Hashtags? What’s a Hashtag?

hashtagsOn our recent summer vacation, my wife and her aunt were comparing notes about the social media they use and don’t use. Then all of a sudden the conversation got heated. The reason? Hashtags.

They both said they were constantly hearing about hashtags but they had no idea what they were or how to use them. And it was seriously bugging them.

Hashtags really are everywhere these days. Hashtag was even chosen “Word of the Year” by the American Dialect Society in 2012.

(On the flip side, hashtag was one of the English words banned by the French government’s Academie Francaise.)

Whether you use social media simply to be social – to keep up with friends, post pictures, etc. – or to help market your business and engage your customer base, you’ll get more out of your experience if you know what a hashtag is and know how to properly use them. The good news: it’s quite simple.

How to Create a Hashtag

There are only two requirements for all hashtags:

  1. They start with this symbol: # (it’s the number or pound sign that’s above the 3 on your computer keyboard).
  2. They have no spaces at all in them. So, for example, #EarthLinkBusiness or #ITservices are valid hashtags, but # EarthLinkBusiness, #EarthLink Business, # ITservices or #IT services are not because of the spaces.

Hashtags can be a single word, multiple words, numbers, or words and numbers as long as they start with the # sign and have no spaces.

What are Hashtags For?

The most basic function of hashtags is to help categorize, organize, and connect with content. They were popularized on Twitter because they helped those tweeting reach a wider audience interested in their topics.

If I tweeted about a new cloud hosting service offered by EarthLink Business I’d probably add a #CloudHosting hashtag (and probably also #CloudComputing) to help categorize the tweet.

They are also sometimes used to specify a location. If, for example, I tweet a picture I’ve taken, I may add a hashtag for the location.

On Twitter, if you click on a hashtag or search for a hashtag, you’ll see all the recent tweets using that hashtag. For that reason, they can really help you find information and spread information about any topic.

They are also used to for events such as conventions, webinars, classes, online chats, Q&A sessions and other group discussions. Typically the event organizer or leader will create an official event hashtag; then all attendees can follow that hashtag to keep up with event information and discuss the event’s topic with each other. Even those not at the event can follow along this way.

Businesses are now often using hashtags for online promotions and contests. You may, for example, be asked to include the hashtag for a contest on Twitter to enter.

Hashtag Tips

  • How long? There is technically no character limit on a hashtag, but if you are using a hashtag on a social network like Twitter, the characters in the hashtag count towards the overall 140 character limit. So if you had a 120-character hashtag, you’d only have 20 left over for your post. It’s recommended that you keep your hashtags as short as possible.
  • How many? Similarly, there isn’t a rule about how many hashtags you can use in one Twitter post, but you should be mindful not to overuse them. On the one hand, research has shown that tweets that include hashtags typically get 2x the engagement compared to tweets without hashtags. But tweets with more than two hashtags show a 17% drop in engagement. So, try to limit your hashtags to one or two.
  • Where to put them? You can add a hashtag anywhere within a tweet – beginning, middle or end – but it’s most common to see them at the end.
  • Where to use them? Twitter is ground zero for hashtags, but they are now also used on Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumbler, Pinterest and Vine. Click the following links for hashtag help from Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
  • Capitalization or not? Capitalization doesn’t matter for hashtags. #EarthLinkBusiness and #earthlinkbusiness are considered the exact same hashtag. When using a multi-word hashtag, capitalization can help the readability (and therefore shareability) of the hashtag. So, when tweeting about our EarthLink Business SIP Trunking phone service, for example, we would typically format the hashtag as #SIPTrunking  vs. #siptrunking.
  • Stay relevant! Make sure your hashtags relate to your posts. If not, it’s seen as a form of spam. Don’t drop a hashtag into your post because it’s popular unless it is relevant.
  • Don’t use for emphasis. This really is part of our advice to stay relevant but I’ll call it out separately because what makes hashtags confusing for many is the way some people are using them: to #make #a #point or #SHOUT. At their most confusing, hashtags are used almost like ALL CAPS or bold or italics to emphasize some random words within the post.
  • Test them. One way decide if a hashtag is a good one for your topic is to search for those hashtags and see what content comes up. If it’s totally random stuff or off topic from what you thought, it may not be a good hashtag for you. It is especially important to test event or contest related hashtags to make sure they are unique to your event. Otherwise, your event participants could be totally confused by unrelated posts.

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