We talk about hashtags a lot, but we haven’t stepped back to consider the basics in a while. Hashtags are a way for social media users to tag their posts with keywords, which in turn make them easier for social networks to organize and users to search — we all know that.

But where do hashtags came from? How you can use them for your business? Who decided to put a pound symbol in front of a word to start tracking trends across social networks?  And maybe the most important question of all: Are hashtags going to stick around for years to come, or are they something that we’ll regret when VH1 takes a look at the 2010s?

Hashtags have become such a common practice these days that people have started using them outside of their intended purpose. People use them in text messages, chats, songs, and advertisements.

What Are Hashtags?

hash·tag: A word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#), used within a message to identify a keyword or topic of interest and facilitate a search for it.

So whenever a user adds a hashtag to their post, it is immediately indexed by the social network and searchable by other users. Once someone clicks on that hashtag, they’ll be brought to a page that aggregates all of the posts with the same hashtagged keyword in real-time. Once a keyword picks up enough momentum it becomes known as “trending.” Trending isn’t simply a matter of becoming the most popular hashtag on the networks. Each users’ trending topics is different based on their location and social connections.

Where Did Hashtags Come From?

It may be pretty surprising to hear, but the first use of a hashtag in social media can actually be traced back to one man. Chris Messina, a former Google employee who worked in developer relations and as a designer on Google+, Tweeted the first ever hashtag. This Tweet took place all the way back in 2007, so it took quite a bit to catch on, but when it did, it did in a big way.

How to Use Hashtags

Using a hashtag in a social post is as simple as adding the ‘#’ sign before a single word or phrase without spaces or punctuation (numbers are okay).  

  • Don’t string too many words together with a single hashtag.
  • If you tweet with a hashtag on a public account, anyone who does a search for that hashtag may find your tweet.
  • Don’t #spam #with #hashtags. Don’t over-tag a single tweet.
  • Use hashtags only on tweets relevant to the topic.

Though it’s easy to quickly create and send out a post with a hashtag in it, there is some basic etiquette when it comes to using them. We’ll cover some of the advanced ways to use hashtags, but first lets take a step back and look at what Mediabistro put together outlining some of the basic rules for creating a tweet with hashtags. Though it’s easy to create a hashtag, it’s not quite as easy to do it in a correct or relevant way. 

Creating Your Own Hashtag

Creating your own hashtag can be a powerful thing. If you do it right, and have a lot of luck on your side, your hashtag will start trending among your circle of followers. Then, whenever someone sees that hashtag they’ll be reminded of your brand. However, there are tons of horror stories online of marketers failing when creating their own hashtag.

The key to to creating a hashtag that doesn’t leave you vulnerable is to write it free of ambiguity. It’s important to completely guide how you want the conversation to go, otherwise you’re at the mercy of the internet.

One example of a campaign that did extremely well — it was actually created for Audi by Sprout’s Andy White — was #WantAnR8. Twitter users would use that hashtag to tell Audi why they would want an R8 for the day, and the whoever submitted the best tweet won the opportunity.

Tweets like Bran’s exploded around Twitter, generating a huge buzz for Audi at an extremely low cost.

Instead of creating your own hashtags, you have the opportunity to craft Tweets based around trending hashtags in hopes of gaining visibility from users searching that trend. The absolute key thing to remember here is relevance. There are times when a brand attempts to force itself onto users through trending topics when it just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make for a good experience to be seen as an irrelevant ad.

However, when done right, riding a trending hashtag’s coattails can lead to significant payouts. A few weeks ago, the San Diego Comic-Con was going on, and the @LEGOBatmanGame is taking full advantage of this by using the trending #SDCC hashtag to promote their brand, which is completely relevant to this audience.

Hashtag Tracking and Analytics

When you’re thinking of hashtags that you could use to engage with your audience, it’s also beneficial to look towards your audience. Find the keywords and hashtags that are already associated with your brand, and bolster the positive ones. With something like Sprout Social’s Trends report, it’s easy to find out exactly which terms are being associated with your brand most often.

Twitter Trends Report - Uncover topics and hashtags

In this instance we can see that a lot of people are tweeting #smcchchicago at the same time as @SproutSocial. Knowing this, we can start to dive into the conversation and engage with our fans and followers.

Not only are tools like these good for finding new things to tweet about, they’re good for seeing how well your Tweets are performing in general. Easily track retweets, favorites, social reach, and more.

Which Networks Support Hashtags?

Most networks use hashtags in the same basic way; to organize data and make it easier for user consumption. However, each network has a different tweak on how they use them.

Twitter: The network that brought us the hashtag is the most popular site to use it on. Just scrolling through my own feed I see that more than half of the tweets contain a hashtag. You can find the trending topics on the left hand side of your Twitter stream.

Facebook: Clicking a hashtag on Facebook will bring you to a separate page with posts that are visible to you based on the various users’ privacy settings. You’ll also see the different trending topics in the top right hand corner of your News Feed.

Instagram: Hashtagging on Instagram is great if you want to see photos similar to the ones that you’ve taken. Simply hashtag the picture you took and it will create a link to a page with other pictures of the same subject.

Google+: Google+ uses hashtags similar to the other sites, but with one main difference. Google+ will add hashtags to content if they think that it is a relevant and popular keyword. You can always opt-out of this through Google+ if you’d like.

Tumblr: When you’re creating a post on your Tumblr page, you’ll see an area at the bottom asking you to add “tags.” When you start to type a tag for your post, Tumblr will automatically add a hashtag to the front of it.

Pinterest: The main thing that you need to bear in mind when creating hashtags on Pinterest is that they’re only clickable in a Pin description. Also, hashtags aren’t searchable on Pinterest, so you’ll need to just search the keyword to find the content.

YouTube: Hashtag use within YouTube is most prevalent in the comments section. Users can leave comments with hashtags, which will then click through to a page with videos that contain that hashtag in their title.

Kickstarter: On Kickstarter, sorting by different hashtags can make it easier for you to find projects you’d be interested in investing in.

Vine: As a company owned by the creators of the hashtag, you’d better believe that Vine has included the functionality. As with other sites, adding a link to your Vine’s description will bring you to a page with Vine’s on the same topic.

Other Networks that Support Hashtags:

  • App.net
  • Flickr
  • FriendFeed
  • GitHub
  • Tout

Are Hashtags Here To Stay?

This all brings us back to the most important question: are hashtags here to stay? Seeing as how they’ve been integrated into most of the popular social media platforms, and social media has entered almost every facet of our lives, the answer is yes.

Though they’ve become stigmatized in our culture, hashtags actually do play a vital role on social media when used within reason. Hashtags create incentives for people to categorize their posts, which in turn makes it easier for users looking for posts on the same topic to find content. It’s also an easy way to distribute popular news to groups of people who otherwise may not be actively searching for it.