Writecombination Social Media
by Andrew Knowles

How to use a hashtag

An updated version of this article is available on the Dorset Social website.

Every time I run a social media training course I wonder how long it will be before someone asks the hashtag question.

It usually pops up in the first 30 minutes: “So how do those hashtag things actually work?”

That one question opens the door to a flurry of others around the hashtag subject. So here are some answers, which I hope you will find useful.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a string of characters prefixed with the # symbol. The characters might be:

  • A word: #London
  • A phrase: #partyinthepark
  • An event: #worldcup2014
  • An abbreviation: #pcn2013 (used for the Professional Copywriters’ Network Conference last year)

When used on a social media network, such as Twitter, a hashtag becomes a clickable link. Meaning that if you see a tweet with the hashtag #curry and click on the hashtag, you’re shown other tweets and pictures that also contain the hashtag #curry.

Screenshot of #curry hashtag search from Twitter

Hashtags originated on Twitter and have been adopted by other networks including Facebook, Google+ and Instagram.

Note that there are no spaces in a hashtag. To work, it must be an unbroken string of characters. Hence #partyinthepark and not #party in the park. But you can use underscores as characters, so #party_in_the_park would work (although that’s quite long for a hashtag).

What is the point of a hashtag?

The power of the hashtag springs from its ability to connect people who share common interests. By clicking on a hashtag, you’ll see posts from others talking about the same subject. This could help you make new connections and grow your network of contacts. Or allow you to join in online conversations.

Media organisations and others use hashtags to track messages relating to specific events. When a major news story breaks, people start talking about it on social media and begin using hashtags, which helps others to follow or comment on what’s going on.

Brands use hashtags to stimulate conversations, often asking people to use a specific hashtag in order to be entered into a competition.

Another way to think of a hashtag is as a way of creating an interest group, or an online community. Some come and go quickly; others stay around for a long time.

Instagram posts typically use lots of hashtags, such as the one below. Curiously, the clickable links only work when viewed through the Instragam app on a mobile device.

Screenshot of Instagram post with hashtags

Who sets up a hashtag?

You create a hashtag simply by putting the # symbol in front of a word, phrase or abbreviation. No one ‘owns’ or controls a hashtag, although the usual rules around trademarks still apply. So trying to use a recognised brand name as a hashtag to promote your product could get you into trouble.

Should I use a hashtag for my business?

In my training classes, the hashtag discussion often prompts someone to suggest using their business name as a hashtag in all their posts. Such as #gerbilcomputers (that’s a made-up name, by the way).

I don’t recommend this for small businesses because who else, other than you, is likely to use that hashtag? When people talk about you on social media, you want them to mention your account name, as that increases the chances of getting more followers and mentions.

The tweet: “I bought a great new laptop today from @gerbilcomputers” would be more effective than: “I bought a great new laptop today from #gerbilcomputers.”

However, brand hashtags do work, where an organisation already has an established presence in their market.

So how should my business use hashtags?

There are lots of ways that hashtags can benefit your business. These include:

1. Following or joining in discussions relevant to your area or industry. For example, every week, between 7.30pm and 8.30pm, small businesses in Dorset hold a virtual networking session on Twitter, using the hashtag #dorsethour.

There are lots of similar virtual gatherings using hashtags including #yorkshirehour, #weddinghour, and #charityhour. These can be a great way of making new contacts or hearing the latest news in your area or business sector.

2. Listen in on an industry event without being there. Most conference or event organisers now promote a preferred hashtag for people to use when talking about the event.

The hashtag I used above, #pcn2013, was for a conference I was interested in, but could not get to, last year. However, by following what people were saying using that hashtag, I was able to make new contacts and get a feel for what was happening.

Screenshot of #summersorted hashtag from Google+ 3. Using hashtags to promote a specific campaign. It might be a sale, a promotion of a specific product, or a focus on a specific issue. Choose a hashtag that you plan to use in every message relating to the campaign and watch how it gets retweeted or reused by others.

One of the hashtags regularly employed by Sainsbury’s in the last few months is #SummerSorted. It’s appeared in lots of tweets and Google+ posts related to seasonal products and their customers have picked up on it. The image to the right is taken from Google+.

Hashtags can be a great way of tracking the spread of your message across social media channels.

4. Take advantage of trending hashtags

If you take a look at what’s trending on social media, you’ll spot a variety of hashtags. For example, as I write this, the top Twitter trends for the UK are #MattTo2Mill and #YesBecause. (I don’t have a clue what these are about, but they’re top).

Screenshot of UK trending topics from Twitter

Resist the temptation to use the top trending hashtags in your social posts in the hope of getting noticed. That is, unless those hashtags relate directly to the message you want to put out.

For example, hashtags relating to major sporting events will be in the top ten trends and these may fit easily into your social posts.

Did you know that on Twitter you can choose to view trends at a global, national or even regional level? Just click on ‘Change’ where the trends are displayed.

What are the risks of using hashtags?

This question is rarely asked in my social media training sessions, but it should still be addressed.

Sometimes hashtag campaigns backfire. This is typically a problem for larger brands, as McDonalds discovered in 2012. They launched a #McDstories hashtag, in a bid to talk about the people behind their products. Unfortunately, lots of dissatisfied customers began sharing their own, less positive, #McDstories. Within two hours they stopped using it but they couldn’t kill the hashtag. It’s still being used today.

Screenshot of #McDstories tweet from Twitter

Hashtags can be hijacked deliberately or accidentally. The hashtag #pcn2014 is being used for this year’s Professional Copywriters’ Network Conference, but it’s not exclusive to them. Other people are using the same hashtag for other purposes.

Conflicting uses of a hashtag are hard to avoid. When choosing a hashtag for a campaign or event, check who else may already be using it, to reduce the risk of your message getting lost or becoming associated with something entirely unrelated to your business.

How do I learn to use hashtags?

As with so much about social media, a great way to learn is by watching what others do and then by having a go yourself to see what happens. 

If you still have a question about using hashtags, please ask me. Email andrew@writecombination.com or reach me through Twitter (@andrew_writer), Facebook or Google+.

By Andrew Knowles 

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