Hashtags: What they are and how to use them effectively
To hashtag or not to hashtag? That’s the question frustrating social media marketers today.
The short answer: Yes, definitely use hashtags. Hashtags are an essential asset in your digital marketing toolbox.
Hashtags impact the overall performance of social media content. Forward-thinking brands use them with specific goals and intentional strategies in mind—whether they’re making their product go viral or leveraging hashtag analytics.
Unfortunately, the confusion surrounding hashtags prevents some marketers from using them to their full potential. This is further complicated by experts who negate the benefits of hashtags or dismiss them as irrelevant.
In this article, we break down everything you need to know to hashtag with confidence. We explore what hashtags are, how to use them and examples of ways brands are successfully ushering in the new era of hashtags.
- What is a hashtag?
- Why use hashtags
- How to find which hashtags to use
- Tips for using hashtags
- Using hashtags on different social networks
- Hashtag examples to spark your next big idea
What is a hashtag?
Hashtags are words and numbers following the # symbol that categorize and track content on social media. You can add hashtags to social posts, bios and comments on most major platforms, including Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube and Pinterest.
What is the history of the hashtag?
So, where did the hashtag come from? The first hashtag debuted on Twitter in 2007 from a product designer named Chris Messina.
“I designed the hashtag to thwart any one social network from becoming the dominant gatekeeper. Think about it: The hashtag is one of the few superstructures that spans across all social media platforms.
Only hashtags allow similarly-interested folks to find each other—whether they’re on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, Reddit or elsewhere. It provides a glimpse into what an interoperable, decentralized social web could be like.” — Chris Messina, Inventor of the hashtag
What is the hashtag symbol?
Many social media users and marketers immediately recognize the # symbol as a hashtag, but its official name is an octothorpe. The term was first used in 1971 when telecommunications companies introduced the # symbol to the touch-tone dialing keypad.
However, depending on how you use it, the symbol is called many different names. Before its use on social media, it was most widely known as a pound or number sign (example: #2 pencil). Musicians also use the symbol to distinguish a sharp note (example: F#), while copy editors use it to denote adding a space.
In the early days of the internet, chatroom users referred to the symbol as a “hash,” a word borrowed from programmer culture. That’s where Messina was inspired to repurpose it on Twitter. Since then, the term hashtag has dominated modern popular lexicon.
What is the purpose of a hashtag?
Given the sophistication of today’s social media algorithms, it might be difficult to remember the chaotic social feeds of the early 2000s. Users had limited control over what content they saw and were frustrated by too many uninteresting or irrelevant posts.
Hashtags were invented to help bring order to the social media user experience. Hashtags group together similar conversations to help people find content that matters to them. Once a hashtag is published, it becomes a clickable, searchable link.
For example, when you click on #SummerVibes on TikTok, you can see all videos published on the platform using that hashtag. You can also see the top videos and overall popularity of the hashtag.
What is a hashtag used for?
While organizing feeds was the original purpose of hashtags, their use case has evolved. Now, they empower users to amplify their message. Hashtags have become so powerful they can be the spark that ignites social movements (example: #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter).
Hashtags aren’t always a force of social change—some viral hashtags are just plain fun. Like #Gentleminions, a TikTok challenge turned cultural phenomenon that led to record-breaking box office numbers for the Minions franchise.
For brands, hashtags can help social marketers reach niche audiences and build community.
According to Messina, “Many more people are interested in finding their community—or growing the one they already run. Hashtags provide a tried and true method across nearly every social media platform.”
Hashtags also help social marketers create viral campaigns, increase brand awareness and reach their business goals.
Why you should use hashtags
Hashtags are powerful tools for growing your online presence. Regardless of which social platform you use them on, here are three ways hashtags can benefit your business:
You can use hashtags to participate in larger conversations or trending topics, which can increase the reach of your posts, spark conversations and attract even more attention.
For instance, let’s say you’re a sports brand that wants to join in on the conversation around the FIFA World Cup. You can use relevant hashtags such as #WorldCup and #FIFAWorldCup to participate in the larger conversation around the event.
