These days, Hashtags seem to be ubiquitous on social media. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram users make extensive use of them in most posts. But where did it all start? Where are they best used? How can hashtags be leveraged to boost engagement and conversion? In this article, we’ll discuss the origin of hashtags, where they’re used and how to use them effectively.

The symbol use use to denote the hashtag began its long and storied life as a more humble insignia: used instead of the word “number” to denote a numerical designation (as in “#2 pencil”), or at the grocery store to designate a weight measured in pounds. Now, however, it’s most likely to be seen punctuating the staccato messaging of Twitter’s power-users.

In the decontextualized world of early Twitter, in the distant days before 2007, conversations were disconnected and hard to follow. If you weren’t there from the beginning, it might be impossible to join the conversation at all.

Enter the hashtag. With the hashtag’s ability to sort posts within one or multiple categories, hashtags changed the way conversations happened on Twitter. Now users could search for topics by appending them with the symbol (#sandiegofire was an early hashtag whose success served to demonstrate the viability of the feature).

In 2009, Twitter formally integrated the hashtag into its code, making hashtags automatically hyperlinked together and easily sortable with a single click. Shortly after, useage of the term “trending” to describe hashtags rising in popularity became the norm, and it became possible to take a holistic view of Twitter and examine which topics were being discussed at any time.

Where to use hashtags

In a word? Social media. In five words? Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Google+, and Pinterest. Though Hashtags are supported on other social media platforms, these are the big ones.

As you may have guessed, Twitter is the biggie. Twitter is the where hashtags are most used, and it’s here that they are best able to provide a tool for distributing brand messaged to highly targeted recipients. Companies have long since caught on to this, and it’s extremely common for a company to create a branded hashtag in order to allow relevant posts to be all linked together in the same channel.

Functionality and usage on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+ is somewhat more limited, but generally follows the same basic rules that developed on Twitter. This is great for marketers, because it allows users to be platform-agnostic when they use your hashtag, allowing it to spread across social networks organically and if you are using a social media management tool it makes distributing your post a breeze.

How to use hashtags

Hashtags have the power to tie your campaigns together quite organically, and allow users to get on the fun. They’re a great tool for boosting brand awareness and can facilitate greater engagements. Nowhere is this more visible than in the recent viral success story: the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Linked by the hashtag @icebucketchallenge, one only needed to click on the hashtag to be transported to an icy world of splashes, screams, and wanton donations.

The hashtag allowed all of the challenges to be grouped together and followed, allowing users to monitor the progress of the donation campaign much more easily. In the age of decreased organic reach, this functionality can be spectacularly useful.

A word of warning

When using hashtags, a social marketer is wise to think carefully about possible backlash. Marketing hashtags can backfire, sometimes spectacularly.

It seems that the testy denizens of deep Twitter sometimes don’t take kindly to their means of communication being co-opted for branded messaging. In 2012, McDonald’s launched the #McDStories hashtag campaign, ostensibly intended to be a place for users to share “good news stories about McDonald’s.”

The hashtag quickly became inundated with the opposite kind of McDonald’s story: digestive issues, health problems, allegations of animal abuse. The company even became reluctantly involved in a debate with quick-acting PETA activists. The hullabaloo prompted Forbes to coin the self-explanatory phrase “bashtag.”

Hashtags: a powerful tool

Hashtags can be an extremely powerful tool to foster and lead a conversation about your brand or campaign. Their open nature signifies trust in consumers. By creating a hashtag, a companies allow anyone to add their own story to the brand narrative, for better or, as McDonald’s saw, for worse. This transparency can do wonders for brand loyalty and identification, but if handled poorly, can be extremely damaging and quickly get out of control.

The hashtag will continue to be used (and misused) by marketers in the future, and remains a powerful tool in the arsenal of a prudent social media marketer.

Nick Rojas

Nick Rojas is a content marketer, business consultant, and journalist from Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @NickARojas.

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