of people joining in to share their own fashion inspiration – over 32 000 posts on Instagram.  Nikki says she now realises she should have included her brand in some way – perhaps #syeverydaystyle – but it’s printed in her book, she laughs, so it’s staying as it is.

Handy tip:  If you are aiming to create a hashtag for a promotion or activity, try and incorporate your branding in a subtle way, rather than using generic words.  That way the hashtag is more likely to remain  unique to your own activity.

4. CURATE USER-GENERATED CONTENT

Following on from the examples above, having your own unique, community-based hashtag helps you curate content from your audience onto your own online properties.  Simple widgets can create a feed from your hashtag to display on your website or Facebook page.   This lets you share your audience’s content, creating a greater sense of community and building momentum.

Black Milk Clothing creates a hashtag for each of their products – which with their passionate, selfie-taking audience, has led to a huge amount of user-generated content on their website.  Each product page on their online shop shows the product on a model, and then real people wearing them in real life.

BlackMilkClothingProductPage

5. CREATE COMPETITIONS / PROMOTIONS / CAMPAIGNS

Using hashtags for social media competitions and promotions can make it easy for you to organise all entries and find your winner.  On Instagram, a commonly used competition entry is to tag the brand and use a specific hashtag.  In a recent example, clothing company Bohemian Traders held a competition where people could win a full outfit. To enter they had to like the photo, tag @bohemian.traders and use the hashtag #bohemiantradersgiveaway.  The hashtag has almost 2.5K posts.

Retailer Forever New also held a similar competition.

Hashtag Giveaways

And many manufacturers and big brands use individual hashtags for each of their products to differentiate and make it easier for their audience to search information about specific products.

6. EVENT PROMOTION

Events are where hashtags really come into their own.  Select a specific, easy to remember hashtag and you (and your customers) can use it to promote in the lead-up to the event, to share key learnings / insights / experiences from the event, and to share follow-up information as well.

Problogger uses the hashtag #pbevent when talking about any of their events, whether it be the annual conference or smaller regional events.  And because their audience is bloggers – and therefore avid social media users and hashtag lovers – the hashtag is inundated with tweets and pics whenever there is an event.

It’s a great way to let attendees feel like they’re part of something (there it is again) but also to allow people who couldn’t make it to still have some insight into the event – which can help with the next year’s sales.

So next time you have an event, think about creating a hashtag to help your audience be your advocates.

Handy Tip: If you are going to create an event hashtag, start promoting it on the event website and social media (and your own) as well as during the ticketing process.  Your attendees can use the hashtag from the start, which can generate buzz, encourage a community feeling and spread awareness of the event throughout their own networks.  And display the hashtag wherever you can at the event – on nametags, on menu cards, on placecards or on every slide of the presentation. Don’t mention it once and rely on people’s memories. If they keep seeing it, they’re more inclined to use it.

HOW TO USE HASHTAGS

First: Observe!

Pay attention to the way people are using hashtags.  Also pay attention to what annoys you (as a user) and what inspires you.

Then start to play around with hashtags that are relevant to your industry, your products or brand.

The Basics

  • Use the # symbol in front of keywords or phrases (eg #smallbusiness). Hashtags have no spaces, and no punctuation marks or special characters.  Once you have typed the hashtag, it should turn into a link automatically.
  • Use the hashtags you have identified as relevant or popular for your industry or audience.
  • Side note: As well as the more official, use of hashtags, many people use them to demonstrate personality or humour – putting the punchline or quips as hashtags.  Stealing an example from Zoe-Foster Blake @zotheysay …

Zoe Foster Blake hashtagsIf you click on these hashtags they’re not a detailed search – they may be the only tweet with this hashtag.

  • You can use multiple hashtags, but don’t overdo it, or you’ll be seen as spammy.  On Twitter, of course, you are restricted by the 140 characters, so one (maybe 2) hashtags is best. On Instagram you can use heaps (apparently up to 30) but try and keep it to 3-5 hashtags.  Some Instagram experts suggest putting the hashtags in the comments rather than in the post description so you don’t clutter up your message.
  • Always remember that if you use a hashtag on a public account, anyone searching that hashtag can see the content.
  • You create a new hashtag simply by typing it into your post. It becomes searchable immediately – even if you are the only person using it.  (But see below about checking, double-checking and getting someone else to check any new hashtags).

Be Aware, Hashtaggers

There are some things to consider before you criss-cross into the world of hashtags.

Firstly, don’t give into the temptation to use a popular, generic hashtag just to gain eyeballs – especially if it’s not at all relevant to your post.  So tagging #love or #besties on a post that is product-based can be seen as spammy and annoying.

And don’t hijack hashtags purely to sell.  When researching this blog post I came across an annoying post from someone trying to push free followers. (Firstly, look how they have 13000 followers with only 41 posts and not following anyone. Screams spammer).

Take a close look at the hashtags they have used – all popular, no doubt, but not in any way relevant. Do you really think someone from that community – particularly and engaged community like Fat Mum Slim’s – is going to appreciate this and become a follower and fan?  Highly unlikely.

Hashtag Spam

Next, always check what other people are saying on a hashtag before you use it.  It might seem innocent to you, but if it’s being used for other more sinister purposes, you might tarnish your brand.

Pay close attention to how your hashtag reads once all the words are clumped together.  A classic example of the danger of ignoring this step was back in 2012 when Susan Boyle’s promotional team were aiming to promote her album party – and tweeted with the hashtag #susanalbumparty. (Which, instead of reading Susan Album Party, many saw as Sus Anal Bum Party).  They realised their mistake quickly, but not before some Twitter users had seen it and it was shared like crazy.  So like I said before, check, double-check, then get someone else to check for you.

And also, for the love of all things holy, before you start a promotional campaign using hashtags, take a good look at customer sentiment towards your business and brand, and have a good hard think about ways it might go wrong.

From the “learn from their mistakes” file, a spectacular hashtag #fail (see what I did there) was Qantas’ #qantasluxury Twitter competition in 2011.  The company invited their followers to tweet their “dream luxury inflight experience” to win a pair of Qantas pyjamas, using the hashtag #qantasluxury.  Unfortunately, this was around the time when their planes had been grounded due to industrial action and they had thousands of dissatisfied customers.  The hashtag was hijacked with a steady stream of irate and sarcastic tweets such as “Getting from A to B without the plane being grounded or an engine catching fire” #qantasluxury” (@colvinius)  or “Qantas introduce #QantasLuxury class. Same as standard class, but the planes leave the ground.” (@puppyontheradio).

In a similar vein (and only a few months later), McDonalds created the #McDstories campaign.  Their intention? Inspire fans to share their happy McDonald’s memories and stories. The result? Thousands of tweets of horror stories. McDonald’s haters grabbed hold and ran with tweets like:

“Ate a McFish and vomited 1 hour later…The last time I got Mcdonalds was seriously 18 years ago in college … #McDstories @rsyp

So research and understand consumer sentiment, and think about the worst things people might say in relation to your hashtag – then decide if it’s worth it.

So have some fun, get involved, and see how hashtags can enhance your social media activity.