This will help your posts appear in searches and feeds related to the World Cup, increasing your visibility and potential for engagement.
You can also monitor these hashtags and engage with users who are using them. Like and comment on relevant posts, share user-generated content or even run a contest or giveaway using the hashtags to encourage engagement.
But be careful — including spammy, irrelevant, generic and too many hashtags can do more harm than good. Choose your hashtags wisely to reach like-minded audiences, and make sure your content is worth engaging with.
Makes your brand easier to find
Hashtags are a great way to increase brand awareness. They let you categorize your content so anyone interested in that particular topic can easily find it.
For example, let’s say you run a skincare brand and you create a post about your new moisturizer product. By including relevant hashtags such as #skincare, #beauty and #moisturizer in your post, you’re essentially tagging your content with those keywords.
Users who are interested in skincare products or searching for those keywords can find your post (and brand) by searching for those hashtags.
You can also include branded hashtags to help people who are already aware of your brand to easily find specific posts and pages.
Adds additional context to your posts
Hashtags connect your posts to specific topics or themes, making it easier for your audience to find, understand, relate to and engage with your content.
For example, if you’re sharing a new recipe you’ve tried, including hashtags like #recipe can help make your post searchable and differentiate it from other non-recipe food posts.
Similarly, if you’re attending a conference or event, using the event’s official hashtag can help your post get seen by other attendees and people following the event online.
Hashtags are also useful if you’re sharing creative visual content, and want to add the right context without writing long paragraphs of text.
How to find which hashtags to use
Just because a hashtag is popular doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for your brand. Before using a new hashtag, determine your goal (example: increased engagement).
After you have an endgame in mind, start digging into hashtag research. Here are a few ways to find the right hashtags for your brand.
Use a social media listening tool
Tools like RiteTag and Sprout Social’s Listening can help you identify relevant conversations by tracking keywords associated with your brand.
By monitoring these conversations, you can find out what hashtags are being used by your target audience and what topics they’re interested in.
Sprout also lets you track the performance of the hashtags you’re already using by analyzing the number of mentions, engagement and audience sentiment. This is helpful for knowing whether you’re using the right hashtags or need a change of strategy.
Research trending hashtags
Take advantage of trending hashtags to attract more attention to your posts.
Using popular hashtags is also a great way to come up with creative ideas for new content. Plus, it helps your brand become part of a larger community and join the conversation.
So, how do you find trending hashtags in your niche?
Begin by natively researching existing popular and relevant hashtags across apps. Use these hashtag types for inspiration:
- Product or service (example: #Pretzels)
- Industry or community-specific (example: #BookTok)
- Timely or seasonal (example: #NYE)
- Location (example: #Dublin)
- Acronyms (example: #SMMs)
Turn to your social media platform’s trend-specific page to find these.
On Instagram, for example, you can browse the Explore page to see which posts are rising in popularity. Take note of the hashtags they’re using and consider hopping on the bandwagon if they align with your brand.
Other ways to find trending hashtags include using hashtag research tools and keeping track of events, holidays and special occasions.
Review your competition
Studying your competitors’ online strategy is a clever way to find relevant and effective hashtags for your brand.
Start by identifying brands that are similar to yours in terms of offerings, target audience and overall brand image. Then, analyze the hashtags they’re using in their posts, as well as the ones in their bio or profile description.
Look for common themes or topics that are relevant to your brand. Evaluate the engagement level on their posts and shortlist hashtags you might want to “share the space” with.
Don’t forget to track the performance of any competitor hashtags you use in your own posts. Hashtags working for your competition may not work for your brand.
In that case, it’s best to understand your own brand voice, audience and niche, and use more targeted hashtags that resonate with your customers.
Tips for using hashtags
Despite the benefits of hashtags, some marketers are unsure how to use them strategically.
For example, if your goal is to reach a specific audience, adding popular hashtags (example: #ForYouPage) to your posts might cast too wide of a net and fail to connect you with the right people.
