Hashtags allow marketers to tag their content to attract the attention of users who may be interested in a certain topic; additionally, users are able to follow hashtags related to their personal areas of interest. They can be generic terms such as #love, brand-specific terms such as #CocaCola, or ambiguous terms (which social media users really need to click on to determine their specific meaning) such as #smilingfood. Hashtags are common on a number of social media sites, most notably Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
“Hashtags are the SEO components of social media, giving your company the opportunity to place content in Google search results,” says Beth Cooper, VP of marketing and sales at KNB Communications, a marketing and PR agency focused on healthcare. “Using hashtags in your blog titles, Twitter posts, and LinkedIn posts are great ways to get started,” she says, but it’s important for hashtags to be used strategically to help build awareness for your brand.
HOW TO USE HASHTAGS
The purpose of hashtags is to signal to social media users the type of content being used in a post. Users may follow hashtags to stay apprised of topics they’re interested in or click on a hashtag to find related information. For marketers, hashtags can be a great way to jump into trending conversations to promote a business without having to rely on ad spending, says Thibaud Clément, CEO and co-founder of the Loomly collaboration platform. “By connecting with customers over a viral topic, businesses can increase online engagement in a way that feels more organic compared to paid ads.”
Hashtags are also often used for specific events, such as #CybersecurityAwarenessMonth and #WorldMentalHealthDay, Cooper says. Using this type of hashtag, she states, is a great way to get your brand and content in front of a massive audience, as long as it is relevant to your message. In this case, Cooper notes, these specific hashtags can show “that your company is socially responsible, which will attract more customers.”
While being attentive to trending hashtags can be a best practice for identifying ones to include in your own posts, marketers need to exercise some caution, says Jason Myers, senior account executive at The Content Factory, a digital PR firm. Don’t just attempt to ride the wave of a trending hashtag without checking its relevance to your content and your brand, he warns. “This is flawed and can backfire, because if someone does land on your post by following a hashtag and you’re not talking about what the trend is actually about, you’ll probably just create negative sentiment for your brand’s social channel,” he says. “Best-case scenario, followers ignore your post; worst case, they get mad that you baited them and unfollow, block, or report you as a spammer.” Clément agrees. “On the internet, attention is the currency, but trust is really where the value lies,” he says. Consequently, Clément cautions not to hijack a trend if you don’t have anything, individually, to add to the conversation.
ADDITIONAL, AND PERHAPS UNINTENDED, USES OF HASHTAGS
In addition to the popular uses of hashtags shared here, there are some other applications that can provide added value for marketers. For example, hashtags can be used to do online research into the type of content that works best for your products or services.
“A little-known approach that I advise my clients on is to create hashtags to identify groups of content and then use those as ‘labels’ to analyze the performance of those different groups of content,” says Tim Parkin, a marketing consultant. So, he says, a company with seven product categories might create product-specific hashtags and use them on all posts related to that product. It can then analyze the performance of each product category while also being able to view overall performance. “Being able to segment social media engagement and performance is really important because adjusting your strategy … depends heavily on the type of content being posted,” Parkin notes.
Carefully evaluating hashtags can provide insights into topics you might cover in your content marketing efforts that are likely to attract attention. To start, though, make sure to take a look at those hashtags and how they’re being employed before you use them as a jumping-off point for creating content.
SOME BEST PRACTICE EXAMPLES
Simply watching what others in your niche are doing online and how they’re using hashtags effectively can yield some great best practice examples. KNB Communications uses #WeAreKNB and #KNBeings to promote the firm and help with SEO, says Cooper.
Maria Juvakka is the creator of Chic Pursuit, a fashion and lifestyle blog with 3.5 million annual readers. As a fashion influencer, Juvakka has more than 37,000 followers on Instagram and about 12,000 on YouTube. “Chic Pursuit uses hashtags on Instagram often to grow our follower base and create successful sponsored posts,” she states. Juvakka points to an example of a post on dermaplaning, which got a lot of engagement and views by using the hashtag #FuzzFree. “The hashtag is used to explain and promote dermaplaning, a way of deeply exfoliating the skin. This works twofold by getting exposure for our brand and the brand we partnered with for the ad, Boots UK,” Juvakka says.
Using hashtags effectively, as we’ve seen, involves more than just coming up with words and phrases off the top of your head. It requires strategy and research, which, obviously, can take some time. “To save time, you may want to create a list of possible hashtags in Word or your Notes app after doing some research,” suggests Nancy Richmond, an assistant teaching professor in the department of marketing and logistics at Florida International University’s College of Business. “Having some hashtags ready to copy and paste can help make the process feel less overwhelming.”
FINDING THE RIGHT HASHTAGS TO USE
Finding the right hashtags to use is both an art and a science. Richmond offers an example of what might be involved in picking a hashtag for Instagram posts: If you’re a female entrepreneur, you’re likely interested in finding an audience that is passionate about supporting women in business. In that case, some of the hashtags she suggests using are #FemaleEntrepreneur, #WomenBusinessOwners, and #WomenOwned.
