All you wanted to know about #hashtag

Hashtag (# sign) is seen everywhere on the web these days. However, in absence of clarity on use of hashtag, it is being used indiscriminately. Sometimes this hurts the very purpose for which it was created, that is, greater visibility. 

The use of hashtag on social media started in 2007. It was lapped up by Twitter as a way for making words instantly searchable like any hyperlink, and for finding and grouping all tweets related to an expression. The basic purpose remains the same till date. So, if you put an expression '#CleanTheWorld' in your tweet, and if a visitor clicks on this hashtag, he will be shown all recent tweets on which this hastag has been used. Similarly, if he searches for this expression on Twitter, he is likely to see your tweet on the search page.

Hashtags are now being used on other social platforms, sometimes with some good sense and often wrongly by hashtag-crazy people. You might have seen some Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts that publish posts full of hashtags, which only harms the prospects of such accounts. Google and Twitter themselves put relevant hashtags around posts, and they use them sparingly and wisely.

I will limit this discussion to use of hashtag on Twitter, as this is the platform optimized for this.

When and how to use hashtag

We should use hashtag when we want to propagate or promote something on Twitter. In general, this 'something' would include a thought, an issue, an event, but not a specific product.

Most people use hashtags to spread a thought or support a cause or criticize something they dislike, thus spreading the message.

Businesses often use hashtag for promoting their brands or campaigns. 

Hashtags are now being used more and more for directed conversations on Twitter through Twitter chats and contests.

Hashtag best practices

1. Use relevant expressions / keywords with hashtag. Do not use hashtag expressions that have no relation with the topic of the tweet.

2. Use hashtags already in use. It helps if you use a hashtag that is already popular and is relevant to your subject. Inventing new hashtags for your needs is fine but these would take long time and you will have to work hard to make them popular.

3. Use hashtags that are short and memorable. When using long expressions, they must be such that people would recall them easily. Conversely, don't use abbreviations unless they make a sense.

4. Use Capital Letters and numbers to separate words. When using more than one word, capitalize each word for easy readability as well as recall. You can see the difference between these two: #ChampionsLeague vs #championsleague. You can also use 2 for to and 4 for for to separate words (e.g. #Volunteers4charity).

5. If you are a businessperson/ celebrity/ screen personality, create hashtags around your business/ persona. You should create one or two memorable hashtags about your products, relating to your area of operation, a social cause that you/ your business promote, the program that you produce.

6. Remember that if a hashtag is trending or has become very popular, your voice is likely to be lost in the flood of tweets that use the same hashtag. So, when a major event happens, associate your tweets wisely with the hashtag (out of many hashtags in use) that suits your views. 

7. Double check before using a hashtag. It may have a very different meaning than what you intend it to have. Some hashtags acquire a special meaning over time, some expressions may have different meanings in different contexts, using a phrase in a continuous hashtag may acquire a new meaning, and some hashtags may be associated with specific brands. For example, you cannot be using the hashtag #MeToo to express your participation in an event as it is now inseparably associated with issues relating to women's dignity.

8. Hashtags are great for search! Why only creat hashtags, why not use them intelligently for research? When you search Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Amazon with hashtags, you are likely to get more relevant results. 

How not to use hastags on Twitter

1. Putting too many hashtags in one tweet. In one tweet, you should put only one or two hashtags, rarely three, but never more than that. Even three looks a bit too much.
hashtag spam

2. Using hashtag just because the expression looks great to you. If you are in love with some expressions, do promote them but not just by putting # sign before them. There are better ways to do so, such as writing more about them on your blog or discussing them on social media.

3. Spoiling sense and readability with hashtag in sentence. A hashtag can be used anywhere inside the tweet. But if you use it inside a sentence, take care that it does not spoil the readability and sense of the tweet. (A bad example of such a tweet: Whenever #socialmediatalksabout something, it goes viral, not when #Obamacriesabout. The way these are used for compressing phrases hurts readability, isn't it?)