To perfect the art of hashtagging, you should conduct research, use hashtags thoughtfully and analyze your results.
Here are some tips for using hashtags to their max potential.
1. Create branded hashtags
You might find creating your own branded hashtag is the best way to reach your goals. Branded hashtags increase visibility, clicks, mentions and overall reach.
Make sure to use your branded hashtag consistently across all of your social media channels. And encourage your followers to use it when they share content related to your brand.
For example, Rare Beauty — Selena Gomez’s makeup brand — started the hashtag #rareroutine to encourage customers to share their beauty routines using Rare Beauty products.
You can also consider running a social media campaign or contest using the hashtag to further promote your brand.
For most brands, using the right mix of popular, niche and brand-specific hashtags is the sweet spot for exposure and engagement.
Above all, it’s most important to identify hashtags that will help your brand stand out from your competitors and contribute toward your unique goals.
2. Use relevant hashtags in your social content
Once you identify which hashtags you’re going to use, it’s time to start adding them to your content. With hashtags, the general rule of thumb is less is more. Avoid stuffing your posts full of hashtags. Not only could this deter people from reading your message, it could also lead the social platform to categorize your posts as spam.
In general, stick to a few hashtags that are relevant to or describe your post. To determine exactly how many hashtags you should use, follow the best practices of each social platform. Keep reading to learn more about platform-specific best practices in the next section of this article.
When you write your copy, customize your hashtag placement according to each platform’s guidelines. Keep in mind that hashtags are hyperlinks. Adding them to the bottom of your captions, descriptions or posts works best to prevent people from clicking away.
3. Analyze and report on your hashtags’ progress
Tracking your hashtags is the most critical thing you can do to make sure they’re impacting your social performance. Monitor key metrics on a regular basis, including:
- Popularity: How many people are using the hashtag?
- Reach: How many people see the hashtag you’re using?
- Interactions: How many people engage (like, share or comment) with posts that include the hashtag?
- Users: Who is seeing the hashtag?
You can find some of this data in the native apps. If you want to automatically generate and visualize it in one place, use a tool like Sprout Social.
In Sprout, there are multiple ways to track the performance of your hashtags. For example, you can use social listening to find out how frequently people are talking about your topic, what related terms they’re using and the sentiment around the topic.
Use data to determine which hashtags work well and which ones don’t. Continue to experiment and test new tags to avoid using the same hashtags on every post—this could register as spam. Instead, keep your best performing hashtags on rotation and try out new ones often.
Using hashtags on different social networks
When using hashtags across your social presence, don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach. Tailor hashtags to suit each platform. Here are up-to-date hashtag best practices you can follow to supercharge your content and grow your reach.
How to use hashtags on Instagram
There are a number of benefits to using hashtags on Instagram. According to Instagram’s Creator Community, IG users should “think of hashtags as a tool that provides context about your post and supports delivering content to people who are interested in a particular topic.”
The Creator Community also lays out these guidelines:
- Only use 3-5 hashtags at a time
- Use hashtags in your posts, comments and Stories
- Only use hashtags relevant to your community and brand
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How to use hashtags on Facebook
Facebook has steered away from giving explicit best practice advice since introducing hashtags in 2016. This has led some brands to shy away from using them, while others include them in every post.
Based on our research, follow these steps to make hashtags on Facebook work for your brand:
- Only use 1-2 hashtags
- Use hashtags in your posts, comments and Stories
- Use timely hashtags since many users turn to Facebook for news and events
How to use hashtags on TikTok
Some cite TikTok as the ultimate hashtag success story. And there’s no denying the impact hashtags have on growing your reach in the app.
To help your TikTok grow to its fullest potential, use these hashtag best practices:
- Only use 3-5 hashtags
- Use hashtags in your videos and Stories
- Stay on top of emerging, trending hashtags and use them thoughtfully
- Avoid using #ForYou, #FYP and #ForYouPage. If you do use them, proceed with caution.
