It’s become part of our vernacular, but its capacity for reach is far greater than its typical use. I’m talking about the often misunderstood hashtag, or known by its other name, # (pound sign). That sounded kind of thuggy. Any way, I was recently conducting a social media basics workshop and even though most in the room had seen hashtags in use, many were still baffled by its purpose; I promised a blog post to help them get a handle on it. And I get it; we are kind of bombarded with lots of symbols now, and it’s tough to see where the hashtag fits in in the sea of shortcuts. In truth, this little symbol packs an awesome punch, as well as does a lot of heavy lifting.
Humble Origins of the Hashtag
The first time most of us starting seeing hashtag use was at about the time Twitter surfaced. It’s primary function was merely to serve as a labeling method, so users could more easily find messages and content that contained a certain term, or “keyword”. This sort of “categorization shortcut” made it easy to find and also tuck away topics that people could add to or follow. It use was a deliberate and useful way to file those topics away so they’re quickly presented when a search is done. How? Let’s say I composed a tweet that went like this:
“Love me some #hockey! Sure wish the Los Angeles Kings made a longer run in the post-season. “
Notice the hashtag in there? That’s an inline way of hashtagging, but certainly you could just place it at the end of the sentence, but that’s maybe a little much. Now, to see even more content on that same hashtag, head over to search.twitter.com, key in #hockey and you’ll be presented with tweets that feature the #hockey term in them. Pretty handy! When you hear the term “trending”, it is meant to indicate a hashtagged item is extremely popular with users, and you now hear news outlets use it when there is a hot story being followed.
The Humorous Side of Hash Tags
As Twitter gained popularity, you’d start seeing hashtags showing up in other social media channels, as well as in every day conversation. It’s You’ll hear it used sometimes in offline dialogue as well, such as, “I need some coffee! Hashtag, “put whiskey in mine”. This kind of funny was derived from the fun use of hashtags not meant for the purpose of creating a category, as much as being funny or making a statement about something. It would go something like, “Uh oh, this looks like a dry coffee shop. #noboozeforme”. Get it? I like to think of this fun use of the hashtag as a way to proclaim that which you might not say out loud for all to hear. Now some people will run amok and put a laundry list of funny hashtags, but really, a few are enough.
Business Use of the Hashtag
For a company looking to start dipping their little toe into the use of hashtags, I would caution you; poor use can make you look pretty silly, so do some research first. There are a ton of resources on the subject, and this article has continued to be updated over the years, so has fresh ideas and current commentary on hashtag use, including some historical perspective.
Now, once you’ve decided you have handle on things, treat your own hashtags like you would keywords you might use in your web content. A good way might be to use a spreadsheet in tandem to your editorial calendar, and make sure you note your used hashtags, so you can see which ones piqued the interest of your site’s guests. A theme for your content for a weekly feature, for example, could make it easy for your guests to locate information specific to that topic. Let’s say you’re a florist, and it’s graduation week. You could feature an amazing picture of a beautiful bouquet, and hashtag #graduationflowers; do this enough times with the right messaging, and people will start to see this and be reminded of that graduate in their life.
Go Forth and Hashtag
Now that you know just a little more about hashtags, and while there is way more to learn, I hope you’ll have the confidence to begin using them thoughtfully in your social media messaging. One final word of caution: don’t go overboard. Try to limit your use to three max. Beyond that starts looking too spammy and desperate for attention. If you need some more help with it, get in touch, or comment here so I can reply and help you out. #coffeenowplease