Many people think the hashtag’s use in Internet culture first came about with the creation of Twitter in 2007, but the truth is much deeper and far older. To understand how hashtags can be used effectively one must first understand not only how they are used today, but what they were originally created for and how their use has evolved over time in social media.
The direct lineage of the hashtag we know on social media today can be traced back to the early Internet and, in some ways, computing before the Internet. In the late -1970s, Brian Kernighan and Dennis Ritchie, two pioneering computer scientists and creators of the C programming language and Unix family of operating systems, began using the pound symbol (or hashtag) to denote keywords in C that needed to be processed before the rest of a program. We won’t delve into any programming here, but this practice undoubtedly impacted the future use of the ‘#’ symbol.
Use of the hashtag more closely tied to how we use it in social media today emerged later on the Internet in Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and web discussion forums as a means of categorization and self-moderation. By using hashtags to organize content, posts fitting into the same category, or hashtag, could automatically be merged together programmatically so discussions could flow naturally and be effectively organized without intervention by a human moderator. This concept would later be perfectly suited to organizing discussion on popular social media platforms where there are far too many users producing way too much content to be manually moderated and organized.
Few are really using hashtags effectively on social media, either missing the most useful, relevant hashtags or including tags that could be hurting more than helping.
Often you’ll see corporate social media accounts using their own company names as hashtags in promotional posts. While this might make sense on the surface, it is only useful in very specific circumstances and can actually take away from the quality of the content in others. For example, ‘#mybrand’ is only going to effectively reach people who regularly engage with content, or follow people who regularly engage with content, posted by your brand. However, those people are very likely already following your brand. What does it do to reach new individuals? Absolutely nothing. On the other hand, bombarding viewers with more of your brand name, on content posted by your brand account, promoting brand actions or a product/service, can discourage many from interacting with your content and result in lower engagement.
The most critical mistake is missing hashtags that could potentially improve reach or engagement. As mentioned before, hashtags are a method of categorization and organization. Properly categorizing your post largely determines the manner and frequency it is shown, and to whom. Remember, many of these, “categories” already exist and consist of many posts on a specific topic. Users who interact with these categories/topics regularly are likely to see new and engaging posts on that topic in their suggested content.
This is what an effective social media marketer capitalizes on. Rather than creating a new topic (#yourbrand), adding your content to a relevant and/or trending category will result in more views and engagement from your target market.
So how do you discover which hashtags to use? How can you find the right set of hashtags to slide your content into the suggested posts of your target market?
You might think, “my company makes snowboards so I should be using #snowboards.” Again, this makes sense on the surface, but it’s not really how social users are using hashtags today and if you want to get your content in front of your target customers, that’s not really effective. What will prove more effective is capitalizing on trends, using hashtags that your target audience are already using and/or interacting with. For example, #powderdays or #freshpow may be trending among users who interact with snowboarding-related content due to a recent storm.
To take that a step further, if a significant set of snowstorms across the country is being attributed to a tropical storm, such as Hurricane Alex in 2016, there may be an opportunity to capitalize on ‘#hurricanealex’ or something similar, a hashtag that might not be as saturated with promotional content from your industry! It’s important to observe what the community encompassing your target audience is really using and not just assume content is organized into obvious tags. Social media culture can often result in patterns that are not so obvious.
A number of hashtag discovery tools exist for pay or for free online, with varying levels of usefulness. However, there is an easy, free way — simply engage with content as a user of your target market. Like, share, and comment on posts relevant to your industry, even sometimes those of your competitors. Branch out to content in loosely related industries as well. See what content is trending, what hashtags they’re using, etc. Jump in on trends you see starting to take off and engaging with this content can’t help build your following as well. It’s a win-win! Take note of what hashtags you’re seeing regularly and start adding them to your own content.
Sometimes it can help to check out the posts of your own followers and see what tags they’re using as well. If a post which is seemingly out of context is suggested to you, there’s an algorithmic reason for that. Odds are, people you are following or who are following you have interacted with this content, so check it out and see if there’s a trend you can build upon which might not be obviously related to your content at first glance!
Hopefully, by now you have some great ideas to jumpstart more effective hashtag use. We’ll get a lot more in-depth and detailed with later posts on the same topic. Now get out there and start trending!