It all started so innocently. Chris Messina, a designer at Google, tweeted out a suggestion in 2007: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” It’s doubtful he realized at the time how influential that proposal would become. Twitter certainly didn’t:
“They told me flat out, ‘These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on.’”
But, it didn’t take long for them to come around and see the appeal of users voluntarily tagging their posts. By 2009, Twitter embraced hashtags wholeheartedly and linked them to search results. The following year it made Trending Topics its homepage, making the hastag the de facto unit of information on Twitter.
Twitter had a few short years where it owned the hashtag, but in 2011 Instagram got in on the action. Flickr and Facebook adopted them two years later. Pretty much everyone else has followed suit, with the notable exception of Snapchat, which is trying to make geofilters (custom image overlays) its default mode of adding metadata to posts.
By late 2014, Interbrand was reporting that “97 percent of the brands posted at least one tweet that included a hashtag.” Nearly half of all tweets from brands included at least one tag.
Here’s how to maximize the impact your hashtags have on social media today:
No one is going to parse out #youroverlywordysuperlonghashtag. If you do need to use a lot of words, at least have the courtesy to capitalize properly. Hashtags aren’t case sensitive, but it makes #YourOverlyWordySuperLongHashtag slightly more legible.
Capitalization also makes it easier to spot embarrassing word choices (e.g. singer Susan Boyle’s much mocked #Susanalbumparty post in 2012).
Build awareness and drive engagement with hashtags for specific events and campaigns. A study of over a million tweets found that hashtags increase retweeting by over 55 percent. As people retweet, comment, share, like, and use the hashtag it generates buzz and creates a self-building archive of everything related to your event.
Speaking of buzz, Cheerios scored a minor viral hit this month with a highly organic hashtag campaign centered around dwindling bee populations. The brand removed its longstanding mascot “Buzz the Bee” from boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios and pledged to give away 100 million wildflower seeds to people who signed up on a #BringBacktheBees website.
Try to avoid overused tags, or tags with multiple meanings. Create something catchy, memorable, and specific to your needs. For example, the Olympic Committee chose #RoadToRio for its messaging for the 2016 Summer Games. It was a tag no one else was using, and they carved out a niche for themselves in the Twitterverse.
Social media presents a unique opportunity to not just disseminate information but to engage with consumers. Red Bull’s #PutACanOnIt campaign asked people to take photos of Red Bull cans with funny perspectives. Social media quickly lit up with posts of cans on cars and dogs and hundreds of other creative ideas.
Likewise, Coca-Cola had a social media mega hit with its #ShareACoke campaign. The soft drink brand popularized a fun and easy call to action hashtag that encouraged people to post pictures of special edition cans and bottles that read “Share a Coke With …” followed by a name.
If you have developed a great hashtag for your brand or for a specific campaign that is trending, consider using it for physical marketing materials like t-shirts, promo art, even billboards. The boundaries between off and online are increasingly blurry. When something interesting happens in the real world it has a way of quickly being captured and shared online (and vice versa).
Tailor your hashtag usage to the social network you are on. Twitter is still the most common place for tags, but due to the 140 character limit, it’s generally considered spammy to pack your post with tags. Overloading your tweet with hashtags can drive down user engagement by more than 17%.
Facebook posts are also best served by using few hashtags, two or three at most. Instagram, by contrast, generally doesn’t mind posts appended with a long string of hashtags as long as they are relevant.
When a big story hits social media everyone wants to give their two cents. Feel free to add your brand’s voice to an ongoing conversation– but don’t rush in. Before posting a trending hashtag ask yourself if your brand is strongly enough connected to comment. Audiences are turned off by brands that seem to put their own needs ahead of the larger story.
For example, when music icon Prince passed last year several brands quickly posted images and hashtags in homage to the fallen star, and then just as quickly took down their posts after being accused of trying to take advantage of the sad event.
In just the few short years they have been around hashtags have gone from curiosity to fad to downright essential. Everyone from brands to political movements to your Aunt Mildred is tagging their posts now.
The hashtag is the most prominent tool for organizing, highlighting, and making information more searchable on social media. Make sure you are getting the most out of your tags!