Social media feels like the land of opportunity. There are so many stories of small businesses that caught a viral wave and rode it into marketing glory. These tales buoy the hopes and dreams of others as they venture into the uncertain territory. However, leveraging social media requires a plan and some baseline skills. Many businesses make the mistake of jumping in and attempting to leverage its power simply because they are experienced at “consuming” social media when the actual skill needed is “producing” social media. This can lead to missteps that can become enormous problems.
Take for Example the #Hashtag.
We see hashtags everywhere but they are largely misunderstood. A string of characters preceded by a # symbol has become ubiquitous on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Instagram. It can be traced back to its first appearance on Internet Relay Chats (IRCs) but it came into notoriety on Twitter. Now they have even crossed over into broadcast and print media as a means to spread campaign based hashtags.
But What are Hashtags?
To deal with torrents of social media information, channels like Twitter developed ways to narrow streams along specific topics through the use of hashtags. At the most basic level is is a string of characters without spaces, preceded by #. Functionally they provide a way of tagging content and facilitating discovery. Your audience can follow a hashtag that is associated with something they are interested in to see what others are posting and be included in the conversation by adding that hashtag to their own content. They are interesting tools within the social media sphere because they connect based on a common idea instead of social connections between people. Hashtags allow people to follow an idea and participate in a conversation with a group that shares a common interest, even though they share no social connection.
So for example, a convention will generate a hashtag as part of their event promotion and include it in all their social media content and collateral marketing materials so attendees can follow developments leading up to the event. Exhibitors who will be participating can also include that hashtag in their social media and connect with all the people who are following it as well.
Promotional campaigns can also include hashtags so consumers can participate in conversations with like minded fans and spread the message among their own followers and friends. In fact there are new creative uses popping up every day for hashtags.
Unfortunately creative uses have been far surpassed by misuses. My advice to inexperienced users; less is more.
When Should You Use a Hashtag?
Before you start adorning your latest posts with hashtags in an effort to float your social media boat, start by taking a look at the platform you are using. Twitter has good guidelines for choosing a hashtag here. Instagram has theirs here and Facebook’s is here . Understanding the nuances of each platform will help develop better hashtags to increase engagement, and that’s the whole point of using them.
At the end of the day, using hashtags is challenging for businesses to do on their own. The benefit of increasing engagement is difficult to leverage unless you really have your thumb on the pulse of the community you seek to connect with. While it’s tempting to start adding a # before words that feel like keywords in your social posts, you run the risk of looking sophomoric. If you feel like there is really an opportunity to roll out a hashtag, check and make sure it’s original. There have been many instances where a hashtag has been used that ended up being associated with something unintended. If it is original and can be leveraged for your campaign then make sure you use it consistently in all of your marketing materials.
The other possibility is to look for opportunities to ride on a trending hashtag as a means of gaining engagement by association. For example #RedNose Day was a popular hashtag associated with a campaign dedicated to raising money for children and young people living in poverty by simply having fun and making people laugh. People all over the world tweeted photos of themselves wearing red clown noses as a means to drive engagement and donation. This type of campaign encourages others to ride a trending wave and can be a big boost to business engagement by mere participation. A win win.
Friends Don’t Let Friends Hashtag
At the end of the day using hashtag requires a little knowledge and should be approached with caution. While it’s probably not going to ruin your business, a lame approach just looks bad and will contribute nothing to your efforts. When in doubt, leave it out.