Hashtagging 101: Guidelines for #Winning on Social Media


#TBT. #selfie. #NSFW. And my personal favorite: #susanalbumparty. I’ll explain that one here in a minute.

Hashtags are everywhere these days. They’re on TV shows, T-shirts and even football fields. They’re also engrained in our everyday vocabulary, which is clear if you spend any time around teenagers (or my sisters).

Hashtags have come a long way since they first appeared on Twitter in 2007 and are now widely used across a range of social networks. As many companies have discovered, hashtags can be extremely effective – they’ve proven to double engagement rates on Twitter – and allow brands to start, follow and track a conversation across a unified social media marketing campaign.

But hashtags are also commonly misused and can often be confusing, crass and just plain obnoxious (the ingenious Jimmy Fallon/Justin Timberlake sketch immediately comes to mind). If used improperly, they can easily prove ineffective and just as easily get your brand into trouble or make it look clueless in the social space.

So, while the hashtag has become so synonymous with social media that it’s essentially now a punctuation mark, unlike the Oxford Comma there aren’t necessarily strict rules for using them. Nevertheless, there are a number of important guidelines to follow in order to ensure your brand is effectively using them across your social channels.

Know your objective. Before hashtagging on social media, define your objective and let that drive the hashtag you choose. Hashtags have very different functions – Are you looking to boost your company’s searchability? Add humor? Build a conversation around your company’s news, events and contests? Having this knowledge in hand will add to the value of your hashtag.

Know the basics. There are several basic keys to creating a clickable hashtag. Punctuation marks will break the link if used inside the hashtag itself, but they can follow a hashtag and remain clickable. And while hashtags are often used to end a tweet or post, they can also be featured within them (beginning, middle). This can help the post flow more naturally, too.

Don’t overdo it. Regardless of the platform, don’t get too carried away when it comes to the number of hashtags you use. Research has shown that one or two hashtags is much more effective on Twitter – you only have 140 characters anyway, so conserve them – and no more than five is optimal on Facebook. Instagram allows users up to 30 hashtags. But again, quality most definitely beats quantity.

Be specific. While a broader hashtag may result in more eyeballs on your post, being more specific is likely to drive greater engagement given the more targeted audience. For example, if you’re discussing #contentcreation, using that hashtag versus #marketing might be more effective. If you’re not battling the character limit, though, go with both!

Make it memorable. Creating a unique hashtag strengthens your branding, especially if you’re using it for a specific event or campaign. When customizing your hashtag, it can be a simple acronym like Netflix’s #OITNB, straightforward as with Make-A-Wish Foundation’s #SFBatKid or just plain clever like Kmart’s #shipmypants campaign.

Keep it short and sweet. Not only do you have character limits on channels like Twitter, but a hashtag containing too many words makes it long and far less readable. Capitalizing each word in the hashtag allows for greater readability, too. And yes, this even applies to prepositions – believe me, as a grammar snob it was hard to let it go.

Make It Relevant. Hashtags should always relate back to your content. Be purposeful and don’t include irrelevant hashtags that can land your brand in trouble, as with users who are searching for something and come across a company’s post or tweet that has nothing to do with their search. Users will not only become frustrated, but may also view your brand as self-serving spammers and turn against you – the goal is to gain brand advocates not detractors!

Check it. Check the hashtag before using it to ensure it’s a proper fit. What you think is a relevant hashtag may already be in use and potentially in a very different context than what your brand intends. The last thing you want is to create confusion or associate your brand with something inappropriate. After brainstorming a number of hashtags for your campaign, share them with others in your company to see if there’s something about the hashtag and the way it can be used that you didn’t spot.

Proof it. Speaking of confusing and inappropriate, it’s always wise to seek a second set of eyes to proof your hashtag. Susan Boyle’s publicity team found this out the hard way with #susanalbumparty (again, please capitalize, folks!). Simple spelling and grammatical errors aren’t a good look for your brand either. Hashtags are often only a word or two long, but getting feedback can clearly go a long way.

Be consistent. There’s no need to hashtag in every tweet, but make sure you’re regularly using them across social channels when it comes to campaigns, contests and events. This is also true for newly developed hashtags. Your audience won’t remember a hashtag if you’re not consistently using it. If you’re having trouble deciding when to hashtag, refer to this helpful flow chart on the Twitter Blog.

Be visual. Not only should your hashtag give your audience a certain visual of your brand, but consider incorporating your hashtag into an image, if appropriate. Branded hashtags are more successful when you utilize photos, infographics and videos. Plus, visuals in posts are shown to be more effective.

Always measure. Don’t forget to measure the effectiveness of your hashtags. Keyhole and Sysomos MAP are highly useful (paid) tools, but a simple Google search will identify others. In addition to these tools, some quick performance indicators are link visits (if the post includes a link), hashtag volume (number of times the hashtag occurs) and replies and shares (of your and other users’ posts on the subject).

Now that you’ve read this, be sure to keep these guidelines in mind as you go #FTW with your brand’s social media accounts.

Zach Burrus
Marketing Analyst


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