The hashtag is one of the most defining symbols of the social media era. Alongside the Like button, the ubiquitous hashtag has played a leading role in the ways social media has transformed our world. From the commercial to the political, from the comical to the deadly serious, hashtags have played a role in almost every major social media moment of the last 15 years.
So how do brands wield their power to generate awareness or grow their audience? We’ll take a look at four key elements of hashtags, and how your brand can use them in smart, effective ways.
What is the Point of Hashtags?
This is often the most common question we get regarding hashtags. They are everywhere, and almost everyone uses them…but what do they actually do? In simplest terms, hashtags help group digital conversations around a specific theme. Much like the 90’s chat rooms of the Internet 1.0, hashtags allow like-minded users to share their thoughts and create discussions around a subject that remain tethered to a central hashtag.
While the grouping of posts and comments around a hashtag can still be somewhat haphazard on platforms like Twitter, platforms like Instagram have added the ability for users to “follow” specific hashtags much like they would any other account. So if you’re especially interested in seeing content related to #CleanEating, for example, you could follow that hashtag and receive interesting new posts that feature that hashtag in your timeline next to the brands you follow.
There Are Different Kinds of Hashtags
While the convention is the same for all of them, hashtags can be used for very different purposes. The most basic application is the branded hashtag, where the hashtag is literally just a brand name: #BouvierKelly, #Oatly, etc. This is perhaps the best place for any brand to start in the collection and use of hashtags on their social media platforms. Including your branded hashtag in all your official social media posts helps make sure you’re represented in conversations about your brand.
Community hashtags might relate back to your brand, but are not necessarily the same thing as your branded hashtag. They are often a way to generate and group UGC (user-generated content). These are posts shared by fans of your brand that can then in turn be shared on your own platform or website. The #MyWestElm community, for example, allows fans of the furniture brand to show off their new purchases with the possibility of being featured on West Elm’s digital properties.
Event and holiday hashtags are two more ways conversations find unity on social media platforms. Whether it’s at a conference or tradeshow (such as #NACS2020) or an awareness event for a particular illness or disease (#MSAwarenessWeek), hashtags are a great way to introduce your brand into an ongoing conversation. For tradeshows and similar events, organizers will often promote specific hashtags, and using them may yield additional exposure for your brand in the form of retweets, shares and the like. Holiday hashtags help demonstrate support and solidarity for particular causes or events, allowing you to contribute in a way that is true to your voice and brand. This website is a great resource for keeping track of the many official (and unofficial) “hashtag holidays.”
Open Your Ears with Brand Listening
With the right social media monitoring software (we like Sprout Social), you can use hashtags to monitor ongoing conversations about your brand. Social media users who discuss your brand might not always “tag” you in a conversation, but they might use a branded hashtag—that’s where “brand listening” comes in handy.
Additionally, there might also be conversations about your brand that are not using your specific branded hashtag. They might even be talking about your brand with a misspelling or a common euphemism or slogan for your brand (i.e. “#McD” for McDonald’s). Keeping track of those additional hashtags can be a great way to discover new conversations or address negative sentiment that could damage your reputation.
How to Choose and Use Your Hashtags
If you’ve got a unique brand name, congratulations: creating your own branded hashtag is as easy as it gets! However, if your brand name is similar to another or might be mistaken for a different company or general word altogether, you might need to get a little creative. #Apple or #Amazon might be able to get away with it because of their sheer market dominance, but chances are you’ll be better off if you can create something that is unique to your brand.
In addition to your branded hashtag(s), it’s good to have a cache of related hashtags at your disposal. These come in handy for your day-to-day posts, which can benefit from the organic boost provided by broader hashtag conversations and threads. The best way to find what’s most relevant to you is to explore other industry leaders, trade publications, influential accounts and the accounts of your audience. The hashtags they’re using are going to be the most relevant for you—if you post a hashtag that no one ever uses, you’ll just be talking with yourself.
As far as how many to use in a given post, that can always depend on the content and/or brand, but here is a general rule of thumb for the major platforms:
- Facebook: 1-3
- LinkedIn: 1-3
- Twitter: 2-4
- Instagram: 2-4
With Instagram, though, you can utilize a little trick we like to call “hashtag soup,” in which you post a cluster of hashtags either below your main comment (hidden with stacked periods to drop them “below the fold”) or as the first comment on your post. That way, you still reap the benefits of the hashtags and their organic presence without cluttering up your caption.
An example of “hashtag soup”
While there are always best practices for anything, there are not necessarily any fixed rules when it comes to hashtags. The best thing is to experiment and see what works. You won’t always see the same return on the same hashtags, so play around and see what helps drive more engagement. Get rid of overly broad hashtags that bring in unwanted, untargeted traffic (things like #fun, #goals or #summer) and try to stay specific—especially if you’re in a B2B category. Above all—as with any marketing tactic— try and be as strategic as possible. The more thoughtful your approach, the better your results will be.