The hashtag (or octothorpe) is no longer as trendy as it once was. A few years ago, it was inescapable in branding, slang, and more than a few song titles. In 2012, the American Dialect Society declared “hashtag” as their word of the year, and it was probably deserved, given it was a term that went from unknown to omnipresent in only a few years.
And then it got old quickly. For a moment it looked like the hashtag was destined to be the pet rock or pogs, a fad that flared up for a moment but was doomed to be merely of its era, filed away in the drawer where old memes and Internet detritus go to gather dust.
Except it didn’t. Hashtags are still with us, so you need to know how to use them.
The hashtag as a search tool
Unlike other era-defining crazes, the hashtag has endured its decline because it’s useful. The core function over the symbol’s decade-plus digital career has been remarkably consistent: It helps you find things. In 2007, American technologist Chris Messina tweeted:
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— Chris Messina™ (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
That’s still it’s primary function and should be top-of-mind when you deploy a hashtag. Use it to search. Use it to be found. Use it to file something in a certain segment of social media. This can be especially useful for events.
Curious what the future of Taco Bell might look like? Get a glimpse with #TacoBell2032: Demolition Man Experience.
— Taco Bell (@tacobell) July 23, 2018
However, it’s not merely functional. Even though the renamed pound sign has lost a bit of its trendy lustre, it still carries some meaning of its own.
Hashtags and self-awareness
Talking only about the literal meaning of something is never enough. Just like everything else, hashtags have connotations, and it’s important to be aware of those extra shades of meaning if you want to use them well.
A tweet that declares “I love tacos” is ever-so-slightly different from one that proclaims “I love #tacos.” The latter statement is more self-aware. The addition of a simple octothorpe tells us that the writer is aware of their medium, that they are familiar with the conventions of social media communication, and that they want to be found.
It also tells you what they value. Tweeting “I love #tacos” is a tweet about tacos, but “I #love tacos” is a tweet about the extremity or your devotion to a food item. One is about food, the other is about love. The latter is also a slightly sillier tweet, and silliness remains an inescapable component of hashtags.
To use a hashtag is to proclaim that you value something, and publicly stating your enthusiasm for something esoteric or specialized like #modeltrains or #SaaS can often make you look slightly ridiculous. However, being ridiculous isn’t necessarily bad. Embracing your enthusiasm can be endearing.
If you had to wait for #CincoDeMayo to have a “reason” to eat tacos and drink margaritas, you’re doing it wrong.
— Chipotle (@ChipotleTweets) May 5, 2018
Hashtags can illicit a fist-in-the-air component when used as political or social commentary. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter both proclaim solidarity and association with socio-political ideas. This kind of hashtag is the equivalent of unfurling a flag on social media, joining arms with your comrades, and gathering on the barricades to fight oppression. Use these types only if you’re sincere. Don’t bandwagon on a hashtag to sell something.
So hashtags help with visibility. Great, right? Why not load up your tweet with several of them. Don’t just say “I love #tacos”; say “I #love #tacos. #tacotuesday #salsa #carneasada #TacoSummit #tacosarethebestandilovethem.” While that will, in fact, make you visible to anyone who’s looking for those hashtags, you should resist the temptation to stuff your tweet with them.
Hashtags help you be found. However, once you’re found, you want to have the kind of content worth engaging with.
Earlier I said hashtags have the potential to demonstrate self-awareness, to show that you’re familiar with the specific nature of the medium you’re communicating in. That goes away when you go overboard. A wall of blue, octothorpe-infected type makes you and your brand look out of touch with your audience and the content they want.
At the very least, a tweet with too many hashtags is hard to read. It also makes your tweet look like spam. Using too many hashtags screams “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!” It could also look like you’re just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.
Tired of the same ole dull meals at home? Change things up w/our Latin Food Wednesday specials! Paella, mole & vampire tacos will be served up starting at 4 pm today!#theboldthouse #latinfood #tacos #paella #whatsfordinner #wednesdaynight #seabrook #kemah #clearlake pic.twitter.com/SPM6YHWBft
— The Boldthouse (@TheBoldthouse) August 8, 2018
Keep in mind that things are totally different on Instagram where the images are doing the heavy lifting. You can load up with hashtags as an index tool. On Twitter, though, you have only a sentence or two to make your case, so there’s more onus on your text to be optimized. With that in mind, make sure you’re posting different things on Twitter and Instagram. This tweet was clearly crafted for Instagram, and on Twitter it doesn’t work nearly as well.
— RBX Active (@rbx_active) August 3, 2018
How to use hashtags well
Before you spackle octothorpes all over your brand’s Twitter account, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Understand hashtags before you use them. You never know if something has shades of meaning that you’re not aware of, and bandwagoning on a hashtag you don’t understand can be disastrous.
- Search for hashtags first to make sure they don’t have a double meaning. You’d be surprised at what could be NSFW.
- Check relevance. If a hashtag hasn’t been used in over a year, it’s dead. Don’t use it (unless it’s relevant to a recurring event).
- Don’t use too many. A good rule of thumb is to have no more than three clickable elements in a tweet. Too many make it spammy and unreadable.
- If possible, integrate hashtags naturally into your copy. Adding them on the end can come across as a reach.
- Hashtags, ultimately, are slightly self-aware indexing tools. Make sure your hashtag is supporting something that’s actually worthwhile for your audience.
- Don’t use political or social commentary hashtags to sell things.
- If you try to create a new hashtag, make it a simple one that readers can remember.
- Instagram is a different thing. Go nuts. More than seven hashtags is actually a good idea.