Since its modern rise to prominence, the humble hashtag has become a common feature of the social media landscape. While it is well established on Twitter and Instagram, more recently it has been migrating its way onto other social platforms such as Google+, Facebook and Pinterest. So what’s behind its sudden boost in street cred and is the hashtag all it’s cracked up to be?

The first social media hashtag can be traced back to former Google employee, Chris Messina, back in 2007. Messina suggested the use of hashtags as a way to unite group conversations. The phenomenon was formally adopted by Twitter in 2009, when terms appended with the # sign began to be automatically hyperlinked. And the rest, as they say, is #history.

Chris Messina tweet

Why use hashtags?
A hashtag is essentially a way to tag a tweet or post with a keyword so that other users on that social media network can search for the term and find your content. When a user selects a particular hashtag, they will be taken to a page that aggregates all content on the platform that has been hashtagged with that term. What this means is that using hashtags can serve to get more eyeballs looking at your content, beyond your existing follower base. Broadening your exposure in this way obviously also offers you the potential to acquire new followers.

Other benefits of hashtags include:

  • heightened engagement (This is especially so on Twitter, with individual tweets seeing, on average, a 100 percent increase in engagement by using hashtags and brands seeing a 50 percent increase.)
  • greater brand awareness (Tagging your posts with your brand hashtag is a good way to aggregate your content and help potential customers see what else your brand has to offer.)
  • the ability to stimulate or monitor conversation around a particular topic
  • ease of content curation
  • campaign or contest tracking
  • the ability to target a specific audience
  • the capacity to capitalise on a trending topic or live event
  • encouragement of user generated content (UGC) (UGC such as photos, videos and updates featuring hashtags, can be showcased on a Facebook landing page or website, or – with the appropriate permission – repurposed for marketing collateral.)

Royal Baby

British Airways cashed in on the trending hashtag #RoyalBaby with this cheeky tweet.

Which social media platforms support hashtags?
While many social media platforms now support the concept, Twitter is still the homeland of the hashtag, with Instagram not far behind. Of the major social networks, hashtags can now also be found on Google+, Facebook, Pinterest and YouTube. In addition to these, there is a host of smaller platforms that support it, including Tumblr, Vine, Flickr, FriendFeed, GitHub and Tout. LinkedIn had a brief dabble in hashtags but ended up abandoning them.

The general consensus among social media pundits seems to be that they are most effective on Twitter, Instagram and Google+. The jury is still out on Facebook, with most acknowledging that hashtags have a place when it comes to contests and cross-promotion with Instagram, but not much else. Some experts have even suggested that hashtag use may in fact have a negative impact on engagement. Either way, uptake on Facebook has been so limited to date that the effectiveness of hashtags on the platform is, at best, marginal.

Similarly, hashtags have a fairly peripheral role on Pinterest. So far, they are not searchable within Pinterest’s internal search engine so they’re not effective for discoverability. They are, however, clickable within a pin description. For this reason, they’ve mainly been used as a way for individuals or brands to link to their own related offerings (i.e. by hashtagging with their name or brand name).

On YouTube, hashtags are mostly used in the comments section. When users leave comments with hashtags, this will then link through to a page with videos containing the hashtagged term in the title.

Effectiveness of hashtags on Facebook

A 2013 study by Facebook Analytics Firm EdgeRank Checker indicated that hashtags on Facebook may actually decrease engagement.

How can I find the right hashtag?
Choosing the right hashtag can be the difference between going viral and complete disaster. If you want to jump on the bandwagon of an existing hashtag, you are going to want to make sure that there is reasonable take-up behind it. On the flipside, if you want to create a unique hashtag – for example, to track a campaign – you want to make sure it’s not already being used for something else, as this will create an administrative nightmare. More importantly, you need to check that your proposed hashtag is not being used for something completely out of kilter with your intention!

There are plenty of tools available to help you work out which hashtag to use. Not surprisingly, most of these relate to Twitter. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Hootsuite: Hootsuite is a useful tool for researching Twitter hashtags and ensuring that the conversation you have in mind is the conversation that’s actually happening around that hashtag.

RiteTag: Ritetag helps you determine which hashtags are popular or overused on Twitter and suggests possible associated hashtags that may be a better fit for your message. A colour-coding system is used to indicate how effective your hashtags will be.

Websta: Websta allows you to track trending hashtags on Instagram.

Cyfe: Cyfe allows you to search and archive hashtag results in Google+.

Tagboard: Tagboard allows you to see how your hashtag is used across multiple networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+ and Vine.

Hashtagging etiquette
There are a few basic rules for getting the most out of your hashtags:

  • Don’t go overboard: While research, particularly on Twitter, has shown that engagement increases with the use of hashtags, the benefits start to drop off once you get past one or two hashtags. According to Buddy Media, engagement actually drops by an average of 17 percent when more than two hashtags are used. Beyond two, you start to hit a point of ‘hashtag overload’ and your messages will start to look like spam.
  • Don’t string too many words together: While it is acceptable to run a couple of words together (e.g. #ContentMarketing), your posts will start to lose their value if you try to condense more than two or three words in one hashtag. When you use hashtags this way, capitalise individual terms to make them easier to read.
  • Keep it relevant: It’s one thing to cash in on a trending term that has some relevance to your offering. However, blatant hijacking of an irrelevant trending hashtag for the purpose of exposure will not win you any friends. (Unless you’re very clever about tying it in – see Royal Baby example from British Airways, above!)

The #verdict
If you’re not using hashtags on Twitter, Instagram and Google+, you’re potentially missing out on the opportunity to broaden your audience or even have your messages go viral. At this stage, their effectiveness on other platforms is a little less clear, particularly on Facebook. However, at the rate things change in the social media space, it could be an entirely different playing field with the blink of an eye. The best strategy is simply to experiment and see what works for your brand, and use some of the tools suggested above to make sure you’re using the best hashtags for the job. Oh, and #WatchThisSpace…

Feature Image: Shutterstock / Gonzalo Aragon