7 hashtag truths everyone should know

The omnipresent octothope, a.k.a. hashtag.

The omnipresent octothope, a.k.a. hashtag.

The hashtag—a symbol also commonly and perhaps formally known as the pound sign, octothope or tic-tac-toe board—is one of social media’s most prominent elements (#overdone). The little bugger has nuzzled its way into every social media network, including Twitter (#duh), Google+, PinterestInstagramVine and even that plummeting pastime, Facebook. And, of course, Hashtag is the name of the dancing, yet aerobically challenged panda on the Tonight Show.

Yeah, it’s everywhere.

The hashtag’s function is pretty straightforward: It categorizes content on social media, sort of like keywords. A hashtag will help you find things and be found. The social aspect is nice, too—a hashtag will help you connect with other people on a common interest or theme.

Just about everyone knows what hashtags are, of course. Not nearly as many people use them. And fewer still actually know how to really use them. I’m a member of that sad minority, so I started looking into it. I had the basics down, but my research made me rethink my hashtag habits.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. Be specific. Like any marketing or communication effort, a targeted message is more engaging. You’re better off having a deeper dive and influence with a smaller group than skimming the puddle of humanity. Hashtags that are specific and targeted are simply more effective. So instead of #guitar, try #FenderGuitar.
  2. Be native. By this, I mean that your hashtags need to work on the social network you’re using. Hashtags serve the same, essential function on every platform—to categorize content—but the rules do change from network to network. On highly visual sites, like Pinterest and Instagram, hashtags describe the photo, like a caption. On Twitter (and to a lesser degree, Facebook), hashtags are prompts for topics or discussions.So if, for example, you’re posting news about a new product on several social media platforms, think carefully about those platforms and how people search on them. And hashtag accordingly!
  1. Be engaging and not always branding. I know, this goes against every marketer’s DNA, but almost all of the most successful social media campaigns have NOT used brand names as hashtags.Take Travelocity’s campaign/travel contest from last year, #IWannaGo. The effort increased Travelocity’s social impressions by a whopping 23% from the previous year. And they increased purchase consideration by 11%. In that business, that’s like winning Olympic gold.The company did a sort of indirect brand thing by asking consumers to follow @RoamingGnome on Twitter and Instagram. Everyone knows the Travelocity Gnome from its TV spots, and I thought the choice to use him instead of the company name was courageous, smart and powerful.
  1. Be short and not too full of yourself. Think like keywords, and keep your hashtags on the short side (20 characters, MAX). Complicated doesn’t get found. Neither do puns or hashtags that show how clever you are. Remember, the purpose of these things is to connect and be included.It’s best not to go overboard with hashtags, too. Some people use them for humorous effect, others load up a post with 20 or more just to get traction. All that does is attract spam or make you look desperate. Plus, stats show that three or more hashtags actually lower engagement and clickthroughs.
  1. Be smart about it. Not everything needs a hashtag. After a lot of reading from experts on this, I found that a good rule of thumb is to hashtag something that adds to a conversation or topic. For example, if you’re reposting something, a hashtag probably isn’t needed. But, if you’ve created an interesting comment or content around a topic, that’s hashtag worthy. In other words, the more original, the more you should consider hashtagging it.
  2. Be ready. Of course, marketers are well meaning. They even have big dreams of success about their campaigns. Then, things go oh so terribly wrong. Take McDonalds, about a year ago, with its #McDStories campaign. The fast-food titan thought people would flock to Twitter, sharing heart-felt, sentimental stories of Big Macs with grandpa. Instead, the Twitterverse came out with sentiments more like:“I haven’t been to McDonald’s in years, because I’d rather eat my own diarrhea.”#Snap! Always have a back-up plan, just in case social media turns into gym class for a flat-footed bookworm. An embarrassing, life-altering event can unfold in a matter of seconds. A good way to think about it: “What damage could a teenage kid do with this?”
  1. Be realistic. I mentioned the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon earlier. Every week, he tweets a “hashtag game,” where he asks a funny question of his viewers, like: “What’s the most embarrassing thing your parents ever said?” and tags it with something like #ParentFail. Most times, within hours or even minutes, it becomes a worldwide trending topic. But that’s Jimmy Fallon and that’s rare. Most hashtags get some grip, but not like that. Remember, most trending topics are organic and fleeting. Stick to being specific and engaging a particular audience. It will serve you better.

Honestly, I thought there was some sort of magic potion about hashtags. There were certainly things I didn’t know, but a lot of what I’ve read and seen is common sense and social etiquette. Indeed, most social media is merely an extension of proper etiquette… being a good conversationalist, nice to be around, having manners, and connecting with others. #Decent.

– Andy Badalamenti is the creative director for CI-Group

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