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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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:
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!