Does anyone really understand how to use hashtags effectively? From the looks of many social media posts, the answer may be no. Some posts have far too many, while others have no hashtags at all.
One way to think of hashtags is that they can be used to categorize, search, and connect groups of conversations to accomplish a greater goal. Thinking in this way can help brands use hashtags more effectively.
To help shed some light on the best way to use hashtags in your social media efforts, let’s break it down into categories based on some of the reasons you might want to leverage them:
Branding: Branded hashtags are becoming increasingly popular. To take advantage of this trend, the hashtag shouldn’t be your brand’s name but something related. For example, Destination British Columbia coined the hashtag #exploreBC which has caught on with its audience and helps feed its social media channels with user-generated content.
Promoting campaigns and contests: Speaking of using hashtags to successfully spark user-generated content, this can be another way to leverage them effectively. Lay’s Potato Chips created the hashtag #DoUsAFlavor to promote its “Do Us a Flavor” contest which revolved around consumers submitting ideas for new chip flavors.
Joining a conversation: Another popular way to use hashtags is to join a conversation on social media. Examples of this include supporting sports teams or recognizing national days, like #NationalDonutDay or #NationalBestFriendsDay. For a list of hashtag holidays, subscribe to our weekly Sidekick: A Weekly List of Social Holidays, Themes, and Noteworthy Events.
Changing the conversation around a brand: Two examples of this are related to personal celebrity brands, #LoveforLeslieJ and #Love4GabbyUSA. The first was created when Leslie Jones received social media criticism, causing her sentiment score to dip. The second was created for Gabby Douglas, who was on the receiving end of a backlash related to her performance in last summer’s Olympics. Meltwater’s media intelligence platform shows how the creation of these positively worded hashtags can help reverse a conversation to turn it positive over time.
Self-identifying as part of a movement: Hashtags are also sometimes used to show allegiance to the ideas behind a social movement. One of the most successful ongoing examples is #BlackLivesMatter, which has evolved from a way to unify citizens online to become an actual organization.
Raising awareness: Hashtags can also be used for social good. Perhaps one of the most successful examples of this is the #Icebucketchallenge, which garnered more than 6 million mentions on Twitter and helped the ALS Association raise millions of dollars.
Using as ironic punctuation: Using a hashtag ironically or when making a joke can be fine—but it can also be overused. For example, Instagram users sometimes overload images with as many hashtags as possible (Instagram’s limit is reportedly 30). This type of hashtag overuse dilutes your message. And, if you’re doing it to gain followers, you’ll attract those you don’t really want, such as spammers.
Trendjacking or Newsjacking: Trendjacking involves associating your brand with a hashtag—even if there’s no real connection—to spike your reach. One example of this is #thedress. Many brands trendjacked the hashtag, even if their products had nothing to do with the white/gold (black/blue) dress at the heart of the hashtag.
Community building: Hashtags are also useful when building communities, which feeds into building brands. Coining a hashtag to accompany a campaign can build a community around a particular push. Twitter chats provide an example of this. #VCBuzz bonds together the Viral Content community and provides a way for those involved to communicate with each other not only during the chat but at any time. Before launching a community building effort, make sure to check that your desired hashtag hasn’t already been claimed by another brand or group.
And, what about the future of hashtags? Some say hashtags are where search algorithms are heading. Even if you’re not in that camp, it’s hard to deny that the hashtag is currently providing an effective way to search unstructured user generated content. There’s even research to that indicates they may be the key to monetizing social media.
Whatever the case, hashtags are here to stay. They’re widespread, so can make a real difference in broadcasting your marketing and PR efforts. The only way to find out if hashtags will work for you is to test them out. Track the data using a media monitoring platform to find what’s most effective. Test, measure, and repeat what works.