rom Twitter, to Instagram, to Vine, and now Facebook, hashtags provide a unique way to categorize trends and pull attention to a certain event, product, social movement, or pretty much anything you want. But as social media provides a unique way for customers to interact directly with today’s brands, the hashtags involved can be a powerful tool or simply a waste of time.

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Graphic by Socially Aware 

The usefulness of hashtags has been a point of contingency amongst companies and media gurus alike, since the first hashtag made itsdebut on Twitter in 2007. It became an entry in the Oxford Dictionaryin 2010 and probably far too many younger users hardly remember a time where # meant anything else. Whether used purposefully or ironically, hashtags are everywhere. But when trying to push your campaign the extra mile on social media, is a hashtag the right way to go?

Lauren Hockenson of Adweek writes that while hashtags attempt to guide a conversation about a certain topic, providing #SXSW as an example, they don’t guarantee an audience and can be challenging to measure in effectiveness—not to mention a bit of an eyesore.

“There’s no way to truly calculate the audience attending to a hashtag, to estimate the accuracy of a hashtag-based search, or even find adequate context for hashtags at all,” writes Hockenson.

Plus, they have a dangerous ability to backfire. Some say any publicity is good publicity, but if you talk to the social media team behind #McDstories or #IloveWalgreens, they might tell a different story.

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And alternatively, when brands attempt to stay relevant and interesting by using currently trending hashtags without researching first, things can go horribly wrong. But that’s a whole other story. For today’s brands on social, hashtags are more and more prevalent.

Steve Cooper of Forbes writes:

“As ridiculous as hashtags might seem to marketing veterans who remember a time before Twitter and Facebook, the younger generation and potential customers/clients don’t. To them, using hashtags is as natural and common as typing their query into the search box.”

And according to a study by Dan Zarrella of HubSpot, tweets with hashtags were 55% more likely to be retweeted than tweets that did not.

Bottom line, hashtags are abundant. And while some flop, others rise to the top. Many are born and die on the same day of creation, but some grab quite a lot of attention that cannot be ignored. So what factors play into the success of a hashtag, when used to promote a brand/campaign?

While many create hashtags for a brand on a whim (the iconic move for a company desperately trying to stay hip), Twitter actually provides a short guide for how this tool was intended to be used.

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Along with these brilliant pointers above, we decided to add a few of own.

Do:

Use relevant keywords. You could just have the hashtag be your company name, but where’s the fun in that? Try to incorporate keywords that are relevant to your brand/product which will additionally boost your SEO, or try integrating a variation of your campaign’s tagline into a hashtag.

Offer something unique. If you’re creating your own hashtag, try making something memorable that stands out against others in their respective platforms. Easier said than done, obviously, but with such a vast amount of hashtags out there, you don’t want to blend in. Hashtags that offer either aspirational or comedic value do particularly well, particularly ones that invite audience participation such as Oreo’s #OreoHorrorStories or Coca Cola’s #ShareACoke.

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Go short term. Don’t let your hashtag grow stale. People like things that are fresh and trending. Most trending hashtags have a short lifespan tied to a specific campaign or event, and that’s not a bad thing; it only takes a short impression and positive experience to have someone remember your brand. If you really do want to go long term, make sure you have developed a strategy where this hashtag will stay relevant and interesting across the months/years.

Piggyback on current cultural trends. Positive ones, that is. If your brand can incorporate a hashtag that’s currently trending, you’ve struck gold. Then, having your own hashtag follow will increase traffic.

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Make sure your hashtag can’t be misunderstood. Some people love nothing more than to take hashtags out of context and apply something funny to them, and potentially detrimental to your brand. And you can’t always avoid it, but use common sense; get a few different sets of eyes on it before going live. Also make sure that your hashtag can’t be misread into something, well, bad.

Engage with your audience. People need to be incentivized to some extent, and a great part of that is acknowledging users who have adopted your hashtag and are effectively promoting your content for free. Social media allows for users to gain a feeling of closeness to a company through this simple interaction, and will generally boost affinity for your brand. Like your audience’s tweets/posts, maybe reply to ones that are particularly thoughtful (or hilarious). Seeing other users receive attention for their posts will encourage more to join in.

Check your analytics. Twitter and Facebook offer them both, and you can see if your hashtag usage is increasing reach, or has no significant effect.

Do not:

Use an existing hashtag that has ever referenced something negative. Dangerous territory. Research heavily. You can also use hashtagify.me just to check out which hashtags are already in use and their popularity level.

Have too long of a hashtag. Not just because of readability and short attention spans, but also because the most posts rely on concise content for effectiveness, especially when a platform like Twitter has very limited characters.

Have too meta of a hashtag. You might think you’re funny and clever, but if you’re too specific and referential in your content, the majority of your audience is not going to understand/relate/care.

Break up your post with hashtags. Hashtags fit best at the end of a post, and when multiple are breaking up a sentence, it can become difficult to read. If a hashtag needs to sit in the middle of your sentence, only do it once, and make sure your post is short.

Make a hashtag that should have punctuation. Lowercasing a hashtag is fine, but because apostrophes, commas, etc will break the link, it’s a little disappointing to see incorrect grammar tied to your brand. I.e. #Yourehome. All writers proceed to cringe.

Use excessive hashtags per post. No explanation necessary. Ian Cleary of Razor Social recommends one or two.

Hashtags can always be hit or miss, but taking these elements into account when making your own can truly boost your brand on social. Timing, engaging with your responsive audience, and knowing that your audience is social-savvy enough to find value in your content: these are all factors that will contribute to your hashta