If you’re just getting around to using social media for business, you're probably realizing that there’s a little more to it than you previously thought.
Hashtags are one of those utterly unprecedented social media tools that are easy to ignore if you’re new to social media marketing, but by now their use has become standard practice. Much like GIFs.
However you choose to use them, understanding what hashtags are and how they work helps you engage with customers, get more people involved in your events, and communicate your company’s personality—all of which are important parts of marketing in 2016.
Broadly, hashtags are used to compile information around a single term by making social media content easily searchable. Read on for where they come from, how they work, and how to use them for your business!
What Hashtags Are
A hashtag is a word or series of words, numbers, and characters preceded by a “#.” In hashtags, none of the characters are separated by spaces. Here are a few real examples from Twitter:
Hashtags are not case sensitive, so searching for #nycmarathon and #NYCMarathon will produce the same results.
They are most commonly used to give context, reference an event or topic, or draw people into a fun or controversial conversation.
Again, a few real examples from Twitter:
- “I’m over this day already. Just not feeling it. Maybe lunch will change my outlook. Hmph. #Monday”
- “U.S. moves against alleged al Qaeda members in #Iran on.wsj.com/2abCSNK via @WSJ #IranDeal"
- “Day 1 of my official #NYCMarathon training is a success.”
The conversation isn't limited to Twitter, though—hashtags are now supported by Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+, Instagram, Linkedin, Tumblr, Vine, Gawker, Kickstarter, and more.
Where Did Hashtags Come From?
Hashtags were first used in chat culture to designate topics and messages for specific groups, and the concept was picked up by Twitter in 2007.
Using hashtags in tweets quickly became popular as a way to allow people all over the world to participate in a single conversation about, for example, a trend or news event.
In 2009, Twitter began hyperlinking all hashtags so users could easily click on the hashtag and view a feed of messages including the same tag, making it even easier to use hashtags as a way to compile information.
Today, Twitter has become a popular news source in part because using and searching for a hashtag, such as #Iran, can pull together information from a variety of official and private sources all over the world.
How Hashtags Work
Simply put, hashtags make social media content easier to search.
By stringing together a series of characters beginning with the "#" symbol, hashtags create a search term that is unlikely to ever be replicated except by people intending to use it, like #CatsInBigKnitHats.
Many social media and search outlets now recognize the content of the hashtag as well as the exact search term, so a Google search of “#nycmarathon” will yield results including the words “NYC Marathon” as well as “#nycmarathon,” though the Google algorithm (which is proprietary) does seem to know you’re looking primarily for content with the specific hashtag.
In this way, specific hashtags are better at corralling a conversation (and going viral!) than general ones, but people are more likely to search for general hashtags.
As you can imagine, a much wider variety of posts include #Cats than #CatsInBigKnitHats, but in many ways #CatsInBigKnitHats is more effective at getting interested people involved.
How Businesses Can Use Hashtags
And now the big reveal:
Believe it or not, #CatsInBigKnitHats was first used by a business! The juice and smoothie company Innocent Drinks used it in a tweet, then their followers began retweeting and responding. As these tweets began to show up in more people’s news feeds, more Twitter users began posting their own pictures of cats wearing knit hats.
So, how can your business use hashtags? Do you have to post pictures of cats?
No, but you can! There are 3 primary ways that most businesses can benefit from hashtags:
For more traffic.
In most cases, you'll be using hashtags to help connect people who interested in a given topic find your content about that topic. For example, if you were looking for resources to help you learn about SEO, you might search for #SEO and find this tweet:
For a specific event or campaign.
If you're holding an event or managing a campaign, you can create an event-specific hashtag and use it in all of your event promotions; good options include the event name and year (#INBOUND2016), or an event catchphrase. This way, you can see who’s sharing your posts and talking about your event.
Be sure to confirm that your chosen hashtag is not already being used, and think about how people would search for your event organically - the average person might use #EventName2016 without being told.
You should also encourage the use of your hashtag during your event (a.k.a. "live-tweeting") to get people to engage with you on social media! You can encourage these people to follow you on Twitter for event updates or on Facebook or Instagram to see event photos, giving you more opportunities to interact with them.
Traditional marketing didn’t focus very much on expressing a company’s personality, but the rise of social media marketing has made it increasingly important to connect with people on a personal level—hence, the cats wearing big knit hats. You can use hashtags to add humor, warmth, and your your human innate quirkiness to your communications. Personality is an asset in today’s market, so embrace it! #quirkymarketing
Want extra points? You can learn more about finding and using hashtags in our blog posts "How Many Hashtags Are Too Many" and "Finding the Best Hashtags to Amplify Your Social Posts."
Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect changes in social media marketing. The original version was published here on 11/12/13.