Everything you ever wanted to know about hashtags

Back in 12th century Italy, an entrepreneurial friar named Allessandro della Spina launched a revolutionary new product to help people see a little better. Although rudimentary by today’s standards, his ‘eyeglasses’ were a game-changer.

Suddenly, smashed thumbs from errant blacksmithing irons and pricked pinkies from misjudged sewing needles became solely the domain of the clumsy. People with less than 20/20 vision could now differentiate between a tuppence and a thruppence – or the Medieval Italian equivalent – thus saving themselves a pauper’s fortune in miscounted disbursements. And best of all, long-sighted lovers could gaze into one another’s eyes and actually see who they were looking at. A pleasing development, most of the time!

If Twitter had been around there would undoubtedly have been a frenzy of hashtags to celebrate the arrival of eyeglasses: #notblind #ICanSee #NoMoreBlackThumbs #DidntRealiseHubbyWasSoUgly. That last one is unkind, but you get the drift. The topic would have trended for weeks.

Fast forward 800 or so years, and today hashtags give us infinitely greater vision than eyeglasses ever could. If social media is the mouthpiece of the masses – and only a fool would suggest otherwise – hashtags are its eyes and ears.

Excuse me, I’ve been living under a rock. What are hashtags?

In a nutshell, if you stick a hashtag (#) in front of a word or phrase (as per the litany of examples throughout this blog post), it will then be searchable (and stumble-onto-able) by others on that particular social media network.

As an example, if you posted a tweet containing #auspol (the tag for Australian politics) and I then typed #auspol into the Twitter search bar, your tweet (along with any others using the #auspol tag) would show up in my results – even if I wasn’t following you. If I liked your post I would check out your profile and hopefully start following you, and ideally others would do the same.

Bingo. One relevant hashtag, many new followers!

(Note that cross-platform searches are not possible, you can only search Twitter from Twitter, Facebook from Facebook, etc.)

Too easy. But why bother? People can find me through Google

Yes they can. If they know what they are looking for … and you have a strong Google ranking at the top of page one … and you don’t mind being overlooked by new audiences who might have found you had you used hashtags in your posts … and who as a result go to one of your competitors … and … I could go on you know!

Okay, I get it. So when is it best to use hashtags?

Any old time. Hashtags can be used within posts, or as an adjunct to them, like the examples below. Rarely should hashtags be used on their own. Rather, they should accompany a passage of meaningful text, ideally with an image, video or link to round out the post and pique maximum interest from readers.

The main benefit of hashtags is to enable you to quickly find relevant posts on a chosen social media network, from known and unknown sources, without having to wade through loads of irrelevant content.

The above example uses hashtags as part of the message 

This example uses hashtags as an adjunct to the message 

Other ways you might use hashtags are to project your mood to the world (#tiredandemotional), or your political views (#MyCatForPM), your preferred brands (#levis101), a classy restaurant (#notKFC) or a shambolic flight check-in (#NoUpgradeForMe).

You can also use hashtags to search for stuff (#melbournevolcanoes), participate in TV or online forums like ABC’s Q&A program (#qanda), join in the conversation at an event (#hillsfestival) or to monitor a crisis such as a bush fire, cyclone or even a missing airliner (check out #MH370 to see what I mean).

Finally, you can create your own personalised hashtags to promote events, products, launches or whatever, that relate to your organisation. Say your company, XYZ, was holding a conference. You could advise delegates to tweet or post questions and comments to #XYZconference. Not only would the unique hashtag make comments easy to find and respond to, but if enough people got on board you may even find your own event trending on social media – what a coup that would be!

Which social media channels use hashtags?

Most of the popular social media channels now support hashtags, including Twitter (the originator), Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr, Google+, Pinterest and others. This means searching for things, promoting your own products and causes, creating that elusive flurry of excitement known as a trending topic, and being generally more efficient in your use of social media are easier than ever. Interestingly, after initially jumping on the bandwagon, LinkedIn have now dropped hashtags from their repertoire. Likewise it’s been widely reported that adding hashtags to Facebook posts may actually reduce engagement (go figure!).

Remember to use analytics to help you identify popular keywords that are relevant to your organisation as well as your target audience. Combining hashtags and keywords in an appropriate way will help you attract new followers. This doesn’t mean sticking #angelinajolie at the end of a post about community banking just to attract zillions of eyeballs – trust me, people are smarter than to fall for that old chestnut! Suffice to say, analytics is a crucial part of any successful digital communications strategy and a future edition of Scootalicious will cover it in greater detail, but it would be remiss not to touch on it here.

What not to do

You certainly don’t want to overdo it by ‘hashtag stuffing’ – which means posting a string of #too #many #hashtags #and #no #actual #caption. These types of posts are an abuse of hashtags and an eyesore, and should be avoided at all costs. People do this in the belief that their posts will turn up in more searches and result in more followers, however I find it crass and would never follow or like a business that used such methods. As with all things in life, moderation is the key.

These are just some of the ways to use hashtags. For others, consult your imagination or check out what’s ‘trending’ on Facebook or Twitter to get up close and personal with topics ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

As for dear departed Friar Allessandro, were he still around he might offer this sage advice: #Don’t #be #a #dinosaur #hashtags #make #your #content #roar #!

…or maybe not!