Hashtag: Everything You Need to Know

 
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Hashtag - it's one of the words that you hear a lot (and I mean A LOT), specially if you're using social networking sites (this doesn't have to be a lot though). But what is hashtag? Should every word you write on Twitter or Instagram start with a "#"?

Now that all the major social networks support hashtags, I think it's time for us to understand hashtags more thoroughly, and use them to our benefit - and not just for the sake of using them. That's why I decide to write this post as a complete (but not boringly long) guide to Hashtags.

What's a hashtag?

A hashtag is a form of metadata tag. It's a word, phrase, or abbreviation starting with the symbol # (e.g. #MUFC - used by Manchester United Football Club on Twitter). Using hashtags helps users find the messages on a specific topic. They group the conversations on a network, and help users join a favourite or relevant conversation.

The History

IRC networks were the first to use hashtags to label groups, topics, or even individual messages that belonged to a specific "channel". However, hashtags became popular with the rise of Twitter. Chris Messina was the first to propose a similar system to be used, on Twitter, to tag topics of interest. He was also the first to post a hashtag on Twitter:

Twitter began hyperlinking all hashtags to a search results page for the hashtagged word, starting July 2009. Then, in 2010, Twitter introduced "Trending Topics" on its homepage, displaying the hashtags that are swiftly becoming popular.

What does it do?

The use of hashtags has mostly evolved with Twitter. However, nowadays, users have different reasons to include them in their tweets or image captions or status updates.

Creating context

Hashtags are a form of metadata, aren't they? So in a short vague tweet with a shortened URL, they can add context without affecting the main content. For example, "in London! #excited #holidays"

Joining a conversation

There's a global conversation going on, and you want to be a part of it. You want to be on others' radar, but the keyword doesn't fit in your post. So you add a hashtag to the end of your post, and it put your post (mostly tweet) into other users', who are interested in the same topic, streams. For example, during the Academy Awards 2013, everyone on Twitter who was watching the Red Carpet, was using #BestDressed to talk about whom they thought was wearing the best dress.

Trending Topics

Sometimes, for some events or topics, you just want to know what's happening regardless of whom you're following. For example, for an election, an earthquake, or Super Bowl, you don't want to follow all the news networks to see what's going on. Instead, you can follow the related hashtag (which is probably trending), and see what's happening in real time.  

How to choose a Hashtag

I was going to write about this, but I thought it can’t get better than this flowchart by @TwitterAdsUK on Twitter’s blog. Here’s your guide to choose the right hashtag:

How to choose a Hashtag
 

Why should we care about hashtags?

Different studies have showed that posts with hashtags get more exposure on social networks, specially on Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and Tumblr. Yet the users on Facebook, which is the largest social networking site (as of June 2013), have showed a different behaviour. Another study by EdgeRankChecker on Facebook showed that posts with hashtags do not have higher viral reach than the ones without. After that study had been published, Facebook announced that the sticking irrelevant hashtags alone cannot increase a post’s exposure, and it’s based on the quality.

Although the debate hasn’t ended yet, one thing is clear: hashtags are here to stay, so you might as well make your peace with them, make the most out of them. To have the quality required to have the right exposure, we should know how to choose a hashtag. In addition to that, we need a strategy to use it.

To have a strategy for using hashtags, you need to know why you’re using it. These are the five areas where you can apply your plan to use hashtags.

#Promotion

According to the RadiumOne, 51% of the of users said they would share posts with hashtags more often if advertisers awarded discounts for sharing product based hashtags. Awarding promotion codes to users who share posts with a specifically promoted hashtag can increase the exposure of that specific product or service. However, not being careful with this might end up in your hashtag being hijacked. It means that it gets negative attention rather than what intended. Or you can end up as the “attention seeker troll”, and that’s not what you want for your business.

#Integration

Now that all the major social networks support hashtags, having cross-network hashtags can be both easy as well as feasible as there are tools to monitor them on different platforms. Although there are many more tools in Twitter’s hashtag monitoring toolbox (such as Tame.it and Hashtag.org), tools such as Tagboard can help you monitor a specific hashtag across all the major platforms.

#Conversation

As mentioned before, hashtags are means to join global conversations. Joining these conversations in the right way, can be a huge success for a brand. However, using it wrong can end up in a fiasco like the famous @KennethCole tweet during the Egypt Revolution in 2011 (Image Credit: TechCrunch).

 
 Inappropriate use of a trending hashtag

Inappropriate use of a trending hashtag

 
 

Although Kenneth Cole apologised later through his Facebook page, but that did not fix what has already happened. As you can see, trying to join an irrelevant conversation with an inappropriate message backfired, and resulted in negative publicity for Mr. Cole. There are other similar cases, such like this one, that show you should be careful which conversation you’re trying to join and with what message you’re joining.

#Targeting

If you’re trying to reach out to cat owners, do a little bit of research on relevant hashtags, such as #meow, #CatFood, #Kitty, and #MyCat. See which ones of these hashtags have more related posts during a specific time, take a look at their interactions and then tailor your post based on those tags. This way you can target the users who actually care about your post or tweet. In addition to this, networks, like Twitter, allow you to do targeted marketing based on interest category.

#Innovation

Being creative doesn’t open doors, it creates new doors to open. For example, American Express has done it by creating Amex Sync. It lets the cardholders make purchases using hashtags on Twitter. And now that Facebook and Google+ are supporting hashtags too, what can we expect? It’s getting more and more interesting! (This is not far from happening if it hasn’t already! Cartoon Credit: Randy Glasbergen)

 
 Not far from happening!

Not far from happening!

 
 

Enjoy hashtags and remember these

  1. Monitor your reach – Don’t just use the hashtags, try to understand the difference they make in your reach. See if they even are useful to your business or your personal use. You can monitor your reach using different tools like SumAll.
  2. #don’t #hashtag #every #damn #word #in #your #effing #post – and don’t use #effing
  3. Hashtag hijacking – Don’t just use an irrelevant trending hashtag – remember @KennethCole story!
  4. Don’t hashtag the whole paragraph – Although there is no length limit on hashtags, but this probably won’t work: #offtomanchesterforthelinkinparkconcertandamatchatoldtraffordafterwards
  5. Don’t go #yucktch – Does that have a meaning? NO! You really think someone is monitoring that!? NO! So why on earth are you using it!?
  6. Don’t use all the Trending Topics in one tweet without a message – And “These are real-time Trending Topics:” doesn’t count!
  7. If you witnessed this, get out before it’s too late:

 

Just before you go – and to start a little bit of conversation – Do you use hashtags? If yes, where do you usually use them? If not, why?

#TheEnd