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This guidance is intended for people who don’t really understand how to use hashtags for marketing purposes. If you are using social media for fun, there are no rules, do what you like. If you are trying to use social media to gain more customers and sell more products, or even just to get more readers of your blog, you are on a tight budget and do your own marketing, then this is for you. Although, before I go any further, if you are really aiming high and you are unsure about this, maybe you should read another post of mine (10 reasons not to do your own social media marketing).

What is a tag?

A tag is a label. It’s a way of categorising the piece of information that it is attached to so that it can be grouped with other similar pieces of information. A piece of information can have more than one tag. In social media marketing you maybe using tags for various purposes. The biggest reason, ultimately, is to be attracting new customers, but a step on the way to that is getting new people on board as followers.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is just a convention that has become understood as a way of indicating tags on certain platforms. Hashtags started with Twitter and now have spread to other platforms (eg Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+).

On platforms that use hashtags, they become a live link which takes you to a list of all the other posts that have been labelled with that hashtag. Some people will be watching particular hashtags. They may be watching them by having a feed for that hashtag in the app they are using to read that social media.

So here are ten rules to remember when using hashtags.

1 # is not short for Number

In the olden days, # was an abbreviation for number. It still is, but if you use it for this purpose in social media context, it’s not a hashtag, you may confuse people and you may look like you don’t know what you are doing.

And while I’m at it, @ doesn’t mean ‘AT’. If you want to let people know you are doing something at a place so that maybe you will reach people who are near that place, @ won’t do it. In the twitter context, if you add @ symbol to a word/place you are saying you are talking to a person with that username. Example: “I’m running a pop up shop at #traffordcentre” will be seen by more people than “I’m running a pop up shop @traffordcentre”. The latter would be just be telling the user @traffordcentre.

2 No spaces (or pretend spaces)

If you want to use a hashtag that is more than one word, eg “social media”, you need to write it without the spaces, otherwise all you will be hashtagging is the first word. ie #socialmedia is correct. If you did #social media, the hashtag picked up would just be #social. Don’t be tempted to put in hyphens or underscores to replace spaces. It’s just not cool, makes you look like you don’t know what you are doing, and as no-one else is doing it, then you won’t be getting into the place you want to be. The exception to this is if you want to create a unique hashtag (see 8), but even then I would suggest not doing so, because it’s just not cool.

3 Limit it to 2 or 3 (for Twitter)

Some people put messages of all hashtags, I think that is a real turn off. In Twitter particularly so because you are limited in the number of characters, the more hashtags you use the less message you have. If you are posting a picture, you have perhaps more scope to add more, but I’d still say don’t. On other platforms you could add a few more. The exception is Instagram, because it doesn’t have a search function, people tend to use lots more tags so their image can be found.

4 Variety is the spice of life

If your aim is to be found by new people, using the same hashtags over and over is clearly not a good strategy. Yes you will need to repeat them on a regular basis – because of the ephemeral nature of the media, and because different people are looking at different times – but not in every message. A monotonous use of the same hashtags will mean that you will only be reaching the same people. If you vary which you use, it gets around the temptation to load lots of hashtags into one message as mentioned in 4 above, and will hit more potential followers/customers. In fact, if you feel you have a particular message that warrants lots of hashags (because it relates to lots of topics), I would suggest that you actually post lots of similar messages at different times of day (schedule them maybe with a service such as http://hootsuite.com) with the different hashtags you want to use.

5 Make a list

If you are serious about marketing then you need to be organised, planned, structured. A list of keywords to try as hashtags helps you to be strategic about your messages and to vary them. You need to look at what hashtags are used by the people that you are trying to aim your marketing at. What lists of posts do you want yours to appear in to attract people with a similar interest?

6 Keep it short

Because characters count. Because it’s harder to make typos.

7 #longonesareforhumourandidiotsnotmarketing

You may see people using long hashtags like the title. All I can say is DON’T!

8 Unique for unique

If you want to run a campaign and get lots of people talking about something, or you are running an event where you want to live stream the twitter feed, then you need a unique hashtag. TV programmes use this idea, eg #hignfy. It’s hard to give rules for this, but if you want to be unique then you need to check whether the idea you have for your unique hashtag is not already being used by someone else. A simple search will tell you. Another way people use unique hashtags is for competitions, eg post a picture with this hashtag and you will be entered for a prize. If you are going to use for competition purposes, make sure you know all the rules and legal aspects of running a competition online. You can register a hashtag for these purposes on Twubs, a free service (http://twubs.com/p/register-hashtag) and then monitor it on another (https://tagboard.com/).

9 Relevant and common to reach a niche audience

This becomes more of an art than a science, but if you are trying to reach new people with hashtags then you need to understand the people you are trying to reach, their characteristics and hashtags that they maybe using or searching for. How do you know? The simplest thing is if you are thinking a hashtag will be good, search for it first and see what else comes up. If nothing then it is not a common use and so won’t reach anyone. If a lot of things come up that are nothing like your service/product then maybe that is the wrong audience.

10 Don’t try to fit into sentences

It’s not an absolute no no to include a hashtag in the body of the message that you are sending, but it isn’t necessary. As a rule of thumb, if the hashtag that you want to use would also be a word in the message that you want to post then hashtag OK, but if you are artificially writing to fit the hashtag, don’t bother, just put on the end (Tag on the end). For example “I’m exhibiting my work at #hindhead tomorrow, do come along” (message should include a link to location or website)
But this message would be be nonsense “I’m #exhibiting my #work at #hindhead #tomorrow”.

More reading

If you have mastered the basics from this post, here’s some further reading to become an expert on using hashtags: