In 2007, social technology expert Chris Messina posted a tweet with the first-ever hashtag. It read: “How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”
Since then, the hash or pound symbol has become the ubiquitous symbol for social media. Hashtags are an incredibly useful means of not only categorizing information but also connecting with powerful conversations. In our ultimate guide to hashtagging, we break down the use of hashtags on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and introduce the best practices for hashtagging that any marketing and PR professional should know.
What are hashtags and what are they used for?
You’ve seen them all over the internet — but what exactly are hashtags and what purpose do they serve? They are simply phrases made up of one or more words without spacings, denominated with a pound sign (#) in front of them. For example, the phrase #MeToo is a hashtag. Creating a hashtag is thus as simple as typing the pound sign and adding keywords behind it.
Hashtags are a way for social media platforms to index conversations made by different accounts on the same topic. For example, the hashtag #PizzaLovers groups posts and discussions about… well, pizza! This feature greatly improves user experience by making content more searchable and accessible.
And while the hashtag was invented for use on Twitter, many other social media platforms have since adopted their use — including Facebook and Instagram.
Hashtags don’t only serve the purpose of categorizing posts. In recent years, hashtags have been at the forefront of major movements, events, and trends. Here are some examples of how hashtags have been used over the years:
- To log major events: tags such as #GoldenGlobes and #Tokyo2020 help to collate content on recurring or seasonal events.
- To bolster social movements: #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are examples of tags that have gained huge momentum on social media and have lent their name to powerful campaigns.
- As a vehicle for information during disasters or emergencies: #BuyFromTheBush was used to support rural businesses in the wake of the Australian bushfires early this year, while #OurHomesAreOpen was used to offer shelter to those displaced by the blast in Beirut. In addition, while hashtags related to COVID-19 were used to talk about the pandemic, they were also used to redirect people to official sources of information.
- As a marker for major trends and other pop culture phenomena: The top viral trends often start as unassuming hashtags — the dalgona coffee trend, for example, became popular on TikTok and went viral elsewhere.
- As part of branded campaigns: TikTok campaigns are based solely on hashtags, but they can also be an important part of campaigns on other social media platforms. The #IceBucketChallenge and #Movember are examples of now-iconic campaigns that feature viral hashtags.
However, just because hashtags are useful doesn’t mean they should be used indiscriminately. Littering your posts with hashtags could make your content less effective. In the following portion of our guide, we outline how you can utilize hashtags on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
How to use hashtags: Twitter
Twitter is the birthplace of the hashtag, and this function serves both to index tweets and threads and also to increase sociability on the platform. Popular Twitter hashtags are featured prominently on the platform’s website and app as a means of denoting current trends.
Guidelines for Twitter:
- Hashtags can be included anywhere in a Tweet.
- Hashtags should not include spaces or punctuation marks.
- Clicking or tapping on a hashtagged word in any message shows you other Tweets that include that hashtag.
- Tweets on public accounts that include hashtags may be found when you search for a particular hashtag.
- Twitter recommends using no more than 2 hashtags per Tweet as best practice, but you may use as many hashtags in a Tweet as you like.
- Twitter discourages brands from using hashtags in their advertisements as this may encourage viewers to click away from the post.
Searching for tags
Here, we outline how hashtags may be searched for on the Twitter platform.
A saved search for #Sydney2000
Advanced search parameters include keywords, hashtags, and languages
Tweets are searchable in both the search bar and the advanced search function. Public accounts with tweets that include the hashtag are displayed and can be sorted according to top posts, the latest Tweets, user handles that include these keywords, and photo or video posts that include the hashtag. Users can save their searches and easily toggle them in the search bar.
Hashtags are also displayed as top trends on Twitter’s main page. Users are able to explore top trends in their own locale as well in other countries.
Twitter’s Trends page for Australia displaying top topics and tags
Tweets on public accounts are also visible within the reply thread of a Tweet that includes a hashtag.
A Tweet including the hashtag #Sydney2000 displays replies to that tweet as well
Apart from using Twitter to maintain their brand presence and participate in discussions, marketers can also make use of tags to promote their campaigns and increase follower engagement.
For example, the NFL printed user-submitted Tweets into confetti, which was then used after the final SuperBowl game. This added an interactive element to the game and allowed fans and followers from all over the world to be involved in the action.
Brands that pay close attention to trending hashtags on Twitter may also use them to make a powerful statement. For example, the explosion of #BlackLivesMatter saw it being used over 47.8 million times. Many brands were quick to display their solidarity with the movement — all while being keenly observed by netizens.
Companies that choose to take a stand on social media must be aware that they can be held accountable for their words — brands should take care to formulate actionable policies and follow through with their statements to avoid losing the support of their followers.
Adidas uses Twitter to provide a clear explanation of its initiatives
As the birthplace of the hashtag, Twitter often publishes hashtag-based insights that are extremely useful for marketers.
- Twitter releases an annual marketing calendar that includes significant events that brands can Tweet about.
- Twitter also collates annual reports on the top themes and trends based on most-used hashtags.
How to use hashtags: Facebook
Guidelines for Facebook:
- Hashtags can be included anywhere in a post.
- They should not include spaces or punctuation marks.
- Clicking or tapping on a hashtagged word in any post shows you a feed of other posts that include the tag. You may also find related hashtags on the top of that page.
- When searching for a hashtag, you will only find posts that were shared with you (public accounts, or those with an audience that includes you).
- Avoid using too many hashtags per post (1 – 2 is optimal), but there is no limit to the number that can be included.
Searching for tags
Users are able to use the search bar on Facebook to access hashtagged posts on public accounts. While the majority of posts on Facebook are limited to an account's personal audience, hashtags may still be useful for brands looking to make their campaign posts more searchable.