How to use hashtags on Twitter
Hashtags are baked into Twitter’s DNA. Twitter users turn to the platform to catch up on what’s happening and hashtags make finding the latest content easy. Twitter makes it even easier by displaying trending hashtags and keywords on the homepage.
Use these hashtags tips to help your content perform well on Twitter:
- Only use 1-2 hashtags
- Use hashtags in your Tweets, Retweets and Replies
- Use community-focused hashtags (example: events, conferences, holidays)
- Join current conversations by using popular hashtags and jumping on trends (if it’s a good fit for your brand)
How to use hashtags on LinkedIn
LinkedIn users follow and interact with hashtags that are relevant to their job or industry. Tap into your audience’s go-to hashtags when creating your social content.
LinkedIn is also a great place to roll out your branded hashtags, and encourage your team members to use them too.
When using hashtags on LinkedIn, consider these best practices:
- Only use 2-3 hashtags
- Use hashtags in your posts and on your company page. Note: Hashtags in comments or articles don’t show up in people’s feed.
- Mix well-known and niche, branded hashtags
How to use hashtags on YouTube
Use hashtags on YouTube to help people find your videos. Hashtags boost your searchability and organize your channel, which encourages viewers to stick around.
To encourage more video views, optimize your hashtag usage with these guidelines:
- Only use 3-5 hashtags per video
- Use 1-2 hashtags in your title and the rest in your description
How to use hashtags on Pinterest
Pinterest helps create a personalized experience by sorting all Pins into categories. People look for “pin-spiration” for everything from holiday decor to muscle cars, so adding niche hashtags to your posts make it easier to reach the right audience.
Use these hashtag tips to help your Pins be seen by your intended audience:
- There isn’t official Pinterest data to support the number of hashtags you should use. Use your own discretion and, remember, less is more.
- Use timely hashtags since users are often on Pinterest to gain seasonal ideas
- Make sure your hashtags are relevant to your Pin
Hashtag examples to spark your next big idea
Now that you know how to use hashtags across platforms, here’s our round up of the best ways brands and creators use them.
1. Reference an internet trend
When Casper heard about #GoblinMode—the latest internet trend that celebrates lazing around—they quickly got in on the fun. As a brand known for selling state of the art mattresses, rest and relaxation is part of their ethos.
If you see a new trend that aligns with your brand, use it to inspire your next Tweet. Don’t forget to use the trending hashtag.
2. Use a hashtag for your Q&A
Orgain hosted a live Q&A event and posted their responses to Twitter using #OrganicSummer. The hashtag made it easier for their audience to follow along and engage with their content. It was general enough that it reached a lot of people, but specific enough to attract the right audience.
Are you hosting or participating in an event soon? Be sure to use that event’s hashtag in your promotional content. If there isn’t a hashtag yet, create one.
3. Combine branded and general hashtags
Jenna Kutcher, host of the Goal Digger podcast, is known for her online marketing savvy. In her LinkedIn posts, she uses hashtags that are specific to her brand (example: #GoalDiggerPodcast) and general hashtags her audience might use (example: #Entrepreneurship).
If you’re looking for inspiration for your branded hashtag, consider using the name of an existing campaign, tagline or content series your brand currently uses. The keywords are already associated with your brand, so they’ll be a natural fit.
4. Tag your location
Myles Apparel knows their customers are just as nature-obsessed as they are. Which is why tagging their Instagram images with #Donner makes sense. Donner Summit, California, is a highly-Instagrammable location made for outdoor enthusiasts.
If you’re at a location that’s significant to your audience, add it to your post or Story as a hashtag.
Start using hashtags in your content strategy
The hashtag isn’t dead. In fact, it’s more vital to the success of your content’s performance than ever. By delivering content with the right hashtags, you can forge relationships with your community, build brand awareness and reach your goals on social—and beyond.
Need help determining which hashtags are right for your brand? Use our worksheet to uncover the hashtags that have the greatest impact on your content.
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