4. Putting too broad or general hashtags. Well, this is not an abuse of hashtag but a waste of this facility unless you are an authority on that subject. For example, if you write tweets on news around you, putting a hashtag #news will not make the tweet viral because this hashtag is too broad and anybody searching for #news will get hundreds of results from big newspapers etc and your tweet will hardly be visible.

5. Repeating the same hashtag in a tweet. Repeating a hashtag does not help; rather it shows the person/ brand in poor light. It also irritates.

6. Mixing up hashtags (#) with mentions (@). On Twitter, these two signs serve different purposes and are not synonymous. Using them one after the other in quick succession also leads to confusion.

7. Using the same hashtag across social sites. All expressions do not resonate the same way on all social networking and bookmarking sites. Due to various factors, especially the user behavior, a trending Instagram hashtag may flop on Twitter.

7. Using hashtags for wrong purposes or without sensitivity. Don't use a hashtag to malign people, spread hatred or aggravate a social situation. Restrain yourself from using hashtag to divert a discussion towards an undesirable direction. Avoid popularizing a hashtag that is likely to be exploited for wrong purposes.

In their urge to get traffic to their opinion, especially on a controversial topic, some people make hashtags with intemperate language. Some use expressions that might hurt a religious or racial minority. Social ethics requires that we do not indulge in promoting hatred or demeaning someone's faith.

Avoid these technical mistakes while putting hashtags

1. Hashtag with only numbers. Twitter does not accept hashtags like this: #1234

2. Text before hashtag sign. If you put letters or numbers before # sign, nothing after this sign is hashtagged.

3. Putting a space or punctuation mark or @ within the tagged expression. Such expressions are not accepted: #World News (The hashtag will be read only as #World) | #It'sFriday (The hashtag will be read as #It)

4. Putting separate hashtags for a long expression. For example, if you want to promote PlainTalk, you should use #PlainTalk, and not #Plain #Talk .

4. Hashtags on private account. Hashtags work only when the Twitter account is public.

Promoting your hashtags

When you are passionate about some thought / cause you will either create a hashtag or follow one. The hashtag would need promotion like any other media/ social media entity. One way to promote it is to keep using it in relevant tweets. That's obvious.

You can promote your hashtag by using the same expression on different social media accounts.

Promoting the hashtag beyond social media helps, but it should make sense. Include your hashtag on your email signature line and social profiles (on FB, Twitter, Instagram, website, blog, etc).

They can promote their hashtags not only on social networks but also by putting these on business cards, writing pads and other stationery, advertisements, presentations, company pamphlets, company vehicles, etc.

Do your hashtags really serve a purpose?

Common sense says that a hashtag would make the connected expression popular, which in turn would help the tweet become popular. If the tweet is connected to a blog post or a photo or a video, these will get popular too.

With this premise, brands have been using hashtags to promote campaigns. But do all hashtags bring traffic? Do they lead to engagement? Is the engagement always helpful?

While majority of campaigns using hashtag get desired results - to varying extent - some backfire. In some cases, poorly constructed hashtags have hurt sentiments or have been seen inappropriate and have received backlash from followers.

In some cases (e.g. when an opinion is sought through a hashtag), there can be very critical responses. Sometimes, trolls have been seen to exploit hashtags and post irrelevant or abusive responses, thus derailing the campaign and embarrassing the brand.

Studies on use of hashtags on Twitter have found that more than three hashtags in a tweet result in lower engagement and people disliking the account, even unfollowing it. In ne study it was found that hashtags on Facebook posts reduce engagement. Tweets with too many hashtags (or only hashtags) are treated by majority of users as hashtag spam and are not responded to. 

The short point for use of hashtag by persons and businesses is that hashtag should be taken as a tool for promoting thoughts or products on social networking platforms. Like a physical tool, it works to its best if used expertly; it hurts the user if used shabbily or for wrong purposes.

Remember the golden rules of hashtagging:
  • Keep it simple, easy to recall.
  • Keep it relevant.
  • Don't overuse it.

best hashtagging practices

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