As the world of social media has evolved, so has the hashtag. What began as a humble idea on Twitter has grown to define much of the social media experience, making that experience as relevant and personalized as ever.
So, what is a hashtag? I often explain it this way:
Imagine you’re at an international conference with thousands of people attending. The breakfast agenda one morning includes small group discussions. You walk into a big ballroom filled with dozens of tables, and on each table sits a small sign indicating the topic being discussed at that table. Hashtags are, in essence, those table signs.
If you’re on social media, hashtags are specific conversations taking place around the world and around the clock. Clicking on a hashtag — for example, #schoolPR — is essentially choosing a discussion table in the ballroom; you’ll find people in a conversation about school public relations. Clicking on #leadership will show you a conversation about leadership, across a wide array of professions. And in the midst of a major cultural or news event, hashtags will plug you into the latest information, ideas and reactions from virtually anywhere on earth.
As hashtags have become so central to social media, they also have attracted brands, event organizers and others looking for a little something special to help them stand out — but all too often, the plan flops. Here are basic strategies to help you avoid a hashtag fail.
- Understand the basics. Hashtags are not case sensitive (#leadership will yield the same results as #Leadership), but they can only include letters and numbers. Posting with #We’reExcited will only register as #We because the apostrophe, like any punctuation mark, will separate the rest of the characters that follow it. Here is a nice resource for the hashtag novice. Also keep in mind that hashtags don’t belong to anyone or any group. There are countless stories of hashtags becoming part of unintended conversations and, in some cases, creating far more embarrassment than value. Just ask the social media marketing team at McDonald’s. If your hashtag begins to appear frequently in unrelated discussions, or especially if it has been hijacked by a damaging conversation, it’s time to evaluate your options.
- Make it memorable, as in, easy to remember. Avoid abbreviations that wouldn’t be intuitive to the average follower. If people are tweeting about #AcmePaper all year long, resist the temptation to create a new hashtag for your annual seminar. As tempting as it is, you’ll leave your followers (and others interested in your topic) trying to remember on the fly if it’s #AcmePaper2016 or #AcmePaper16 or maybe it’s #AcmePaperSeminarNY? If there’s already a hashtag that works, think long and hard before you invent a variation. An event or other integrated promotion is the perfect chance to celebrate the existing hashtag and add real value to the discussion before, during and long after your event.
- Keep it short. This is another reason to stick with #AcmePaper over #AcmePaperSeminarNY. If your people are on Twitter, don’t eat up their available characters with a giant hashtag. The more characters in your hashtag, the fewer of the maximum 140 that remain to express ideas. A shorter hashtag is easier to remember, and easier to incorporate into a tweet. Win-win. But in your quest to keep it short, don’t abbreviate so many words that it becomes difficult to remember or understand. #AcmePaper is always a better choice than #AcmePpr.
- Follow and engage. If you or your organization uses a hashtag — and in particular if you ask others to use it — spend the time and effort it takes to monitor and engage. People tweeting with your hashtag should enjoy replies, likes and retweets whenever appropriate. If your hashtag is used in a negative tweet, a reply is always appropriate. (If someone called you to complain about your organization, would you sit silently on the phone? No, you’d engage!) Seeing someone tweet with your hashtag doesn’t necessarily bring the same responsibility as a tweet that is directed at you with a mention, but I’m pretty sure it’s impossible too much engagement with followers is not a thing. Such subscription tools as Keyhole and Hashtracking can make it simple to monitor hashtags across more than one platform. Tweetdeck is an easy — and free — way to monitor use of a hashtag on Twitter. Even a daily or hourly basic Twitter search of your hashtag will work, if you are consistent.
Hashtags are a powerful tool to lead and engage in a conversation on social media. What’s your favorite hashtag to monitor or engage?
This post is the third in my series, Social Media Day Trips.