They’re on paper tickets, TV shows, commercials, the Super Bowl, and even the leader of the free world uses them: the hashtags are here. Like them or not, along with the ever decreasing size of the sound bite, the growing trend of snackable micro content, and the importance of online dialogue, they’re here to stay.

#HashtagParadigmShift

So, how do they work, why are they important, and how can you use them in a way that doesn’t conjure up traumatic memories of Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon’s recent #hashtagologue? Here’s the nuts and bolts of how to use this new language and why doing so is an imperative for modern marketers.

What is it?

Quite simply, the #hashtag is a word or series of words combined together to convey a single sentiment, experience, or subject of discussion. It’s created by adding the number, or hash, sign (#) in front of the word or phrase. They were originally designed on Twitter to help facilitate an online conversation around a certain topic. Now hashtags are used across most major social networks. In B2B marketing, they are often attached to premium content marketing assets to drive community engagement and conversation around your subject matter. They function much like micro content in that someone can see a hashtag label on social media or on a piece of content and know what the topic is without reading all 140 characters or clicking the links. The hashtag label helps content consumers find, filter, and connect with the people and subject matter that they care about most.

Why should I care?

Using a hashtag makes your posts more visible. How does this work? At a basic level, tweets without hashtags will likely only be seen by those who are already engaged with your brand, while adding a hashtag makes your tweet visible to anyone interested in the topic you are posting about. For example, by adding the hashtag #B2B to a tweet about B2B marketing, we can expand our audience to everyone actively interested and engaged with B2B marketing on Twitter and other networks. Twitter found that brands that embraced hashtag use in their tweets can see a 50% or more increase in engagement. For individuals, this number climbs to 100%. Similarly, Dan Zarrella of HubSpot found that tweets with one or more hashtags were 55% more likely to be retweeted than those that did not include them. Hashtags are communities, and when used appropriately, they can help you engage with others who share your interests.

Aren’t they just for Twitter?

Hashtags are a cross-network way of communicating, collaborating, connecting, and collecting on social channels. Google+ hashtags are now appearing on the right-hand side of Google’s search results page. This is the same area on the search engine results page where brands pay top dollar for paid search placements. Google also has invited Twitter and Facebook to play in the hashtag sandbox by giving them a link that points to the search pages on each site. Other networks like Instagram, Vine, Tumblr, and Pinterest are also hashtag friendly and are integrated into hashtag aggregation sites like Tagboard, which functions like a social media hub by allowing users to see conversations across all social networks.

How do I use them?

  • Target your audience: Categorize your tweets and social updates by finding the most relevant, active hashtags. Use them to target specific audiences to help you deliver the right content to the right people. Post hashtags that your audience is already using.
  • Use tools to identify the right hashtags: You can find actively used hashtags by using the search features on social sites to see which hashtags have a lot of recent posts. Try Twitter search and look for hashtags that mimic or contain your keywords to see what people are talking about. Tools like Hashtags.org, What the Trend, TWUBS, Tagdef, and Trendsmap can also help you identify active, relevant hashtag communities. While these tools are focused on the Twitter community, most hashtags are leveraged across many networks. Social media is increasingly about the conversation and less about the platform or network where the dialogue takes place.
  • Create campaigns, promotions, and incentives: A recent survey from RadiumOne found that 51 percent of respondents would share hashtags more often if they knew advertisers awarded discounts for sharing product-based hashtags. Design your own hashtags for content marketing, events, and promotions to help build community around your brand message.
  • Create them correctly: Keep them short, simple, clear, and memorable. You want your audience to remember, understand, and use your hashtag easily. Make it obvious, but still unique if it’s one you are launching specific to your content or event. Even though ironic hashtags are a trend, they won’t help you engage your customers. Sorry Justin, #LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL is not a correct use of the medium.
  • Don’t overuse them: Using more than one or two hashtags in a single social update is overkill. You will annoy your audience, so choose the words that most closely relate to the theme of your content.

Hashtag takeover is still in its infancy. Keep an eye out for further hashtag evolution and explore new ways to innovate with this new language. Doing so will help you cultivate the greatest level of targeted engagement and degree of relevancy in your content and your community.

How have you used hashtags in your campaigns?

Image credit: mikecogh on Flickr