How to decide which hashtags are the best? That can be a bit counterintuitive and an example of less is more. Richmond suggests a combination of hashtags that are used a lot and some that aren’t to make it easier for your post to rise to the top. For example, she says, “Doing a quick search on Instagram, I can see that #FemaleEntrepreneur has 6.1 million posts, which means it is going to be more difficult to get your post seen, whereas #WomenOwned has 915K and #WomenBusinessOwners has 395K, which would be easier. At the same time, you don’t want to use a hashtag that no one is using either, like #WomenBusinessStartups with only 14 posts.”
Taking a look at the hashtags that your competitors are using is another good way to get some ideas, Richmond suggests. “Chances are that if your audience is already using a certain hashtag, then other people just like them are probably using it too,” she says. Finding communities through effective hashtag use “is a great way to expand your audience so people are motivated to engage with your brand.”
Influencers can also yield some valuable insights. “One of the easiest ways to piggyback on a trending hashtag is to watch how the influencers in that industry or niche are handling their hashtags and use those as your priority,” says Roy Morejon, president and co-founder of Enventys Partners, which is a full-service product launch company that manages all aspects of product development, crowdfunding, and ecommerce marketing.
Social media channels can yield insights into popular hashtags. “Strategically using hashtags for Instagram is easy because they’ve got a built-in autofill feature that lets you know how popular a given tag (and related tags) already is, so you’ll know how large the potential audience is that’s already following that tag,” says Myers. LinkedIn also gives a glimpse of what hashtags users are following by showing a preview of several options in an autofill format when you start typing the first few letters of your proposed hashtag, he says. “For example, if you begin composing a post on LinkedIn and type #Social, a dropdown menu pops up with suggestions like #SocialDesign, #SocialEnvy, #SocialGrowthMedia, and #SocialBranding. Some of those ideas may fit your post, and some of them might be hashtags you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.”
There are also online tools that can help with this process. On platforms that don’t offer in-channel clues, such as Facebook and Twitter, Myers points to Hashtagify as a favorite resource. It offers great value. “For a platform to offer such in-depth, immediate score analysis of any tag entered is unprecedented and invaluable,” he notes. Just search for a keyword or phrase, and the site will give you an indication of how popular the hashtag is and examples of other related ones.
Be selective and narrowly focused in your selection of hashtags, though. Using something generic (such as #Marketing) will get you a potential audience—but it’s likely to be a very, very large and broad audience. As with any form of marketing, narrowcasting can yield the best results. Focus on niche hashtags—or long-tail tags—that are specific to what you have to offer and the needs and interests of your target audience. For instance, use #DigitalMarketingTips or #MarketingToGenZ. One final tip: Don’t inundate your followers by stuffing a long string of hashtags into your posts. It’s best to use two to three very specific and highly relevant hashtags per post.
CREATE YOUR OWN
Creating your own hashtags—specific to your company, brand, or an event—can be a good way to target and grow your online audience. It can, of course, take some time to gain traction. “Every company should have a hashtag that they are using to help bring awareness to their brand and build community engagement,” Richmond recommends. These hashtags are called branded hashtags, she says. Once created, Richmond suggests including the hashtag in your bio and highlighting it in your posts.
These are often used for events and contests. “On Twitter specifically, we’ve run Twitter chats using a branded hashtag. … It’s amazing to see how far you can reach with a hashtag that you create—particularly if you’re savvy in other facets of social media marketing like networking, PR, and partnering with influencers,” Myers says. For example, Myers shares, “When we managed the social channels for Fairtrade America, we created the branded hashtag #FairtradeChat to use on a recurring Twitter chat of the same name that we helped produce. We started by researching that tag to make sure it wasn’t being used by another organization. Then we created a recurring event on Twitter, inviting several high-profile partners and fellow activists in the fair-trade movement to join our public Q&A on Twitter during a specific hour based on a specific topic.” Participants were invited to use the hashtag, and Myers even created easily shareable content for them.
The strategy worked. “There were several instances where we got that branded tag trending in the top 50 on Twitter, thanks in part to the cooperation of influential fair trade-friendly accounts like Ben & Jerry’s and UNICEF that lent their social muscle to the cause with well-timed tweets and retweets,” Myers recalls.
Contests and giveaways can deliver a huge boost to user engagement and can benefit from the use of hashtags, says Philip Pasma, president of Asterisk Marketing. “People like to compete, and they like discounts and free stuff too. If you can use some attractive hashtags in an interesting contest or giveaway, it can result in a massive amount of user-generated content.” He points to Red Bull as a successful example: “Red Bull once initiated a campaign where they invited their customers to creatively use Red Bull cans in photos and share those photos with the hashtag #PutACanOnIt. The campaign resulted in thousands of [pieces of] user-generated content, which definitely enhanced Red Bull’s brand awareness,” Pasma says.
Hashtags represent a great way to build traction online without investing a lot of money. Yes, it can take time to build and apply a sound hashtag process, but the time is worth it. Great hashtag campaigns #GetResults.