Every time I run a Twitter training course, I wonder how long it will be before someone asks the hashtag question.
It usually arrives in the first 30 minutes: “So how do those hashtag things actually work?”
That one question opens the door to a flurry of others around the hashtag subject. So here are some answers, which I hope you will find useful.
What is a hashtag?
A hashtag is a string of characters prefixed with the # symbol. The characters might be:
- A word: #Dorset
- A phrase: #2minutebeachclean
- An event: #seafoodfestival
- An abbreviation: #smdublin2016 (used for a social media conference in Dublin, early 2016)
When it’s used on a social media network, such as Twitter, a hashtag becomes a clickable link. So if you see a tweet with the hashtag #sunset and click on the hashtag, you’re shown other tweets and pictures that also contain the hashtag #sunset.
The tweets you’re shown can come from anywhere in the world and the hashtag #sunset could be used in varying contexts. The only thing these tweets have in common is the #sunset hashtag. So you can see the hashtag is simply a way of grouping messages together, based on that specific piece of information.
Hashtags originated on Twitter and have been adopted by other networks including Facebook, Google+ and Instagram.
Note that there are no spaces in a hashtag. For a hashtag to work, it must be an unbroken string of characters. So #partyinthepark works and ‘#party in the park’ does not. You can use underscores as characters, so #party_in_the_park would work (although that’s quite long for a hashtag).
What’s the point of a hashtag?
The power of the hashtag lies in its ability to connect messages on a common subject and thereby connect people with common interests. When you click on a hashtag, you see posts from others talking about the same subject. This can help you make new connections and grow your network of contacts. Or allow you to join in online conversations.
Media organisations and others use hashtags to track messages relating to specific events. When a major news story breaks, people start talking about it on social media and begin using hashtags, which helps others to follow or comment on what’s going on.
Brands use hashtags to stimulate conversations, often asking people to use a specific hashtag in order to be entered into a competition.
Another way to think of a hashtag is as a way of creating an interest group or an online community. Some come and go quickly; others stay around for a long time. Every week, at around 7.30pm on a Monday, lots of people in Dorset start tweeting using the hashtag #dorsethour. They gather for an hour of online chat or networking, using the #dorsethour hashtag to connect them.
Instagram posts typically use lots of hashtags, such as the one below.
Who sets up a hashtag?
You create a hashtag simply by putting the # symbol in front of a word, phrase or abbreviation. No one ‘owns’ or controls a hashtag, although the usual rules around trademarks still apply.
Should I use a hashtag for my business?
In my training classes, the hashtag discussion often prompts someone to suggest using their business name as a hashtag in all their posts. Such as #gerbilcomputers (that’s a made-up name, by the way).
I don’t recommend this for small businesses because who else, other than you, is likely to use that hashtag? When people talk about you on social media, you want them to mention your account name, as that increases the chances of getting more followers and mentions.
The tweet: “I bought a great new laptop today from @gerbilcomputers” would be more effective than: “I bought a great new laptop today from #gerbilcomputers.” Why? Because if someone clicks on @gerbilcomputers they're taken to the Twitter account for that business and could choose to follow it. If they click on #gerbilcomputers they'll see other tweets using that hashtag, if there are any, which is unlikely given that it's not a major brand.
However, brand hashtags do work, where an organisation already has an established presence in their market.
How should my business use hashtags?
There are lots of ways that hashtags can benefit your business. These include:
- Following or joining in discussions relevant to your area or industry. For example, as mentioned above, every week, between 7.30pm and 8.30pm, small businesses in Dorset hold a virtual networking session on Twitter, using the hashtag #dorsethour.
There are lots of similar virtual gatherings using hashtags including #yorkshirehour, #weddinghour, and #charityhour. These can be a great way of making new contacts or hearing the latest news in your area or business sector.
- Listen in on an industry event without being there. Most conference or event organisers now promote a preferred hashtag for people to use when talking about the event.
The hashtag I used above, #smdublin2016, was for a conference about social media. By looking at the tweets using that hashtag, I can see comments from people who were there or others interested in the conference. This can help me to join in conversations on subjects of interest to me and also find new people who it could be useful to follow.
- Using hashtags to promote a specific campaign. It might be a sale, a promotion of a specific product or a focus on a specific issue. Choose a hashtag that you plan to use in every message relating to the campaign and watch how it gets retweeted or reused by others.
One of the hashtags regularly employed by Sainsbury’s in the last few months is #LittleTwists. It’s appeared in lots of tweets offering a new take on recipes. Lots of their customers have picked up on it and use the hashtag in their own tweets.
Hashtags can be a great way of tracking the spread of your message across social media channels.
- Take advantage of trending hashtags
If you take a look at what’s trending on social media, you’ll spot a variety of hashtags. For example, as I write this, the top Twitter trends for the UK are #Illneverbetooldto and #LondonTomorrow.
Resist the temptation to use the top trending hashtags in your social posts in the hope of getting noticed. That is, unless those hashtags relate directly to the message you want to put out.
For example, hashtags relating to major sporting events will be in the top ten trends and these may fit easily into your social posts.
Did you know that on Twitter you can choose to view trends at a global, national or even regional level? Just click on ‘Change’ where the trends are displayed.
What are the risks of using hashtags?
This question is rarely asked in my social media training sessions, but it should still be addressed.
Sometimes hashtag campaigns backfire. This is typically a problem for larger brands, as McDonald’s discovered in 2012. They launched a #McDstories hashtag, as a marketing campaign talking about the people who produce their products. Unfortunately, lots of dissatisfied customers began sharing their own, less positive, #McDstories. Within two hours they had stopped using it, but they couldn’t kill the hashtag. It’s still being used today.
Hashtags can be hijacked deliberately or accidentally. While Sainsbury’s are making good use of the #LittleTwists hashtag as I write this article, they can’t prevent other people using it for entirely different purposes.
Conflicting uses of a hashtag are hard to avoid. When choosing a hashtag for a campaign or event, check who else may already be using it, to reduce the risk of your message getting lost or becoming associated with something entirely unrelated to your business.
How do I learn to use hashtags?
As with so much about social media, a great way to learn is by watching what others do and then by having a go yourself to see what happens.
If you still have a question about using hashtags, please ask me. Email email@example.com or reach me through Twitter (@dorset_social) or Facebook .
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