Last March the Twittersphere was all a buzz when Vivian Schiller, Twitter’s head of news, announced that the company was contemplating eliminating @ replies and hashtags. Yet, The American Dialect Society just chose the Twitter #blacklivesmatter as its 2014 Word of the Year. (In 2012 it chose “hashtag” itself as the word of the year.) Additionally, according to a recent Marketing Land post in 2012 7% of Super Bowl ads contained hashtags, that jumped to 57% in 2014, and fell-off only slightly this year with 50% including hashtags. But, hashtags were still the most popular social media mention in the ads.
So, with hashtag use expanding far beyond its Twitter origin, to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, and many more social media sites, any rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated.
A Short History of Hashtags (#)
The “#” symbol has been variously referred to as a “number sign,” a “pound sign,” an “octothorpe,” a “sharp” (as in the C# programming language), and most recently a “hashtag.” This infographic traces its history from the 1960s use with phone numbers, to its 1993 introduction as a way to index IRC (Internet Relay Chat) communications, to 2007 when it was first introduced on Twitter, to today where more than 20 social media sites support #hashtagging.
The hashtag function is incredibly simple, just insert the “#” character in front of a text string (no spaces allowed) to cause Twitter, and other sites supporting the hashtag, to create a link to all posts using that text string. It is a way to index posts around a topic, as well as a way to start or join a conversation about an interest, a current event, or a call to action.
The History and Power of Hashtags in Social Media Marketing infographic provides an interesting high-level overview of the hashtag’s beginning, as well as examples of how it is used in a variety of social media settings.
Social Media Hashtag Tools
To join a hashtag conversation, simply post, or tag, or tweet using the hashtag to which you want to contribute. That’s the easy part. The tougher decision is selecting a hashtag strategy for your small business. Luckily, there are many tools available that can help you. The following are some worth checking out:
This hashtag search engine is a great research tool for selecting hashtags to use as part of your social media marketing campaigns. With a free account you get access to helpful tutorials on hashtags, as well as the “hashtag encyclopedia” which at current writing contains 41,018,137 Twitter hashtags. For each one it provides definitions (helpful to make sure you don’t inadvertently join an irrelevant, or worse inappropriate, conversation), popularity, relationships to other hashtags, and a list of the most popular influencers for the tag.
Best For: Finding a hashtag that is relevant to your small business, but is not so popular (or unpopular) that your voice will not be heard. The University suggests a sweet spot of a 25-30 popularity rating. To find a hashtag with that sweet spot, search for a general term that is likely to have a high popularity rating, and then look at the list of related terms for one in the sweet spot.
Search for a hashtag on Tagboard, and it will create a visual collection of posts using that hashtag, collected in near real-time from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and other social media sites. With a free account you can save the board, and it will update regularly. You will also be able to control which posts show up and which you want to hide. Paid accounts provide more control, and enable you to create multiple “tagboards” which you can embed in your website, include in your mobile app, or display at your event.
Best For: Tracking the popularity of hashtags, and the overall tone of the conversation around them. Search for a hashtag on Tagboard, and the resulting board will not only display matching posts, but it will also display a definition for the hashtag, the number of posts the hashtag is currently getting per minute, a trend graph showing popularity over time, and an indication of the “sentiment” around the posts (a percentage for positive, negative, or neutral).
Part hashtag search engine, part hashtag university, hashtags.org is designed to help organizations of all sizes leverage social media as part of their marketing and customer relationship programs. Search for a hashtag and see a 24-hour trend chart for tweets-per-hour. Register for a free account and get access to hashtag marketing tools and educational resources.
Best For: Learning about using hashtags as part of social media marketing. Start with the Quick Start Guide to Hashtags, and get basic tips on etiquette, history, and how to best employ hashtags on specific sites like Instagram and Pinterest.
Tips for Leveraging Hashtags in your Small Business Social Media Marketing
Once you have your tools in place, you can start doing the research necessary to effectively leverage appropriate hashtags in your small business marketing. And, I do mean effectively leverage—because simply adding something irrelevant to a popular conversation really doesn’t do anyone any good.
For example, yesterday was Groundhog Day. (And yes in case you were wondering, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, predicting that we’re in for 6 more weeks of winter.) Thus, it’s not surprising that #groundhogday was popular, peaking yesterday at almost 11,000 posts per hour. What is surprising is the gamut of topics these posts covered. On Twitter alone there were the expected references to Phil and various other weather predicting rodents, references to the Bill Murray movie, and references to winter. But there were also recipe posts, calls to drink more beer, more coffee, and more chocolate from brands selling those beverages, a variety of calls to go shopping for everything from furniture to toys to smiley cookies, and calls from politicians from both parties not to repeat the other sides’ failed policies.
So, Tip #1– be relevant! For additional helpful advice, check out The POWER of the #hashtag infographic from American Express Open. It provides a great overview of the basics a small business owner needs to, “drive brand recognition, improve reach and engage in a give-and-take with your customer base.”
Also check out this infographic which provides a quick reference for Hashtag Etiquette, and the Survey Gizmo post Tweet This, Not That: Do’s and Don’ts for B2B Marketing on Twitter. The latter provides two dos and two don’ts for Twitter posts, including the suggestion that you use no more than 3 hashtags per Twitter post to keep it relevant and avoid looking like a hashtag spammer.
While judicious use of hashtags on Twitter is definitely a best practice, it is not the rule for all social media sites. For example, Instagram allows up to 30 hashtags to be attached to each picture. This post provides research that shows that the number of hashtags you use correlates to the number of likes you get (more hashtags = more likes), and this post provides a strategy for using new hashtags with old Instagram posts to increase views and likes. This one provides 7 of the best Instagram hashtags for 38 niche markets, including everything from financial services, to coffee shops, to graphic design.
Notable Hashtag Faux Pas
For every social media hashtag success story, there is also a horror story of good intentions gone awry or carelessness having horrendously embarrassing (and brand-crushing) results. For example, this Entrepreneur post highlights The 5 Worst Twitter Marketing Fails of 2014, and provides specific lessons you can learn from each. Do you remember when DiGiorno used a domestic violence hashtag to sell pizza, or when USAir inexplicably tweeted a pornographic image? If not, read the post to relive the horror.
A Case for the Death of Hashtags
Of course, when something gets popular, it can get so over-used that it loses effectiveness. The following video bit “#Hashtag” with Jimmy Fallon & Justin Timberlake (Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), nicely illustrates the point:
While it may be great fodder for parody, it is safe to say that the hashtag is still an extremely useful social media marketing tool. However, it is also ripe for spamming, misuse, and other forms of exploitation. Like all small business marketing, and social media marketing in particular, you need to be extremely careful that your campaigns engage your audience in a positive way, and do not fall completely flat, or worse, cause backlash. But, a smart hashtag strategy can play an important role in fostering your #smallbizsuccess.
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