#ReadThis: How to use the hashtag effectively

Hashtags are bookmarks used on the Internet to participate in and track a particular conversation or subject matter.

The origin of hashtags in information technology dates back to 1970, but its current usage was suggested by Chris Messina, an open-source software standards advocate, who was the first to post one to Twitter in 2007. In 2009, Twitter began hyperlinking all hashtags in tweets to search results. This had immeasurable impact in connecting the digital dots of information on the web.

Though their original usage was on Twitter, hashtags have leaked to Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, traditional media and verbal conversations. Many of today’s advertising campaigns include mentions of brand hashtags, encouraging audiences to participate and carry the thread across media channels.How do we use them?

The hashtag can be within the body of a social media post or added as a postscript. Businesses and consumers alike use them to identify, organize, and emphasize their social messages. No one owns a tag, there is no formal process to creating one, anyone can make their own, and preexisting tags can be hijacked or re-purposed.

They can be used to:promote events such as “The North Bay Business Journal congratulates the recently announced #FortyUnder40 winners!”in lieu of formatting “This social media writer loves her job! #grateful”find fellow lovers of a specific subject “Who’s watching #giantsbaseball?”Why is it important to my organization?

Hashtags have become beacons of social conversation. Being a part of the zeitgeist is important for any brand that wants to be remembered in this crowded world of information.

When competing for attention, it’s a popular and fun way to encourage sharing of your message. Even better than traditional taglines, people are now verbally inserting them into real-time conversations.Where can I track them?

Hashtags can be tracked for popularity and if your tag achieves this it may be featured in prominent locations such as on Twitter’s homepage in a section called Trending Topics, Instagram’s Explore tab, or with traditional metric reporting using a site such as Hashtracking.

A much-used tag is desired because it draws more eyes to your account and subject matter which can easily increase your brand’s visibility from a few hundred to several millions of eyeballs. On many sites, such as Instagram, using popular tags is the best way one can build a base of followers. Users are likely to discover and follow an account using tags that they find interesting.Etiquette

When one wants to insert a hashtag into a social media post, etiquette is important. If overuse, or abuse, of hashtags happens, it can lead to account suspension, losing followers, and upsetting those in social media communities. Hashtags should be on topic and not mislead the public with advertising or outright manipulation. They include no spaces between words or letters, they have no punctuation, and capital letters don’t affect their efficacy. When it comes to the best amount to use, 1-3 is deemed acceptable but more than that creates hashtag fatigue.

 As I previously mentioned, there are several types of hashtags including the literal bookmark tag and those that use it for formatting but there is another category that is confusing to many. This is the nonsense hashtag or the run-on. They are often long, cumbersome, or no one else would ever use them (example: #imsooverfacebook). This is freeform communication and expression. These users don’t expect people to click on the hashtag, they simply want to convey their feelings or perspective. Think of them as social haikus.It’s #Alive!

A hashtag can have a life of it’s own for good or for bad. Entertainers Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake made fun of how silly people are that speak in hashtag. The joke was so funny it went viral and it influenced the conversation so greatly that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy (see bit.ly/hashtagjoke).

 A hashtag campaign can also damage a brand. McDonald’s introduced #McDStories into their social media posts in January 2012 attempting to start a conversation around the nostalgia of their brand. The campaign started well, but quickly the hashtag became dominated by company detractors highlighting animal abuse, poor employment practices, and people getting sick from their food.

McDonald’s had lost control of the narrative. This was the second time that McDonald’s had this occur and as the New York Observer remarked, “Some stories are better left untold.”It’s part of the conversation

Hashtags are here to stay for the foreseeable future. It’s really just digital slang. The only reason it’s important to you and your business is if you need to have customers buy your products or services. Granted, your product might be outside of consumer-based popular conversations but if you market to anyone -- or have customers -- under the age of 35, have a consumer product, or value word-of-mouth referral, you will definitely want to look into whether or not the smart deployment of hashtags can benefit your brand image and communication effectiveness. #tagsmart....

Kerry Rego (707-520-4572, kerry@kerryregoconsulting.com, kerryregoconsulting.com) is a social media trainer, technology consultant and keynote speaker in Santa Rosa. She is the author of What You Don’t Know About Social Media Can Hurt You: Take Control of Your Online Reputation.

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