I am asked a lot of questions about things people see on the Interwebs. It seems like nearly every Thanksgiving, Christmas or Arbor Day a relative corners me at the dinner table to ask me about hashtags (or something along those lines). Sometimes they ask, “Why are we gathering for a meal on Arbor Day?”
“Hey Jason, what’s a hashtag? I don’t understand you kids with your hashtags …” It’s usually then followed by a long rant about “kids” and technology that makes me want to jab half-cooked asparagus into my ears. They bore me to tears. I try to listen, but would prefer to just pass them the mashed potatoes. I may even Instagram them. Really, they’re beautiful.
Perhaps I should feel lucky their questions imply I’m young and hip, rather than closer in age to be in a risk category for breaking one.
Here’s what I tell them:
Hashtags make content searchable. When you use a hashtag, you’re putting that particular comment into the greater public conversation about that topic. Or, you’re creating a convenient way to filter and collect your own conversation based on your unique filtering word or phrase.
To make it relatable, I usually tell them to put “#Apple” in a Facebook post about their new iPhone. Then click on the linked term “#Apple” in the published post. There you’ll see all of the other public Facebook posts about Apple products. Or maybe the fruit – but far more likely the phone.
(Pro tip: People who talk about the fruit on Facebook don’t know what a hashtag is.)
For marketers, a hashtag is a bonanza of information. A well-used and well-loved hashtag at an event can give sponsors a whole new crowd of people to follow, tweet with and, best yet, sell things to. It creates conversations, and more importantly, a sense of community.
Peace, love and hashtags, man.
So then Grandma says she’s going to start using hashtags. I suggest she work on some breath mints first, but that falls on — quite literally — deaf ears. So I have to give her some pointers.
Okay, Granny. First off, keep them short, especially on Twitter. That particular social network only allows 140 characters per Tweet. So, you don’t want to take up half the post with a hashtag like #JasonFallsPresentationKicksAss, even though that’s an incredibly accurate, well-written hashtag.
(Be sure not to abbreviate it #FallsAss. I may have a nice one, but some people will think you’re calling me a name. Heh.)
You also don’t want an alphabet soup hashtag. If your organization has a long name that you commonly abbreviate with an acronym, try not to use that. Let’s say you’re an association of people in law-related marketing. Perhaps the Legal Ombudsman Search Engine Raconteur Service (LOSERS). Try something shorter and more recognizable, such as #LegalSearch for your posts. Using the capital letters (but not ALLCAPS — that means you’re yelling) makes it more readable. Hashtags are not case-sensitive, so you can use it with or without capitalization.
If you do want to use a hashtag for an event, widely distribute it among your conference speakers and attendees. Put it in your brochures, your programs, your presentations … everything. Make it known and ask that the audience use it. They will. Watching that hashtag will give you insights into your audience you didn’t know. You’ll learn a few things. You might get a criticism or two as well, but if you’re sharp, you’ll listen and engage in a conversation with your most thoughtful critics.
(Skip the trolls, though. Ain’t nobody got time for that.)
Keeping Up With Trends
Hashtags are also useful in keeping up with what’s going on in the world. A quick glance at trending hashtags tells you all you need to know. When a celebrity dies, expect their name to rise to the top of trending topics on Twitter with a hashtag of their name with an “RIP” tacked on.
News drives hashtags. Sometimes, hashtags drive news. Hashtags have driven governments to act. After #Kony2012 took over Twitter, President Obama sent troops to Uganda to aid in training troops there to locate Joseph Kony. Twitter and other social media, including use of hashtags, drove the Arab Spring uprisings in 2010.
Although hashtags are used most commonly on Twitter, they can be used effectively on other social media as well. Hashtags are searchable on Instagram, Facebook and many other networks, too.
But don’t forget that hashtags can fail – spectacularly. One of the funniest, at least to me, is the recent Dallas Cowboys choice in hashtags for their London game. The team promoted #CowboysUK as their hashtag. (Cowboy SUK … heh.) No skin off my back. I hate the Cowboys. But, still.
The Bottom Line
Use hashtags. Learn who uses them for what. Keep up with what’s going on the world.
And if you’re the Dallas Cowboys, keep using the #Cowboysuk for the rest of the season. Romo and crew may be having a breakout year, but your detractors need to remain amused.
For the rest of you, please read your hashtags out loud before you put them into practice. But dive in, search for a general topic of interest to you by what you think it’s hashtag might be (i.e. — #publicrelations #pr #socialmedia #bacon) and get used to the easy way to filter, find and join the conversation.
But only if you can also hear it, Grandma.