When you are using Twitter, you will often see text accompanied by the symbol “#” – what we used to refer to as a number sign has become known as the “pound” sign but also known as a “hashmark.” In social media parlance, # indicates you are using a “hashtag.”
So how has a simple typographic symbol become a signal of something of importance on social media? The symbol was often used by computer and IT specialists in the past to highlight something that may have had special meaning in code writing. In 2007, as Twitter was being launched worldwide, a computer scientist named Chris Messina – his background includes his advocacy of “open source” computer and software codes – experimented with the “hashtag” to tag topics of interest on Twitter. He posted the first hashtag on Twitter in August 2007 – “How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?” Messina’s suggestion to use the hashtag was not formally adopted by Twitter, but the practice took off after hashtags were widely used in Tweets relating to the 2007 San Diego forest fires. Messina thought that the use of the hashtag would make it easier for “lay” users to search for content and find timely updates. In early July 2009, Twitter began to embrace the use of hashtags, and by 2010, it had introduced the category “Trending Topics” displaying hashtags that are in popular use now.
It was around this time that trade shows and business began to realize the value of hashtags – for example, a gathering of thousands of YMCA managers and directors used the hashtag #YMCAGeneralAssembly in the summer of 2013 to promote their event in Philadelphia.
Twitter users utilize hashtags to comment on serious political events (#Election) or entertainment topics (#Oscars), while brands use them to promote their brand (#Coke).
Many major brands now have Twitter accounts, and some choose to create hashtags to promote specific events or campaigns. If you want to use Twitter as part of your business strategy, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Consolidate your tweets – Choose a specific account that will represent your brand or business. Set up a business account or designate one employee to tweet on behalf of the company. That way, users can find all your tweets in one place.
- Use relevant hashtags – See what hashtags other businesses in your field are using. Users will find you when they search for those keywords.
- Follow trends – See what hashtags are trending and make use of them — if they are relevant to your business. Using a popular hashtag that has nothing to do with your brand (for example, including #DonaldTrump in a tweet about a software sale) makes you look like a spammer and will hurt your credibility.
- Create your own hashtag – If you want to create a special hashtag for an event or campaign, select one that hasn’t been used before and remind everyone to use it in related tweets. Be sure to include the hashtag in any promotional materials. Make it informative but short — for example, MediaMark Spotlight uses #MediaMark to talk about activities in our company.
- Generate “buzz” — Creating a contest, raffle or promotion is a great way to get Twitter talking about your brand. Users will be more likely to retweet your hashtags if they know they might win a prize by doing so. For instance, if you’re promoting a new bakery shop called, oh, “Bread Land,” get Twitter buzzing by offering free baked goods to users who tweet #BreadLandPromo.
Your hashtag’s visibility will depend on your privacy settings. If your Twitter account is private, only those authorized to see your tweets will have access to your hashtags. If you are using hashtags to increase your brand’s exposure, make sure your tweets are set to Public.
Best Practices for using hashtags? Here’s three key tips:
- Be specific: If you’re using a hashtag to join a conversation, make sure the hashtag is specific and relevant to your topic. If you’re talking about President Obama’s health care plan, use #Obamacare instead of simply #Obama. A vague or generic hashtag like #health or #opinion isn’t effective either.
- Keep it simple: Hashtags, like links, look like spam if they are used too often. Three hashtags should be the maximum on Twitter and Facebook, but you can get away with more hashtags on Instagram and Vine. And don’t hashtag the same word twice (“#DoctorStrange is a great movie! Everybody go see #DoctorStrange”). It’s #redundant.
- Give context: A tweet that contains only hashtags is not only confusing — it’s boring. If your tweet simply reads, “#happy,” your followers will have no idea what you’re talking about. Similarly, if you tweet, “#HouseofCards is #awesome,” you’re not really adding much to the conversation.
As with any other social media, learn by watching what others are doing. See how you can contribute to the dialogue, and of course, find a way to talk about your brand that will attract the business you want to you brand. Experiment, test, try it out – and watch what happens!
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