The Beginner’s Guide to Hashtags

Mackenzie Maher
By Mackenzie Maher

Formerly known as the ‘pound sign’ by generations past, the cross hatched symbol synonymous with social media messaging is now fondly referred to as the beloved hashtag. Unless you’ve completely unplugged from the digital world for the last few years, you’ve undoubtedly run into these somewhere in your communications. While they may be a familiar sight, the concept and purpose often requires some clarity. Hashtags are a funny tool that have taken on a life of their own with the rise of our social media saturated world; however, when implemented properly into your social media strategy, they can be extremely beneficial to your businesses’ content. Incorporating them into your brand’s social media can play a key role in increasing exposure for your brand and fostering valuable audience engagement.

If you’re one of the many who still can’t wrap their mind around the idea, don’t worry. You’re not alone, and we’re here to help. Together, we’ll explore their ins, outs, and all around best practices, and turn you into a bonafide hashtag guru.

What Is a Hashtag?

At its most simplistic explanation, a hashtag is a word or phrase comprised of letters, numbers, and/or emoji preceded by what was once referred to as the pound symbol (#).

When used on social media platforms like Instagram, hashtags function as a way to categorize content. Click on a hashtag and you’ll be able to browse posts that have been tagged with it. Attach one to your own photo or video and it will be discoverable to anyone searching the hashtag. How likely it is to be seen by other users depends on how often the hashtag is used, how popular your post is (does it already have a lot of likes and comments?), and how strong your following is.

Why Should You Use Them

Hashtags function similar to links and when clicked on, lead users to a specific post or grouping of posts with the same tag, ultimately helping Instagram users discover content and accounts to follow. The right hashtag, or combination of hashtags, will expose your brand to large and targeted audiences; it also serves as a way to continue or start a conversation and is a great tool for helping brands connect with and build a relationship with potential customers. By making yourself more discoverable on Instagram, you have a better chance of attracting new followers, getting more likes, and increasing engagement. Outside of paying for Instagram Ads, hashtags are probably one of the most best organic methods you can implement to help your target audience discover your brand. This is essential towards building a solid and engaged following on the platform.

Where to Use Them

Facebook: This isn’t really the platform where you’ll be most actively using hashtags. If you do seem them in captions here, it is most likely that somebody has their Instagram set up to autopost to other platforms as well so they haven’t optimized their content per platform. That’s not to say that you can’t use them on Facebook, but users don’t actively engage with them here as much as they do on other channels. In fact, some studies even report that hashtags on Facebook can hurt the overall reach of some of your posts. If you do choose to use them, an example of where they might work is a branded hashtag campaign; in this case it would help organize and curate content, such as in a UGC submission contest.

LinkedIn: Another channel that offers hashtags but doesn’t see widespread use of them yet. Since recently reintroducing them, LinkedIn is trying to push this feature by encouraging users to include hashtags that the platform suggests for you in each post.Traction is still minimal (as should your overall hashtag use be by best practice) but it will be interesting to see how hashtags play into the strategy of LinkedIn content in the near future.

Twitter: The founding father of hashtags, this platform still relies heavily on the symbol to group posts on a certain topic. Tweets with hashtags get more engagement overall, but just because this is a hashtag friendly platform, doesn’t mean you have to go overboard. Be strategic, topical, relevant and selective when choosing your hashtags and make sure it applies to the content you are sharing. Adding a hashtag just for the sake of adding one (perhaps because it’s trending in other conversations) isn’t going to benefit you in the long term. Do you due diligence (you could even try using a hashtag tool) and select hashtags that will work for your brand, industry, audience and topic.

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Instagram: This is another platform that embraces the hashtag in captions as a way to curate and organize photos. Like we mentioned for Twitter, it will take a little bit of homework on your end to discover the most optimized hashtags. Some examples of angles you can explore are topical hashtags, industry-relevant hashtags, geo-based hashtags, or campaign-focused hashtags. You can also create your own branded hashtag that is unique to any content your brand puts out or specific to a series of regular post type you create. An example of the latter would be #PDMPowerPlayers, which is the hashtag our agency uses whenever we share a post about our employee of the month. Side note: did you know that you can now follow hashtags on Instagram the same way you can follow accounts? And you can also add a hashtag to your Instagram bio! This opens up a lot of opportunity for research and exposure.

Different Types of Hashtags

Branded hashtags: Branded hashtags are, well, pretty much what they sounds like: hashtags that are specific to your brand. They might contain your brand name, a particular product or refer to a specific series of content (Refer back to my #PDMPowerPlayers example above). We always recommend employing some type of branded hashtag in your content strategy as a way of curating content and being discovered–recent studies even reported that 70% of Instagram hashtags are branded.

