For the last decade, social media users have been hashtagging their way through a growing landscape of platforms and conversations. That’s right, the hashtag is officially 10 years old – in August of 2007, Chris Messina created the very first hashtag – a string of seven letters preceded by the pound sign symbol.
That first hashtag was #barcamp – and his tweet was actually asking his Twitter followers how they felt about using this nomenclature to define groups on Twitter. Funny enough, Twitter founder Evan Williams, didn’t think it would catch on… #SoWrong.
In 2017, social media is a lot of noise. Generally, the noise is something users have accepted as part of the experience and in large part, this acceptance, or ability to tune out the noise, is due to the use of hashtags. Originally created to bring users and their conversations together, the main function of a hashtag hasn’t changed much. Today, users across Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn [among others] add hashtags to their posts. The jury is still out on the effectiveness across the various social networks, as discussed here.
The “Rules” of Hashtag Use
To call these rules is a bit of an overstatement, mostly because the consensus can be a bit mixed on proper hashtag use; however, the following breakdown is a guideline wildly accepted by many social media marketing leaders.
Hashtags are used to pull in conversations around a similar topic – like events, common interests, movements, campaigns, etc. For brands, hashtags are also an essential tool for organically building a social follower base – using the right hashtags, in the right way, can give your social content the lift it needs to reach more people.
Tag with intent.
Don’t use hashtags for the sake of using hashtags. If you’re trying to reach a specific group, avoid vague hashtags that have millions of hits. When you’re ready to begin using hashtags, research tags you’re interested in using before posting away – see how active they are, how they are being used, who is using them, etc. Make sure they are part of conversations that are relevant to your brand. If your brand or campaign is utilizing a proprietary hashtag, be sure to balance it with industry hashtags so your posts don’t go unseen.
Strive for readability.
Social media users, even novices, have grown to accept the language of being social and as such, they are used to seeing hashtags. To create a better experience for your followers, and in some instances to conserve space, use your hashtags in-line with your copy – making it part of the post itself, versus an addendum.
From here, the guidelines are a bit more fluid, however, this will help you better navigate your own social media strategy when it comes to hashtags.
With an average of 6,000 tweets a second, hashtags are the only way to keep up! That being said, there are some basic guidelines. To avoid appearing spammy, stick to no more than three hashtags per post – though, if more are needed, be mindful of the context and prioritize the need.
Remember, Twitter only allows 140 characters, and if you add a URL to your tweet, you’re already down to 117 characters, so tweet wisely, and create tweets with in-line hashtags as often as you can. This in-line method can be used on any of the channels that currently support hashtags. This doesn’t work in every instance, but you should strive to start with this method. If a hashtag just doesn’t flow with the copy, it’s perfectly acceptable to add it to the end, preferably after the URL.
On Instagram, the visual leads the way [versus on Twitter, where the copy displays above the visual], and because of this change in experience, the hashtag strategy should be different, too.
As much as Twitter touts itself as a “micro-blog,” it’s a little too micro with the 140-character restraint. Alternatively, Instagram truly allows for blogging with every uploaded post. However, keep in mind that, after about 150 characters or so, your text body turns into ellipses that can be clicked to reveal the rest of the post – so use that space wisely as thumbs are moving quickly! For this very reason, it’s best to use your hashtags at the end of your Instagram post copy, though the in-line tagging method works, well, too.
There’s about a 2000-character limit for each Instagram post, so the opportunity to really test hashtags soars here. Use Instagram to explore what tags are resonating with your audience, and you may find you’re a bit more discoverable when you change up the hashtag mix. And, data has shown that Instagram posts with 11 or more hashtags receive higher engagement, so, #hashtagaway!
Can you use hashtags on Facebook? Yes. Are hashtags useful on Facebook? The comments are still coming in… Facebook introduced hashtags in 2013 in correlation with its graph search tool, which eventually was a flop. Regardless, marketers and users alike carried over their hashtag use to Facebook.
Today, after quite a bit of testing and data-piling, trusted sources like Buffer and BuzzSumo have noted that out of over 30 million brand pages, posts with hashtags saw less engagement than those without hashtags. What’s really key here is, “engagement.” In order for your brand page to survive on Facebook, engagement on your posts is your lifeblood – without it, not even a page with thousands of dollars in advertising will get very far. Though Twitter and Instagram require audience engagement, hashtags on those platforms do more of the organic exposure work, truly aiding in discovery, whereas on Facebook, hashtag or not, without engagement, the doors to attract new fans are closed tight.
So, this doesn’t mean don’t use hashtags on Facebook. It means it takes trial and error, coupled with knowing how to read your post insights and A/B testing your posts. A good rule of thumb is if you’re going to use a hashtag, use one that is relevant and not too vague.
LinkedIn has always been that middle child, stuck between being its own network and being too different. Hashtags on LinkedIn have come and gone several times over the past four years. One day they’d be there, bright, hyperlink-blue, and other days, they’d be awkwardly dangling among the feed.
As of today, hashtags are in on LinkedIn. In March, the professional networking site announced (again) that it is supporting hashtag search. As you’ve probably seen in your own feed, many people didn’t care whether hashtags were supported or not. As a social media marketer, even as the tags are now clickable, and “accepted,” on LinkedIn, they can still feel somewhat obtrusive to the experience. LinkedIn is natively a long-form social media site, and so, hashtags take away from that expected experience. However, personal preference aside, it seems using hashtags, delicately, does offer some result, like increasing visibility and discovering content.
There are still some bugs to LinkedIn’s hashtag functionality, like being able to see them as hyperlinks as page admins, among other things. Regardless, the hashtags are “new” again on LinkedIn, and as with any good social tactic, it’s one to be tested by your brand. And even though the success of hashtags on LinkedIn remains to be seen, one rule can be agreed on, use them sparingly and with intent so you don’t ruin your follower’s overall LinkedIn experience.
Hashtags are your friend. But, as with any friendly relationship, don’t overuse them to avoid annoying your other friends. As with any part of a strong social media strategy, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. In order to see what really works for your brand, you have to tweet, post, hashtag and repeat to see what works for you.