The hashtag. Often overused and rarely understood. Hashtags started small on Twitter, but now have exploded over social media as an essential part of content marketing, including ubiquitous use on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Google+. Though hashtags are now an integral means of digital communication, most companies still don’t really understand the concept of a hashtag.
Hashtags are a new digital language and to communicate in a new language, you need to learn the rules. Lucky for you, we have assembled the rules of hashtags and answer all your burning questions such as when to use hashtags, how often, the ultimate don’ts of hashtagging, and what makes a hashtag cool.
When do I use hashtags?
While it is tempting to throw hashtags in every post and ad to raise awareness of your product or service, the true testament to a hashtag’s effectiveness is its quality over its quantity.
So, to help your hashtag game, here are 4 effective ways you can employ hashtags!
1. Start a Conversation or Trend (That Goes Beyond Your Brand)
Hashtags are a great way to connect your company with larger conversations and causes, especially ones that go beyond talking about only your brand. It’s one way to increase your value as a company who is known for more than just selling. If you strike up the right conversation, it will naturally spread and last longer than most campaigns.
While some of the hashtags you use will be categories that already exist, you can still show your creativity by repurposing hashtags or inventing your own. For example, Ben & Jerry’s took advantage of the popularity of Shark Week to promote their brand. They used well-known Shark Week hashtags, such as #megalodon, #SharkAfterDark, and #SharkWeek to reach those consumers. And how is it connected to their brand messages? Well, they used the hashtags to promote their Phish Food ice cream and compared hungry sharks on the search for food to hungry humans taking a large bite out of their ice cream!
The other way to go is coining your own phrase with the hope it takes off! This hashtag is meant to be used by consumers who will become advocates for your brand. For example, the show Game of Thrones on HBO has been successful with #SunandStars, a reference to a line of dialogue between two fan-favorite characters. Take notes from GOT, and when creating your own trending phrase, make sure it is also relevant to your company and immediately recognizable. General phrases won’t work, because they are often already their own categories and could have meanings or references beyond your company. It’s a tricky balance, choosing something that is relevant to your company but also has mass appeal, but hitting that balance is the key to a successful make-your-own hashtag.
2. Promote A Specific Campaign Incentive
Sometimes brands use hashtags at the end of an ad with the hope that anyone who shares or posts about the ad will use the hashtag. Do not be that brand. Besides being rather unimaginative, this practice has no sense of purpose. Hashtags go hand in hand with strategy, and you can make hashtags work for you by applying them to a specific brand promotion.
For example, across the pond, Domino’s pizza in the UK found an effective way to spread brand awareness with a specific promotional hashtag. They offered 1 pence (remember, UK) off pizza for every person who tweeted #letsdolunch during a specific timeframe. By the time this timeframe ended, the inundation of tweets changed the price of pizza from £15.99 to £7.74. (This lower price was available for all customers, not just the ones who tweeted, too!) Note this hashtag had a particular goal and wasn’t just a general shout-out. The hashtag itself was an integral part of the promotion, and there was a concrete benefit for pizza fans to tweet the hashtag.
Lesson here? Get creative! The hashtag is a way for customers to interact with your company, so consider incorporating it into future campaigns.
3. Categorize Your Company’s Topics
Hashtags started out as a way to organize topics online so that users could easily search for them. While their use has since expanded, this original purpose is still very much in effect. You can use hashtags to connect your company with topics that further describe your products or services. If you have products related to #beauty, #music, or even #family, then you can use these hashtags to be a part of users’ searches related to those topics. By doing this, you extend the reach of your brand!
You can even use hashtags to differentiate between your own products or services. For example, Dairy Queen has tags for its menu flavors, from #pumpkinpie to #chocolate. This way, social media users can find exactly what interests them much more easily.
