To hashtag or not to hashtag, that is the question?

Before the first message in twitter was sent in March 2006, the hashtag was a largely ignored piece of punctuation. The # is actually called an octothorp and is a number sign on telephones and keyboards that has been around since the 1960’s. This can be where confusion comes in, especially for those of us who have been around in the pre PC, pre internet age. We recognise this familiar symbol but since but since it’s hijacking by twitter as a ‘hashtag’ are now confused about how best to use it.

So if you weren’t quite sure how you should be using it and were too afraid to ask, let’s start with the basics and talk about how hashtags can benefit your social media, and also how, if used incorrectly, can damage your social media reputation.

What is a hashtag?

Although it can be used on other social media platforms, the hashtag # symbol started life on twitter by adding it to the beginning of a word, or unbroken string of words, to create a hashtag such as #twitteradvice. So a hashtag is the combination of the # symbol at the beginning of a word or word string.

Now the clever bit; as soon as hashtag is created it becomes a searchable link linking all tweets with the same hashtag included in them. This allows people who may be interested in the subject of your tweet to find yours and to join in the conversation. It is a bit like bookmarking your tweet for others to find, which gives it more longevity.

What characters can be included in a hashtag?

The first rule is that spaces are not allowed. If your hashtag has multiple words they must string together with no spaces. This can make them difficult to read so you can use capitals to break up the words. Hashtags are not case sensitive, so searching for #MondayMorningFeeling will get the same results as #mondaymorningfeeling but is easier for people to remember.

You can also use numbers #50ShadesofGrey but cannot use other punctuation marks such as question marks, exclamation marks or ampersands.

You can also use initials for example #GBBO but this only really works if you have other ways of promoting the hashtag.

A word of warning, make sure that when you are using multiple words, they cannot spell anything else by having different word breaks. One of the most famous faux pas in this area was with singer Susan Doyle’s hashtag PR campaign. What was supposed to be a hashtag Susan Album Party when run together as a hashtag came out as the very unfortunate (and impossible to unsee) #susanalbumparty. Just as bad, but not as high profile, was Chester Literary Festival’s #CLitFest

How do you choose a hashtag?

One of the most powerful things about hashtags is that anyone can create a hashtag. The action of adding the # to a word or phrase with automatically generate a hashtag, which is great as it means it can be used to create campaigns and is accessible by all. On the downside to this is that it is easy to create an ineffective hashtag; something no-one else is using for example!

If you are wanting to get on the bandwagon of an existing hashtag then have a quick search first on twitter to see what is being used and the type of tweets that are using it. What makes sense to you, may not be what people are actually tweeting about!

Using to promote your business

You may want to get a product, service, event or campaign noticed by creating a hashtag that can be repeated and picked up by others. For example, if you are hosting an event, create a hashtag for that event and let attendees know about the hashtag so it can be used pre, during and after the event.

It could be that you are running a competition or have a sale coming up and want to create a buzz around the event. Use the hashtag wherever possible to build awareness.

Do’s and Don’ts of using hashtags

Do

  • Make it easy to remember and spell. Don’t leave room for possible spelling variations or typos which will make your tweet impossible to find
  • Research what relevant hashtags already exist
  • Keep them short and sweet as people don’t want to be typing in long hashtags that take up valuable characters
  • Be natural with your hashtags. A hashtag is meant to be sharable and inclusive and allow people to discover and join in on topics. If it doesn’t fit naturally into the tweet, it will feel forced and people won’t share or join in, which sort of loses the point of a hashtag.
  • Follow trends if they are relevant.

Don’t

  • Go hashtag crazy. One or two relevant hashtags is optimum
  • Use to replace words in your sentence. This is #annoying and makes it #hardtoread
  • Expect people to pick up your brand hashtag immediately
  • Try and be too clever or offbeat with your hashtag. They are supposed to make things easier to find so the more complexity they add the more ineffective they are
  • Use all CAPS unless it is an acronym as it appears too shouty and aggressive
  • Forget to publicise your hashtags if using to promote your brand, event or campaign. You can use on marketing materials and website, vehicles it doesn’t just have to be online
  • Follow trends that aren’t relevant. Just adding a trending hashtag if it isn’t relevant won’t do you any good and makes you look like a spammer which will damage your credibility
Where else can you use hashtags?

Hashtags may have started on twitter but can now be used on other social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn. Each of these platforms, however use hashtags slightly differently so be aware and alter your use of hashtags accordingly

  • Twitter hashtags are more focussed on the conversation or a group of people you would like to chat to
  • Instagram hashtags tend to be more descriptive of the content (images and video)
  • Facebook hashtags are also more about conversation and a great way to extend your reach without paid advertising
  • On LinkedIn using hashtags is a great way to extend your reach and get your updates in front of people outside your immediate LinkedIn network. So look to use hashtags that already exist and are being used on LinkedIn. To find out what hashtags to use, just put one on the search bar and you will see a list of relevant people, companies, groups and posts. If you have a few key hashtags you can even weave them through your profile and specialities so you come up on searches or into your Pulse Articles as keywords at the bottom.

So, that little # holds a lot of power if used the right way … with thought, consideration and purpose.