When #everything has a #hashtag, #nothing does.

Hashtags might be the most nuanced thing about using social media. As a result, it can be tough (especially for someone new to the concept) to understand how to use them correctly. To help you get the most out of this small but mighty tool (and help you avoid looking… well, #stupid) here’s a quick primer on what the hashtag is and how you should use it.

Hashtags are any word that has the hash mark (#) attached. For example, in the headline of this article, #everything, #hashtag and #nothing are all hashtags. Ideally, people use these tags to identify items they feel are related to an overall concept or conversation. Here are a few examples from Twitter:

Be careful using hashtags to ensure your intent is understood

Two million tragic stories of loss… and one pair of Hello Kitty slippers. Be careful using hashtags to ensure your intent is understood.

When you see a hashtag, it’s intended to give you a clue to what the item is about while also linking to other items with the same tag. When you click on a tag, it’s like doing an instant search on the social network for all of the other items with that same tag.

This behavior can be powerful and useful. When the Superbowl was in Indianapolis, many of the messages on social networks from local users contained a variation of a Superbowl-related tag. It was common to see #Superbowl, #Superbowl46, or #sb46. One of the problems, of course, is that there is no official tag list, so there are often variations of similar tags. Additionally, on social networks with a limited number of characters (Twitter limits you to 140), it can be a challenge to add a relevant hashtag, let alone more than one.

Twitter will also use hashtags to show you topics that are “trending”, or rising in popularity. Looking at this list will show you what people are currently talking about and enable you to add your voice to the conversation. It will also help to highlight some of the problems with hashtags: Since there is no ‘hashtag authority,’ people can use a trending tag to have their post show up even if it’s totally unrelated. You can think of this as “hashjacking.” It’s annoying and makes you look like an obnoxious ass. Don’t do it. Here’s an example:

Rule of thumb: If you want to make your content easier to find, adding a hashtag can help. To be most effective, do a little research first and try to figure out which tag seems to make the most sense and use that. Try to limit your use of tags to just a few.

Some social networks, like Instagram, have no limits on the size of the comments you can add. As a result, you might see an image with several tags. Ultimately, this is completely up to you, but you might want to pause just long enough to consider a couple of things.

First, since there are no rules about hashtags, you’re free to add anything you want. But before adding a tag, you should consider if it has a ‘default’ use. Recently, I saw someone lamenting about a pair of shoes that had been eaten by their dog. They used the tag #rip in the post. I’m not sure if they meant this to mean that the shoes were ‘ripped’ or that they wanted the shoes to ‘rest in peace’, but the common usage of the tag is for the latter. So if you look at all of the photos using this tag, there are some truly heartbreaking stories about tragedy and loss…and one pair of destroyed shoes. Be cautious.

Second, consider how many tags you want to add and your motivation for doing so. If you want to tag that photo of the sky you took with #clouds and #beautiful or even #sky, feel free. This is especially true if you’re adding something new to an existing conversation. But if you feel compelled to keep going, adding things like #blue #monday #instagram #ig #awesome #cool #photooftheday #selfie etc., you might pause long enough to wonder why. Often, adding multiple tags allows people (and/or computer bots) to find and “like” your contribution. In many cases, the bots do this hoping that you’ll follow them back so they can use their inflated number of followers to peddle their influence.

If you’re just hoping total strangers find your photo and ‘like’ it…well, why? Sure, we all recognize that the point of social media is to find out how much people ‘like’ us, but do we really care if they’re total strangers? (There was a great deal of sarcasm in that last sentence.) On the other hand, you might use hashtags to categorize your own photos, so you can come back later and click a tag to see all of your other pictures of #mykids (and every other photo tagged the same) and if people don’t like, screw ‘em! That’s also completely up to you (remember, there is no hashtag clearing house or police to tell you what you can and can’t do.) But: It might make you look a little odd, or desperate, or whatever, so keep that in mind. These are just people tapping a little button, they aren’t likely to follow you into battle or help you hide a body.

Look, all sarcasm aside, social media is supposed to be fun. So, by all means, join us and add your voice to the conversation. And if you feel that your contribution should be part of the greater collection, then add all (please, just a few) of the (related) hashtags you want. I’ll be looking forward to your contributions.

About Jim Cota

Jim lives in Indianapolis with his wife and four kids and feels lucky to work with the fine folks at Rare Bird. An occasional writer, tweeter, and shooter. If you need to know anything else about me, this should do it...
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