Since being created back in 2007 almost by accident, #hashtags have been massively adopted and used in almost every way imaginable. Although intended to easily organize Internet conversations around a topic, hashtags now exceeded that goal to the point that they are now created to start conversations on their own. So, they’ve grown from being just a filter to become a powerful tool that, used smartly, can be used for marketers and businesses advantage.
How can they do that? Are there good practices to do so? What should you keep in mind when creating and using hashtags? Although most hashtags certainly feel random and arbitrary, there are a few secrets behind their popularity. Read on to learn them! But first…
What is a hashtag, exactly?
Strictly speaking, a hashtag is any word or phrase preceded by a hash mark which is included in a message to distinguish it as a keyword or topic. Thus, anyone interested in that particular keyword or topic can search and group messages through hashtags to find more content about them. In other words, you can use a hashtag to make a message more searchable and to identify such message as a part of a bigger conversation.
Mind you, we aren’t talking about a typical conversation here – conversations around a hashtag don’t necessarily imply people talking to each other. On the contrary, this kind of conversations is about the topic itself. That’s why the messages marked with a specific hashtag are generally gathered in a specific page that aggregates them in real-time: to make them easily accessible for anyone interested in reading about that topic.
Most people relate hashtags with Twitter, since that’s the platform in which they appeared for the first time with the use we give them today. But it’s fair to point out that they’ve become so massive that they have been adopted by other sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, Google + and tons of other sites with the same purpose.
Ok but, why should you start using them?
A quick look to hashtags on Twitter or on any of the social sites mentioned above will show you that hashtags are virtually everywhere and are used for practically any conversation about any topic. Attending to that, hashtags can be extremely simple (#dogs), self-explaining (#finalsweek), or overtly enigmatic (#WTFF). The idea for all of them, however, is the same: to keep the conversation going around the same topic.
Yet, most hashtags won’t stand out among the crowd. Only a few will become a trend among people beyond the circles in which they were created and will be capable of garnering a more widespread attention. But those who do will create a massive conversation that will bring the attention of millions of people around the world to the topic in question.
Now, think about it. If you were able to somehow use those trending hashtags to promote your brand, you’d be diving into a huge conversation in which your message could be delivered to more and more people following those hashtags’ activities. In other words, a hashtag can serve you as a springboard to a coordinated digital marketing effort that can take your brand to a new level by getting more attention for your business.
Of course, that isn’t an easy feat to pull off. Usually it takes a lot of time to create a great hashtag and even more time (and luck!) for it to catch on among the public. Fortunately, that isn’t to say that it’s impossible. Au contraire: with the proper plan and with some tips in mind, you’ll be able to create interesting and impactful hashtags or learn how to use the ones already trending on your advantage.
What should you be aware of when creating hashtags?
As we’ve said before, creating a meaningful and popular hashtag implies a big planning effort that goes beyond a simple Twitter message. There are plenty of things to consider if you want your hashtag to become the next big thing in the social sites. So, the question is obvious: how do you use a hashtag? Here are some pointers:
- Be as clear as possible: try to be simple and informative with your hashtag while avoiding obscure acronyms or long complex sentences. The hashtag has to be so clear that people who read can relate it with what you’re trying to communicate. Think about how clear #OcuppyWallStreet was and compare it with Burger King’s #WTFF.
— rachel staggs (@artistwandering) noviembre 17, 2013
- Double check it before posting it: many PR disasters could have been avoided if the CMs would have proofread their hashtags before making them public. If there’s even a slight chance for your hashtag to be misinterpreted, it will surely be – and that can certainly wreck your entire planning. Pay special attention to long hashtags and use capitals wherever needed. Trust us: you don’t want to be responsible for another #susanalbumparty scandal.
- Go outside Twitter: although many people instantly think of Twitter when talking about hashtags, they can be very useful in other platforms as well. Keep in mind that we aren’t just saying that you should use your hashtag in Facebook, Instagram or other social networking sites – you should extend it to your own site, your print ads and even your physical stores. Have you seen a TV show with hashtags on top? That’s because the network wants people to talk about it. Want to know why they do it? Because it works.
- Don’t become a hashtag junkie: once you start hashtags it’s easy to fall for their charm and start using them everywhere and all the time. Don’t. Hashtags are only useful when used smartly and when don’t stand in the way of understanding the message. If your whole message is a chain of hashtags, people will just ignore it. If your whole content is plagued with hashtags, people will just stop paying attention.
- Don’t ask for people’s input: this might seem odd given that hashtags are almost exclusively used in social networks but take our word for it. Creating a hashtag that demands people to tell their stories around your brand or ask your brand questions will surely lead to uncomfortable jokes or blunt attacks on your brand. Take #CosbyMeme as an example: the Internet can be a harsh place to be.
And what about using others’ hashtags?
The good thing about using hashtags for marketing your brand is that you actually don’t have to create the hashtag to reap some benefit from it. So, if you feel that you don’t have the skills to create an original and appealing hashtag or if you’ve tried to do so without success, be open to the opportunities others create for you.
Although some popular hashtags are created by some brands and companies, most are just generated by regular users. This means that you’ll be able to use them for your own marketing efforts without having to think about the hashtag itself. Of course, that doesn’t imply that this will be easy: you’ll still have to create the perfect message to relate your brand to the trending hashtag.
Thus, one of the most important things you’ll have to take into account is how relevant is that hashtag for you. The aforementioned #OccupyWallStreet really didn’t seem like a good opportunity to promote any business (regardless of how clever that advertising might have felt), but the #IceBucketChallenge did. What changed? Companies understood that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a good opportunity to show their support for a good-spirited campaign while Occupy Wall Street was too controversial.
Of course, you don’t have to wait for good causes or hashtags that become as massive as them. Any trending hashtag can be an opportunity for you – you just have to determine if it’s relevant, if using it to market yourself won’t hurt your reputation and if you can make a twist to take advantage of that resource. There are plenty of tools out there to monitor hashtags and people’s interaction with them, so be sure to check them out.
Time to start hashtagging!
Now it’s your turn. All of the above should be enough for you to start trying your wit with your own hashtags. There is, however, one final advice. Creating a hashtag that has enough traction can often take weeks or even months. Don’t discard any effort you feel might be on point just because it didn’t give you the results you’d expect in a few days.
Use and re use your hashtags in different messages and situations and make people grow a to it. Try to interact with the people that start embracing it by retweeting or favoriting them. And, finally, keep track of your progress via an analytics tool to correct anything that might be keeping your hashtag from becoming the next thing everyone will talk about.