Ten years ago today, the hashtag was born on Twitter.
And, I believe the hashtag’s origin is, frankly, the single most defining aspect of social media.
See, when Twitter launched in March of 2006, hashtags weren’t used at all on the micro-blog or anywhere in social media. Subsequently, the only people you could talk to on Twitter where those who were already following you. It made the platform quite limited in terms of growing your online audience (if no one new sees your content, no one new will ever follow you.) But it also made content discovery on Twitter nearly impossible.
Now, the hash symbol has often been used in information technology to highlight a special meaning. In fact, it was historically used in internet relay chats to identify and label groups and topics across entire networks (as opposed to those local to a server, which use an ampersand ‘&’.)
But, on August 23, 2007, technology evangelist, Chris Messina proposed a similar system to be used on Twitter to tag topics of interest on the microblogging network. He posted the first hashtag on Twitter:
How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?— Chris Messina, (“factoryjoe”), August 23, 2007
Since, then, people have been able to find content tied to specific hashtags, thereby creating tribes of like-minded people and content on Twitter.
As Twitter and the hashtag began to gain ground among social media users, I often explained it to brands and clients like this during its infancy:
Social media is like the high school cafeteria. Remember back in high school, everyone sat according to their shared interests. The jocks are over here. The band geeks are over there. The stoners are out back. Well, think of Twitter as the high school cafeteria and the hashtag is the lunch table. If you want to connect with pet owners, use and follow #pets. If you want to connect with fintech leaders, use and follow #fintech. This is how you find and create your tribe.
And, today, ten years later, the hashtag is still going strong.
We’ve seen hashtag activism change corporate and legislative policy, raise money for charities, create entire movements, and serve as delightful punch lines for late night comedians like John Oliver and Stephen Colbert.
From a brand perspective, hashtags have helped create thought leaders around a variety of industries and transformed Twitter into a viable live Q&A platform through Twitter Talks and Twitter Parties.
In my opinion, hashtags are what saved Twitter and made the platform what it is today. So, here’s a quick checklist of how to get the most out of hashtags for your brand.
Find Hashtags That Work for Your Business
It’s very important to make sure you use hashtags that genuinely connect with your brand and audience. Just because a hashtag is trending or popular, doesn’t mean you should automatically use it. In fact, sometimes, the more popular the hashtag is, the less beneficial it will be. A hashtag like #Love or #Business may be used by so many people that your tweet would be lost among hundreds of thousands of other posts.
Don’t Overuse Hashtags – Except on Instagram
There is nothing more annoying than a long list of of hashtags. #Trust #Me #Not #Every #Word #Needs #To #Be #A #Hashtag. Just, don’t do it. For most social platforms, I recommend using no more than three hashtags and incorporate them into your post. For example, you wouldn’t Tweet:
For thought leadership tips, check out our blog post on content marketing that gets attention. #thoughtleadership #contentmarketing #tips.
Instead, hashtag the content of the Tweet:
For #thoughtleadership #tips, check out our blog post on #contentmarketing that gets attention.
This will save you character space and won’t annoy your readers.
The only platform where you should use many hashtags is Instagram. It’s appropriate to use as many as thirty in a single post – as long as they are relevant.
Always Confirm the Meaning of a Hashtag
Before you “hijack” a trending hashtag for your own purpose, make sure you confirm the meaning behind it. The most famous example of this mistake was when #Aurora began trending after the deadly and horrific shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. A dress shop in London saw the hashtag trending and without taking a minute to see why the word was being shared, they Tweeted about a dress they sell called the Aurora. Needless to say, there was backlash.
Create Your Own Hashtags
Creating your own hashtags can be a terrific branding tool. It can also help you track the conversations you lead. Just be sure it is relevant to your product, brand or campaign. I especially recommend this if you want to create a Twitter Talk where you engage your audience at a specific time to let your subject matter experts answer questions live. All users have to do is Tweet their question to your designated hashtag and you have an instant live chat.
Just be sure if you do create your own hashtag, that you spell it out and consider every possible meaning and arrangement of the letters. A great example of this is when Margaret Thatcher died and the hashtag #nowthatchersdead popped up. While some people took it for its intended meaning–#NowThatchersDead—others saw singer Cher’s name in it–#NowThatChersDead.
Target Usage to Peak Activity Times
There are great tools like Hashtags.org, which can help you identify the top times of the day when hashtag activity peaks. This can help ensure you connect with the people most interested in that topic at the time of day they are online.
So, with that, I say Happy Birthday to the Hashtag. May you #livelongandprosper.
If you have any questions on how to leverage hashtags for your own social media strategy, please email me!