A search for #Sydney2000 on Facebook may not yield results as diverse as those on Twitter, but is still useful in displaying features from brands like news outlets
This function, however, works great for video content as it helps redirect viewers to more videos from the same content series or channel.
The hashtag #CrashTestBeauties helps to group beauty label Ipsy’s content series, especially for those browsing on Facebook’s Watch tab
Facebook and Instagram are often used in tandem to promote similar content. However, brands must note that using the same hashtags for Instagram and Facebook is not always ideal. After all, brands often include up to 30 hashtags on Instagram, while including only a few (or none at all) on Facebook.
For example, TOMS includes multiple relevant hashtags (including #GunViolencePrevention, #EndGunViolenceTogether, and #BlackLivesMatter) on their Instagram post, but uses only one Facebook hashtag for a similar post.
An Instagram post on TOMS’ page
The same post is adapted for Facebook by reducing the number of hashtags used
As such, while Facebook hashtags are still useful for cataloging purposes, they should be used sparingly and purposefully to maximize their impact.
How to use hashtags: Instagram
Guidelines for Instagram:
- Hashtags can be included anywhere in a caption or comment.
- They should not include spaces or punctuation marks.
- Clicking or tapping on a tagged word in any post shows you a feed of other posts that include the hashtag.
- When people with private profiles tag posts, they won't appear publicly on hashtag pages.
- Users can only tag their own posts.
- An optimal number of hashtags per post is 15 – 20, although that number may be smaller for posts used solely for PR purposes. It doesn’t matter if users include them within their caption or in a comment. The maximum number of hashtags that can be included is 30 — do bear in mind that posts and comments with more than 30 hashtags will not be posted.
Searching for tags
Instagram users can search for them through Instagram’s search bar. This displays a hashtag feed for that tag. Posts are organized according to top posts or recent uploads. Followers of a certain hashtag are provided with an update of a few top posts each week.
A search for #Sydney2000 displays the posts containing the hashtag. Posts on Instagram often include multiple related hashtags.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Instagram has also taken steps to help lead users to accurate sources of information. When users search for keywords related to the pandemic, they receive an alert offering to connect them with official sources of information.
When a search is performed for topics surrounding the coronavirus, they receive an alert offering to connect them to official sources of information such as the WHO and local health ministries.
Unlike with Twitter and Facebook, where individuals and brands use hashtags rather sparingly, Instagram is a platform where more is, in fact, more. Influencers and brands want to keep their content as visible and searchable as possible. This often means that companies include their own branded hashtag in their posts. In addition, with new FTC regulations, influencers are now required to explicitly disclose their collaborations with brands — and hashtags are a way to do that. Think #ad, or #sponsored.
In addition, trending topics and themes are also a big part of hashtagging on Instagram. Popular Instagram hashtags related to fashion, beauty, or fitness house millions or even billions of posts.
The #fitness hashtag on Instagram holds over 413 million posts, and comprises everything from selfies to sponsored posts from influencers and public Instagram Stories.
However, this doesn’t mean that brands should use 30 hashtags in every post. Posting multiple irrelevant hashtags or including banned ones could well mean that your post does not appear at all (the infamous shadowban).
Even though Reuters’ post includes multiple hashtags, they are all related to the brand, caption, or image themes. Popular trends are also included, such as #picoftheday and #bestoftheday.
The best policy for brands is to therefore keep an eye on relatable themes and to use them in tandem with relevant topics. A rough guideline for this is as follows:
- Use at least 3-5 popular hashtags. These are hashtags that have around 500,000 to a million posts associated with them. Avoid hashtags with more than a million results as they usually attract spam bots and fake engagement.
- Use at least 3-5 moderately popular hashtags. These are hashtags with high tens of thousands of posts up to the mid-hundreds of thousands.
- Use at least 3-5 niche hashtags. These are hashtags with usually less than 25,000 posts associated with them and that are specifically targeted to what your business does and the solution or product you offer.
- Use 1-3 branded hashtags. This is especially useful for PR professionals looking to dip into existing features for better fan engagement. Content that includes branded hashtags garners better traction and helps the Instagram algorithm recognize them.
Tip: hashtags don’t have to be used solely in posts! They can be included in your Instagram Stories as well — use them when you launch a new content series, product, or campaign to draw attention to your efforts. Location tags and hashtags on public stories will also show up in their respective hashtag and location stories.
A hash and geo-tagged story by Frederik Trovatten populates on the Mexico City and #StreetPhotography stories
Things to note when using hashtags
Now that we’ve established how hashtags work on various social media platforms, you may be eager to start reaping the benefits of these tags — and while hashtags are indeed an invaluable part of PR and marketing efforts, there are still some pitfalls that must be avoided:
- Hashtags that are too broad or specific
- Hashtags that are too long or complicated
- Hashtags that appear or sound inappropriate or off-putting
- Hashtags that are ill-timed
- Hashtags that are already in use by another person or brand (or even your competitors!)
- Hashtags that are too similar to other existing tags
- Hashtags used only for the purpose of trendjacking or newsjacking for the brand’s own benefit
While it is impossible to avoid using tags that multiple accounts rank for, it is important that brands use interesting and relevant hashtags for their campaigns or product launches. These tags can be both evergreen or seasonal to match their respective intentions and audiences.
In addition, hashtags can often be misinterpreted even if they seem alright on paper. New hashtags should be used with caution and timed appropriately — beware of the backlash that can result from careless planning.
Now that you’ve successfully learned how hashtags work, you should also track your campaigns to see just how effective they are! Meltwater’s media monitoring solution allows you to monitor over 15 different social networks so that you can keep abreast of the chatter around your brand. Fill in our form to find out more!