I'm most likely preaching to the choir with this post, since most of the people who read this blog are pretty social media savvy. However, in my line of work, I do still see a whooooole lot of people who just do not understand hashtags. This post is for anyone who needs some help with that little # symbol.
Hashtags were originally popularized on Twitter, but they're used on a TON of social media sites. This post features general advice on how to use them, but every site is different and I encourage you to learn the culture of each, as well as its best practices. You'll find hashtags on Pinterest, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Facebook... even LinkedIn tried it for a while. However, not all hashtags are created equal. More below.
|Photo Credit: Stuart Chalmers via Compfight cc|
1) DON'T use super general hashtags like #sale, #book, #contest, etc.
Why? - Because they're pointless. The point of tagging something is to increase the likelihood that relevant users will discover it. First, tags like these are just too broad -- what kind of sale, book, or contest? Who is it relevant to? Second, so many people and bots are using tags like these that you'll be immediately lost in a sea of spam and irrelevant information. Third, NO ONE follows these tags because there's no point in monitoring a tag that will likely be 90% spam. Similarly, it's not very effective to use your city's name. If people want to do a local search, they'll search by location, not hashtag.
2) DON'T use a bunch of hashtags in a row.
Why? - It's irritating and spammy. It's unlikely your post applies to all the tags you're giving it, so don't. Select a few of the most relevant tags. I suggest 2-3, possibly 4 at the absolute max (for Twitter). With a site like Tumblr, five hashtags is perfectly acceptable. The exception to this rule is if you're being silly by making up your own jokey hashtags for comedic value.
3) DON'T hop onto a popular hashtag with an irrelevant post.
Why? - It's rude. Think of it like bursting into an ongoing conversation with a non-sequitur, or coming up to diners chatting on an outdoor patio and shoving a flyer in their face. A number of big brands have gotten burned doing this. An example would be Kenneth Cole, who has a habit of interjecting sales-y tweets into serious political discussion, like the Egyptian rebellion. He does it intentionally for brand attention -- so he says -- but it just makes him look like an asshole. You're not getting exposure by doing this, you're just being a jerk.
4) DON'T bother using hashtags on Facebook.
Why? - Read this article. It'll tell you exactly why. In a nutshell: Facebook is not a good medium for the hashtag. For Facebook stuff, it's best to research Facebook-specific marketing, which is very different than most other social media sites. There are other sites where hashtags are less effective -- Pinterest uses hashtags, but they don't work as well as they do on other sites.
5) DON'T talk from a pulpit.
Why? - The point of hashtags is organization and discussion. This doesn't apply to every medium -- Vine, Pinterest, and similar aren't really "discussion" sites -- but for mediums like Twitter and Tumblr, you'll want to actually participate in the discussion and respond to other people. Don't just spout off your Very Important Thoughts and then go away. Read what other people are saying, reply, favorite, discuss, participate. This is a good way to find like-minded people to follow who will often follow you back. Remember... social media is for being SOCIAL.
1) DO some research and find relevant hashtags.
Why? - People create hashtags to organize and follow specific topics and conversations. The most effective hashtags are usually unique, so browse people you know, organizations you follow, and do some Googling to find hashtags that apply to the things you post. You can often find weekly or monthly chats to get involved in this way.
2) DO pay attention to which hashtags see healthy activity.
Why? - There are a lot of specific hashtags out there, but not all of them are very active. You want to find tags that see a good amount of use, but not so much that you'll just get lost in the shuffle. Experiment.
3) DO watch for timely and trending hashtags.
Why? - Some hashtags are temporary and see a brief burst of use, typically during breaking news or planned events. Your trending hashtags are usually tailored to your location, interests, and the people you follow, so check them out and see if there are any conversations you'd like to participate in. When you go to a conference or event, check ahead of time to see if there's an official hashtag to use. This is a great way to make some new connections. Just remember to stay on topic.
4) DO create your own unique tags.
Why? - If you're becoming an "influencer" in your sphere and want to host your own discussion, create your own tag. You can visit this site to check whether your tag is already being used, and get some tips on building your own tag. You can do this for events, discussions, online seminars, community, jokes, spur-of-the-moment fun, whatever. Get creative. The best hashtags are short, specific, and easy to remember.
5) DO learn about the different mediums.
Why? - Hashtags function generally the same way on different sites, but each unique property has its own culture. Hashtags that work well on Twitter may not work as well on Tumblr or Instagram. The mediums are different -- discussion vs microblogging vs photography. Familiarize yourself with the most effective ways to use each.
A few more specific tips: Test the waters to see which tags have the biggest positive impact and response rate for you. Make friends and pull them into the discussion when possible, which livens things up and gets your name in front of more people (though that shouldn't be the end goal... just a bonus). In general, TALK to people and FOLLOW users who interest you. Use sites like TweetChat to follow conversations with more ease. Aim for creative over sales-y. Remember Tumblr only tracks the first five tags on ORIGINAL posts, not reblogs, although it still uses reblog tags to organize posts within your blog and to flag things for Tumblr Savior. Find the balance between tagging people to get them involved and annoying them with too much pestering. Find site-unique tags like #CatsOfInstagram and #LNV (Late Night Vine).
Most importantly, the best way to learn how to use hashtags is to start doing it and have fun. The biggest rule is to use common sense and do what you can to avoid being an annoying jerk, which is pretty easy to manage with minimal effort. With enough practice and trail & error, you'll figure it out.