How to #Win at Hashtags Every. Single. Time.
#selfie. #nofilter. #followme.
We generally associate hashtags with pictures found on Instagram of people in their teens or early 20s trying to be artistic. They attach strings of oddly specific or overly generalized terms and phrases to these pictures to connect to relevancy.
Guess what? There’s a reason they keep doing it – it works.
There is a whole psychology to our use of hashtags that we won’t get into here, but there are a few basics that will help you understand why they’re relevant to everyone using social media (businesses included).
You’re scrolling through Instagram and see a picture that strikes a chord with you. In fact, you like it so much that you want to find others similar to it. Luckily the poster has attached a few hashtags to the photo. You tap on one and are immediately taken to a stream of images similar to the one with which you just connected.
Hashtags are a venerable way to organize posts and help people find you.
Yes, you can search for singular words in the same way, but the results are going to be slightly different. Check out this test I ran of the phrase “marketing tips” vs. “#marketingtips” on Facebook.
When I searched for the phrase as independent words, you get lists of groups, places, pages, and subcategories of posts contain one or more of the words in the phrase. (That’s very important to note: just like with Google, your search results may only include one of the words in your search.)
When I searched the phrase using a hashtag instead (#marketingtips), I got a much different result. Instead of having to pilfer through a cornucopia of irrelevant pages and people, it took me directly to a list of posts relevant to my interest:
Much faster, much more relevant.
(If you’re looking for some good ones to get you started, we’ve got you covered. Here’s our downloadable Hashtag Database.)
They bridge a gap.
People who would never have had conversations previously are now connecting through quickly-found shared interests.
Hashtags are essentially miniature links which you can click on to link you to other posts related to the same topic. (This is quite possibly the biggest reason businesses should use hashtags in their posts – people who aren’t followers can find them.)
For instance, go to Twitter, roll over to the search bar, and enter “#MarketingNews” – you’ll end up with a page full of posts relevant to your interests. We guarantee there will be posters on that list with whom you’ve never connected before.
They can be used on any social media platform.
While Twitter is the motherland of hashtags, they can be used on any social platform – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, even Pinterest. Some sites use them in slightly different ways than others, but they all work in the same way.
Instagram typically places hashtags after the content following a gap of space, unless the hashtag is high ranking and specific to the post (such as in challenges like #potd or #ThrowbackThursday).
Tumblr has a designated section to place tags – ones entered into text, even with the hashtag symbol, will not provide a link.
Sometimes they’re solely used for entertainment.
Yes, they are searchable, but some people (usually individual users or public figures) will use hashtags that are so off-the-wall that it’s doubtful anyone would search for it.
So why use it? For entertainment value.
Users on social media are there for a reason – entertainment. So it makes sense to use a quippy, unique hashtag here and there that only has entertainment value.
When first getting into the Hashtag Game, you’ll probably have the urge to do certain things such as using just one hashtag in a post, bog it down with twenty-five tags, use overly generic hashtags, or create very specific ones.
However, there is both an art and a science to using these links in your social media practices. Some mistakes are quite common and easy to catch yourself doing.
1. Only Using Generic Tags
One-word, popular hashtags seem like they would be a great idea because you’re casting a wider net. However, there’s a problem with this technique.
Everyone has that same idea. So your post gets buried in a landfill of others using that same tag.
The other problem is the audience. If your post does manage to be found, it’ll be by people who aren’t necessarily interested in your brand. They liked your picture of the sunrise outside your office because you tagged it #sunrise and #beautiful, not because they found your brand intriguing enough to follow.
2. Not Doing Your Research
Say you’re a manufacturer and you want to post a picture of one of your team members working on the production line. Maybe “#TrustTheProcess” comes to mind.
It may seem relevant as you’re referencing the process your product goes through to reach perfection, but guess what? It’s not. That specific hashtag is actually used in sports-related posts relevant to teams getting draft picks – so not applicable here at all.
There are several services you can use to check on a tag and its related tags (Ritetag, Tagboard, Hashtagify), or in a pinch, run a search for it on the platform you’re using – just like users will do to find you!
3. Not Using Local Hashtags
This is a big one. If you’re a small company, chances are most of your sales are coming from your community. They’re all using local hashtags, so why shouldn’t you?
Here in Cleveland, the big ones are #CLE, #ThisIsCLE, and #TheLand – there are even giant signs Downtown of these hashtags (with the “#”!) that people STAND IN LINE to take pictures with.
People living in a community tend to have a firm attachment to it, so it would be to your benefit to capitalize on that.
4. Not Updating Your Hashtag Database
It’s easy to fall into the comfort trap. You have a select few tags that seem to get the job done – your posts get anywhere between ten and fifty likes or comments with them.
But new, equally relevant tags are appearing all the time. It’s a good idea to test for them regularly and add them to your list.
(We have a Hashtag Database available for download to help you start off right.)
5. Overusing Tags – at Least Improperly
You’ve seen them – the Instagram pictures with a cute little caption and then 12,429 hashtags below it (half of them are just repeated words with an “s” added to pluralize them). This really disengages the reader. Or maybe there’s no caption – just tons and tons of over-generalized or obscure tags.
Using a lot of hashtags is not necessarily a bad thing, but you have to do it right.
