With how often hashtags are used in daily written communication, you wonder what we ever functioned without them. But pre-2007, that era actually existed. Google user-experience designer Chris Messina introduced the idea of the hashtag (then just a pound sign) on Twitter as a way to group conversations on the social network. Today, he's the self-proclaimed “hashtag godfather” – or #godfather rather – and you won't find a Twitter post, Facebook update, TV commercial or billboard without a hashtag.
Although some of this excessive hashtag use comes from younger generations being witty and staying connected with the latest social media trend, the rest is from companies leverage what has become a truly valuable digital marketing tool. According to “Strategies for Effective Tweeting: A Statistical Review,” a 2012 study by Buddy Media, tweets with hashtags receive two times more engagement than those without hashtags. This simple little symbol helps companies get involved in the hot discussions that are taking place and get their brands in front of target audiences. Examples of popular hashtag topics include the 2012 presidential elections and the Super Bowl.
The same study also found that hashtag use can be detrimental to a company (i.e. #overkill, #repeatoffender). It reported that tweets with one or two hashtags received at least 21 percent more engagement than those with three or more hashtags; using more than two actually leads to a 17 percent drop in engagement.
For making the most out of hashtags, Media Bistro's “unofficial Twitter resource” AllTwitter offers the best practices for hashtag use:
- Don't overuse them. Like the Buddy Media study found, hashtags are most effective when you use them sparingly. So stick with one or two tags on the most important words that represent the overall them of your message.
- Choose your words. What name or words do people most associate with your company or brand? Don't try to be clever or unique when the most obvious or simple hashtag is the best choice. Additionally, use words that give a good idea of who the message is intended for.
- Join a conversation. Sometimes it's better to join an existing hashtag conversation rather than trying to start a new one. Find a Twitter chat that's relevant or interesting and chime in. By joining a popular hashtag conversation, “you increase the likelihood that you'll get retweeted,” says AllTwitter. (See all Twitter hashtag chats here, tracked in a Google Docs spreadsheet.)
- Do your research. Make sure you know what a particular hashtag means before you join an existing conversation. Similarly, think about all the ways that readers could interpret a hashtag you're thinking of including.