Campaign Hashtags: While branded and community hashtags are typically considered evergreen, campaign hashtags tend to have a shorter lifespan because they are tied to something very specific with an expiration date–usually they’ll be used throughout the duration of a campaign, like a product launch, collaboration or contest, before getting retired. You can also make use of them in Instagram stories or Instagram Live to get out the word about your campaign.

Community hashtags: Community hashtags are more general and don’t necessarily have anything to do with your company. Some examples are hashtags like #instafood or #picoftheday. They’re widely used and aren’t specific to any one person or company.

Content hashtags: These are hashtags that should directly relate to the items in the post itself.

Industry hashtags: These are are a type of hashtag that may not be directly related to what’s in the post but are specific to the industry and clients you serve.

Niche hashtags: This could technically also fall under community hashtags, but essentially niche hashtags are specific to the target audience you’re trying to reach.

Hashtag Tools

If you are ever in doubt about what hashtag to use or if it’s a valuable hashtag to use in your post, or if you want to track how well it’s working for your brand, there are many tools available to help you do this. Here are a few:

  • RiteTag covers millions of hashtags and lets you see what’s happening with the hashtags you’re following. It’s a great tool for finding trending hashtags and monitoring hashtag engagement. It also works well with a variety of social media analytics tools including Hootsuite, Buffer and Sendible.
  • Hashtracking provides analytics on Twitter and Instagram hashtags. You’ll need to link your account for access to the tool, which also includes influencer hashtag analysis.
  • Hashtagify lets you see the top hashtags related to particular topics, and provides data on their popularity so you know which hashtags make most sense for your brand.
  • Keyhole examines hashtags on Twitter and Instagram, allowing you to see real-time analysis, including conversations, influencers and media.
  • Tagboard tracks hashtags across Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Vine and Google+.
  • Talkwalker provides hashtag brand monitoring, showing reach, engagement, type of content and much more.

So, what should be the most high level points around hashtags to remember? Here are a few:

  • Get in front of more eyes. Incorporating hashtags is a smart and simple way to make your content more discoverable and expand your reach
  • Focus on quality not quantity. If researched correctly and strategically, more can actually be less.
  • Watch and learn. In addition to doing your own due diligence–be it creating branded hashtags or using hashtag tools for ideas–observe what’s happening in the social sphere around you. Look to industry leaders, topical trends, audience conversations, relevant influencers, and lateral or aspirational competitors to find hashtags that make sense for your brand.
  • Make sure your hashtags are relevant. Just because everyone else is doing it and the hashtag is getting traction, it doesn’t always mean that you should jump on the band. Make sure it applies to your own goals, mission, strategy, and–most importantly–it is relevant to your audience. If it doesn’t provide value to them, it doesn’t have a place in your content strategy. When you do include trending hashtags, make sure that you tie them back to your brand and that the connection is clear.
  • Set up a hashtag bank and use-case routines for you social content strategy. Know which posts warrant specific tags and what hashtags are your primary branded hashtags. Additionally, establish an understanding of social lingo and stay on top of common and evergreen hashtags. Once you get used to all of these, adding them to your posts will seem like second nature.  
  • Monitor the metrics. Like any part of your marketing strategy, it’s important to continually assess performance. Which hashtags are doing well, which ones are seeing engagement, which ones are building traction–follow the metrics on KPIs like these to determine which hashtags to build on and which ones to ditch. Make sure you can explain your decision either way.

The key takeaway here is that hashtags are a great tool for brands on social media–if you know when to use hashtags (& when to leave them out). Do you research, know your platform and your audience, and understand why you choose to employ a certain hashtag. Pay attention to industry, follower, and competitor trends to help fine tune your hashtag strategy and use them thoughtfully. Is your content valuable, does it offer something to your audience, will it stimulate engagement? If you have solid answers to these questions then post away. If you’re not totally sure yet then hold back on hitting the Share button until you know exactly why you are using your hashtags the way you are. At the end of the day it’s all about your audience and if you don’t understand why you are using a certain hashtag then neither will they.

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As a Social Media Account Manager, Mackenzie works to develop dynamic strategies and creative content that will help clients grow their organic social presence. With a strong background in writing and marketing, and an eye for design, her role at PDM allows her to flex her strongest muscles and indulge her outside-the-box thinking. Equally happy when creating a witty caption as she is mocking up a new visual concept, the San Diego local and UC Santa Barbara graduate treats every day as a new opportunity to achieve marketing greatness.