Instagram now allows you to use up to 30 hashtags in each post. If you’re going to utilize them all, fantastic. But don’t bog your readers down with repetitive tags (e.g., #photo and #photos in the same post), and make them separate from the written content of the post. You know those posts with this structure: image, written content, gaps with bulleted spacing, then tags? That’s what you want to aim for.
Also, make sure your tags are relevant. Don’t post a picture of a product on a Monday and then tag it with #ThrowbackThursday or #tbt just because it’s popular. The viewers that matter will catch it, and it will turn them off.
We also would not suggest this for platforms like Twitter (other than for the obvious there’s-such-a-limited-amount-of-characters reason). One study found that for every tweet using more than two tags, engagement dropped significantly. Facebook showed similar findings.
There’s a couple of different schools of thought on this one, some being on the “keep it short” side, others being on the “if you have space, use it” side. We’re of the “use what works for you” side. That being said, if you’re trying the string of tags at the bottom of your Instagram posts and it isn’t working, don’t keep doing it. Switch it up and try something new.
6. Not Using Any Hashtags
If you’re not a well-known brand who doesn’t need hashtags to garner views and likes, use tags.
Think of it as free publicity. Promoting a post is always guaranteed to get more views and possible interaction, but if you’re on a tight budget or need to put your funding elsewhere, tagging your post is the next best option.
And if you use a tag associated with a product you’re using or material from a vendor, there’s a high chance they’ll share it with their followers, building even more attention for you.
What You Should Do Instead
Once you have gone through your posts and have seen where your mistakes lie, there are some things you can do differently – do better:
1. Use Some Branded Hashtags
Emphasis on “some.” Not every tag should be #MyCompanyName. Have a hashtag that’s relevant to your brand and what you stand for but doesn’t scream your name from the mountaintops.
Try creating a tag for a campaign you’re running. A couple of great examples are the Lay’s #DoUsAFlavor or Nest’s #CaughtOnDropCam campaigns. Neither one of them mention the company name, but users understood the connection to the brands.
Granted, both companies promoted the tags, but you may want to consider putting aside some of the budget to do the same thing.
2. Use Capitalization When You Need It
No, capitalization is not needed in every hashtag, but it can be helpful.
If you’re using a tag with several short words strung together, it can become difficult to read. Going back to the Lay’s campaign tag, which is easier to understand at first glance: #DoUsAFlavor or #dousaflavor?
It can also help to clarify the hashtag. Because the English language is, well, the English language, two separate words can be just one when not separated; comparatively, two words shoved together can be read as three and completely change the meaning. Take a look at your tag from different angles and see which one will work best.
Of course, you may even decide you want to capitalize all of your hashtags because the aesthetic of it falls in line with your brand better. (If you’re not sure what works for you, our Social Media Planning Guide can help.)
3. When In Doubt, Keep It Short
#hashtagsthataretoolongaredifficulttoread. How long did it take you to decipher that? Did you have to squint at all? Your viewers don’t want to have to work hard to read it either.
Not only are shorter tags easier to read, but they’re also generally easier to remember. Take a stroll over to Twitter and look at the trending tags for the day – you’ll notice a general length consistency.
4. Be Wary of Trending Hashtags
Trending tags are great, but using ones that are irrelevant to your brand won’t do you any good.
If they have nothing to do with your brand, company, point of view, or product, your viewers will be turned off by the hashtag ineptitude. When someone loses interest in your page, it’s difficult to win them back.
Research them and find out which ones will be most effective in reaching your target audience.
5. Track Them
If you’re going to be a hashtag guru, you need to know how they’re working for you.
There are several different programs you can use to analyze the performance of a hashtag, a few of which we shared above.
6. Be Aware of Your Platform
As we mentioned previously, every platform has users that react differently to varying numbers of tags.
Some platforms need to be kept short and sweet (e.g., Twitter and Facebook), others require more for better engagement (e.g., Instagram and Tumblr).
Up until recently, LinkedIn was the least hashtag-friendly of all the social media possibilities; but after one of 2017’s updates, they appear on both desktop and mobile, reaching those outside of your network.
So, if you’re planning to use the same content across multiple platforms, adjust your hashtags for each one.
7. Keep It Clutter-Free
A mass of tags can look sloppy in a post, but there are a few ways to keep it clean.
We mentioned the bulleted-spacing idea above which seems to be a relatively popular way to go. It’s a visually solid way to go if you want to use all your tags right in the caption section of your post.
Another option is to leave the tags out of the caption altogether…and move them to the comments thread. It may seem a little unconventional, but it seems to work in the same way.
8. They CAN Be Used Directly in Captions
While not as common, hashtags can be placed into a sentence rather than at the end of the content. This works particularly well for posts with only one or two hashtags.
Because the use of hashtags is both an art and a science, it’s going to take a little experimenting to get to a strategy that works for you. If using five tags on Instagram isn’t gaining any traction, add a few more. Maybe they’re too generalized, and you need to try switching them out for some others.
And most importantly, don’t be afraid to try it. One of the biggest mistakes a company can make in relation to their online presence is to ignore new trends and not try to incorporate them into their marketing strategy. Go try new things. If it’s working for others, why not try it yourself?
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