Using hashtags to categorize keeps your brand relevant and present in the search results of your customers. Keep in mind, this particular form of hashtagging works best with general topics -topics people might search on a day to day basis. Here, your creativity comes more in what categories your brand will work best in, rather than coming up with a unique hashtag (no one is searching for that). Research social media, in particular Twitter and Instagram, to find out what hashtags are popular at the moment. Another great resource is Hashtags.org, which has lists of trending hashtags.
Remember though, it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole and tag every single topic your brand could possibly relate to. Take a deep breath and pick at most the top three that meet these criteria: a popular tag, relevant to your company, and something that will engage your audience.
How often do I use hashtags?
Sparingly. Hashtags can be an incredibly useful communication tool, but it is easy to overdo it. Too many hashtags in a post is distracting and makes the post hard to read. There is some debate about the perfect number of hashtags, but you are usually safer using 1-3 per post.
Think about it this way. For every hashtag you place in your post, you should be able to explain why it is there and how it fits into your overall brand strategy. If you can’t identify which of these three ways you are using the hashtag or if your answer is something along the lines of “it looks or sounds cool here,” then it just might be #unnecessary.
While we are on the subject, moderation is also a great piece of advice for the number of words in a hashtag. It should be short, sweet, and to the point. If your hashtag is more than five or so words long, ask yourself, why? And #wouldyouwanttoreadsomethinglikethis?
The Ultimate Don’ts of Hash-tagging.
Don’t Sell in the Wrong Moment.
When hashtagging to join a conversation, make sure you follow the etiquette of that conversation and don’t sell when it isn’t appropriate. Hashtags can help you generate awareness, but recognize when you should show your value as a company vs. when you should promote your brand and products (aka, sell).
One example of a company failing to recognize this difference is Kenneth Cole. During the revolution and fighting in Cairo, Kenneth Cole tweeted #Cairo with the copy: “Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online at http://bit.ly/KCairo – KC.” A serious tragedy where people were dying was not the best conversation to join and definitely was not a place where it was appropriate to sell. After some harsh backlash, KC had to retract and apologize.
Be aware of online social etiquette and know when to sell, when to offer sympathy, and when to step back and realize this isn’t your conversation to join.
Don’t use a Hashtag Without a Reason
We will scream this one from the mountaintops. Hashtags should be a part of a larger marketing strategy and not just a shot in the dark or a jump onto the bandwagon. There should be a reason you are using that particular hashtag, and there should also be a reason why someone else would want to share it. One important aspect of hashtags is their ability to be shared and go viral. If there isn’t a strong reason a viewer would want to repost your hashtag, it may not be the best hashtag to use.
User engagement is one of the criteria of an effective hashtag. It needs to be appealing not just to your company, but to your customer.
Don’t Use a Hashtag without Doing the Research
So, you found the perfect hashtag! It’s popular, has mass appeal, and speaks to your company. Before you send that tweet though, take a second and do some research on where else that hashtag has been used. Some common hashtags, no matter how seemingly innocent, could currently be in use in an unexpected way that is not conducive to your overall brand message.
A tale of caution comes from Entenmann’s bakery, who failed to do this research in 2011. They tweeted: “Who’s #notguilty about eating all the tasty treats they want?” Well, at that same time, the #notguilty was connected to the murder trial of Casey Anthony. This led to a controversy and the company had to backtrack and say that they were not associated with the trial, and the use of the hashtag was a mistake.
In essence, the perfect hashtag may not just be perfect for you. See who else is using it and in what context it appears. Do you really want to be in that category? Know the conversation you are entering and avoid embarrassment. (Hot tip: Stay away from murder trials.)
What makes a hashtag work in business?
Strategy, strategy, strategy. It’s all about how you use it.
The hashtag should be consistent and relevant, and even unconventional at times. Hashtags are a wonderful way to be creative, but keep your customer in mind at all steps of the process.
Hashtags are everywhere now, and they aren’t going away soon. Strategy is everything, and hashtags can bring your business to new levels of interaction with your customers if you use them purposefully. Just remember the golden rule of moderation, and #don’toverdoit.