How to Use Hashtags: A Simple Guide

Hashtags are showing up on all your favorite online communities and play a valuable roll in the user experience. During our workshops, quite a few attendees get confused about what to do with the hashtag we provide. What is it? What does it do? How do you create one? So I’d like share with you a Simple Guide to Hashtags.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is simply a keyword phrase, spelled out without spaces, with a pound sign (#) in front of it. For example, #iphoneography and #nature are both hashtags.

What does a hashtag do?

A hashtag enables conversations of different users to be aggregated into one feed, which you can find by searching the hashtag in the Search system of that application or website. Here are some examples:

Pinterest

Twitter

Instagram

As you can see from the Pinterest image above you can search the term and get similar outputs. A hashtag (#) is used just like searching a keyword except that it narrows the target output to be more specific to the searcher.

We’re able to connect topics being discussed about the same topic using a specific hashtag, therefore the content (tweets, photos, or pins) will appear in the same stream. In that way, hashtags are an invaluable solution to the problem of tracking a conversation among a vast sea of user generated content.

Hashtags play an important role in organizing the conversations around live, in-person events or conferences, and webinars.

Although hashtags relatively simple, you should be aware of some of the threats that can come from using them as well. Some of the negatives and best practices to keep in mind while using Hashtags:

Best Practices for Using Hashtags

1) Check the Relevance

Once you’ve decided on a keyword or a phrase, search for it. Use the search tools in the applications, like Twitter.com/search, and enter your hashtag in the search field. Is someone else already using that hashtag for their event or campaign? Do you want to associate your hashtag with the current feed using it?

If you want to use the hashtag for your item specifically and there is a lot of conversation around it already, you might want to choose another hashtag that isn’t as frequently used. In that way, you will reduce the chances of people who are not a part of your target audience entering/diluting the conversation you want to take place.

If you want your to participate in the conversation proceed with using the hashtag you’ve selected.

2) Industry or Brand Keywords

Using Hashtags strategically can open more opportunities. For example, it can communicate a message to those not actively searching for them. If the hashtag reflects an industry or branded keyword that is interesting to a viewer, they might, be interested in checking out the rest of the conversation happening around that hashtag.

3) Caution: Sentiment can be Dangerous

We hear more and more about politicians and big brands have a failed experienced on Twitter by choosing hashtags that include the word “love” in them. When sentiment is being shared you should make sure you’re not putting it in the mouth of your followers unless they really love you. Otherwise, they might turn against you and cause a major PR controversy. For instance, the Mitt Romney Twitter campaign that sought to wish him a happy birthday also attracted quite a lot of critical comments. If you are just starting out, pick something neutral that simply reflects your topic or campaign.

Also, beware of hashtag campaigns that have the potential of getting abused by users. McDonald’s launched a hashtag campaign #McDStories, with the hopes that users would share fun stories about their experience at McDonald’s. But what McDonald’s didn’t anticipate was the negative use of this hashtag. During this campaign if you searched for “McDStories” you weren’t seeing positivie stories but more like the one below, which described horrible experiences users had with McDonald’s.

I’d pet a million stray pit bulls before I’d eat a single pink-slimy McBite. #McDStories

It’s important to consider the other ways people could possibly interpret your hashtag. If you have naysayers willing to speak out against your brand than they might use hashtags against you.

4) Promote the Hashtag

A hashtag is only useful if people know about it. To get the word out start incorporating it into other marketing channels. For instance, when you we have an event approaching, add the event hashtag to your email reminder or follow-up touch point, and the presenter reminds attendees of the hashtag at the beginning of the event as well.

5) Hijacking Hashtags for Sensitive Situations Not Smart Business

Hijacking hashtags designed for serious and sensitive issues can lead to some pretty bad consequences. Designer Kenneth Cole, for example, tried to insert his brand into conversations about the Egypt uproar by tweeting the following:

Twitter Fail

Through this tweet, Kenneth Cole tried to hijack the #Cairo hashtag in attempt to promote the spring collection. This campaign wan’t received well as it was met with strong public disapproval and media criticism.

Twitter’s official stance when it comes to hashtag abuse:

“The following behaviors and others like them could cause your account to be filtered from search, or even suspended:

  • Adding one or more topic/hashtag to an unrelated tweet in an attempt to gain attention in search.
  • Repeatedly tweeting the same topic/hashtag without adding value to the conversation in an attempt to get the topic trending/trending higher.
  • Tweeting about each trending topic in turn in order to drive traffic to your profile, especially when mixed with advertising.
  • Listing the trending topics in combination with a request to be followed.
  • Tweeting about a trending topic and posting a misleading link to something unrelated.”

As you can see, they take it seriously…

6) Keep it Short

A Hashtag should be short and easy to remember. For Twitter you’re limited to 140 characters per tweet, with or without a hashtag. By keeping the hashtag brief, you’ll save your audience some room to include more commentary about your content.

What are some of the advantages you’ve learned from using hashtags? Share them in the comments!

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