If you’re using content marketing and social media marketing in your business, then you can’t ignore the vital role that hashtags play in maximising your strategy and bringing your content to the largest, most appropriate, audience. In simple terms, hashtags vastly improve the chance of your social media posts reaching the right people.

Believe it or not, the hashtag predates social media and was already being used on touch phones in the 1980s. Hashtags first hit the social media scene in 2007 – when Chris Messina, a social technology expert, suggested that Twitter adapt the hashtag practice to gather, categorise and index discussions on the timeline – simply using the # symbol.

Initially, not everyone was a fan of the idea, and Evan Williams, founder of Twitter, told Messina that he didn’t think hashtags would catch on because of their technical approach. He was wrong. In August 2017, the London-based Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that around 125-million hashtags are shared by Twitter’s 328-million users every day.

Hashtag science

Let’s look at some of the science behind creating great hashtags.

Do the research. Many social media marketers are content to fly by the seat of their pants and will choose hashtags based on gut feel, common sense and what interests them. But a bit of basic research enables you to be more scientific than that.

Set the tone and follow the trends. Consider whether you want to use your own branded hashtags or climb on the bandwagon of trending hashtags – or both. Trending hashtags can seem appealing because of the potentially vast reach. But if your product/service is quite niche and pertinent only to a specific geographic area, then what’s the point of reaching millions of irrelevant people?

Stay on-brand. Also be aware that a populist, trending, hashtag may not be ‘on brand’ with what you stand for. Near-hysterical Twitter debates around the pros and cons of Brexit, for example, will do you no good if you’re an apolitical, serious, business-focused brand.

Avoid the fluff. Further advice comes from Elemental Media, a Worcestershire-based agency that works within the educational sector. “Don’t hashtag spam – if your tweet doesn’t add to that hashtag’s topic, discussion, or user base, don’t add the hashtag,” its expert advise.

Where to get #help

Most of the social media platforms have a search bar that enables you to hunt for hashtags compatible with your content. You can also view trending topics within certain interfaces. For us as marketers, this is not sufficient insight to offer real value. We need to take a deeper look in order to create or join hashtag communities that are relevant to our brand or story.

You can use social listening tools to help identify key themes, view top tweets in relation to your brand and gauge sentiment. This helps you join, and stay part of, the conversations that your brand should be involved in.

Hashtag dos and don’ts

“Hashtags are great, but only when used properly. The biggest mistake people make is over-hashtagging. Limit it to two or three hashtags per tweet. Otherwise, your post becomes unreadable and overcrowded. On Instagram, you can add more hashtags without it becoming obnoxious. Instagram allows you to add 30 hashtags per post, but one study found that nine hashtags is the magic number.” – Amanda Asad, Social Media and Content Coordinator

Short, sweet and simple. When it comes to choosing hashtags, the Digital Marketing Institute recommends keeping them short and memorable, rather than trying to use a lot of words in one tag. “Don’t try to be too clever or unusual. If you choose a tag that no one is searching for, it won’t benefit your marketing”. its expert advise.

“Using hashtags that are detailed and specific will lead to better results than broad or general ones. Broad terms are not likely to be searched, and if you use them, your content will probably get lost in a sea of unrelated information.”

Get to the point. There’s an argument for settling on a hashtag that explains exactly what it is aiming to achieve. UKPower, for example, is currently using the hashtag #SummerEnergySavings in a campaign that emphasises ways to save on energy consumption, while children are at home during the school holidays.

In general, opinions differ as to the most appropriate number of hashtags to use. The Digital Marketing Institute recommends only one or two, saying these can have more impact than a high number of hashtags.

Choosing and using #platforms

Some social media platforms are more suitable than others when it comes to hashtags. The following are important points relating to each.

Twitter. As the first platform to use hashtags, Twitter remains the most popular destination for them. Using 1-2 per post is recommended by most social media experts. Using too many, they warn, can actually decrease engagement, validating the information provided by the Digital Marketing Institute.

Instagram. This platform allows you to share up to 30 hashtags. Although it sounds like a lot, there are some experts who recommended that you use as many as you can so as to maximise reach and engagement. Others, as mentioned above, are more comfortable with far fewer posts.

A useful tip approach is to avoid using the same hashtags repeatedly, as Instagram may decrease the number of users who see your updates. So vary your hashtags frequently, while ensuring that they remain relevant to your post.

LinkedIn. The popular business platform isn’t a place you’d typically associate with hashtags. But recent changes mean that including two or three in your content can be beneficial.

Be aware, though, that once your article is published on LinkedIn, you cannot edit or remove hashtags you’ve already included, or add new ones. However, you can make edits to your article.

If you’re looking for hashtag ideas, LinkedIn has been helpful enough to provide suggestions. Look out for them as they appear underneath your update while you type.

Facebook. It may be a social media juggernaut, but Facebook is now one of the few major platforms where hashtags still seem largely irrelevant. There is some debate among experts about this, but many claim that a Facebook post without a hashtag will actually perform better than one with hashtags.

A survey of 13 social media experts by Scott Ayres, author of the book Facebook All-in-One for Dummies, was largely inconclusive on the question. But most respondents did agree that, if you do decide to use hashtags on Facebook, keep them to a minimum for maximum effect.

Hashtags on Facebook can be useful as part of positioning a campaign though. For example, if VisitScotland (the Scottish tourism body) ran a multi-media campaign entitled #loveScotland, you’d include the hashtag as part of the Facebook campaign for the sake of consistency, even if it doesn’t help the post perform better.

Pinterest. Until very recently, hashtags weren’t of much use on Pinterest. But that’s changed and you can use up to 20 hashtags now. WP Tasty, a business that works with food bloggers, advises that Pinterest truncates your description after the first few hashtags, so Pinners will only see those hashtags to start, and must hit ‘More’ to view the rest of your description.

In #summary

Hashtags are incredibly important and will probably become more so as the volume of social media posts increase and it becomes harder for users to find the content they’re looking for. Implement a hashtag strategy, based on sound research, and you can reap the rewards on social media.