How to do hashtags. And how not to do hashtags.

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Chances are, you’re familiar with hashtags. Hashtagging words or phrases on social media is not a new concept, but how to use them effectively can still be a bit of a grey area; particularly if you’re new to using social media for business purposes. In this post, we’ll explore hashtag best practice for business whilst having a look at some of the shining examples (and biggest blunders) from hashtag years gone by.

But first, let’s take a brief look at the history of the hashtag.

A ‘hashtag’ can be explained as:

A word or phrase preceded by a hash sign (#), used on social media websites and applications, especially Twitter, to identify messages on a specific topic. (

It’s claimed that the first use of the hashtag on social media was in 2007 by Chris Messina, a designer who asked his followers for their opinion on using the symbol to group conversations. By 2009, Twitter was fully onboard and adopted hashtags into code which led to the automatic hyperlinking of words following a ‘#’ symbol.

2010 saw the introduction of trending topics. This is a list of the hashtags that are currently most in use and can be found at the side of your timeline or on the discover icon on a mobile device.

As with all new social media updates (Snapchat and Instagram Live, anyone?) the other platforms were quick to follow suit and hashtags are now also a feature on Facebook and Instagram. We’ll look more at hashtags on Facebook a little later.


What are hashtags good for?

Hashtags can be a great way to discover other users talking about a particular subject or industry. It can be hard for businesses – particularly niche businesses – to find target audiences on Twitter.

By typing in a hashtag, you’ll automatically be presented with a list of people talking about that word or phrase. This helps you identify people who may be worth striking up a conversation with, or at least following to keep an eye on future posts. Don’t forget this works both ways. There will also be other users employing the same tactics so relevant hashtag use can help people find you, too.

For example, if your business is in pottery, occasional searches for #pottery or similar related terms may help you find useful contacts, related events or useful business connections. There’s now social analytics software to help with ‘social listening’ and finding relevant audiences, but if you don’t have the budget for that, it can be done on a smaller scale organically via Twitter’s search bar.  Just don’t go too niche. There’s not much point hashtagging #handmadepotterywithglitter.

Using hashtags on Twitter can also be a good way to build your connections and expand the reach of your posts. Several location-based business hashtags exist to help businesses connect, such as #midlandshour and #southwesthour. Postcode hashtags are also interesting to explore.


How should you use hashtags as part of your digital marketing strategy?

First and foremost, please don’t use hashtags for the sake of it. Secondly, the main platform to use hashtags on is still Twitter,

As a brand, the effective use of hashtags can be beneficial for building brand awareness if used consistently. Take for example, Red Bull. Their brand strapline of ‘Red Bull gives you wings’ is also used in their social media marketing and appears regularly on tweets in the form of a hashtag. This encourages users to do the same, which in turn maximises brand presence and ensures a consistent brand message across all marketing channels.



Similarly, if you are running a particular campaign or competition, employing a hashtag is definitely something to consider. A dedicated hashtag will help group your content, as well as helping you to monitor competition entries.

It’s also worth keeping an eye out on trending topics. If one starts trending that’s relevant to your business or industry, involve yourself in it. Produce your own content around the hashtag or join in the conversation. If you make cakes, get involved with #cupcakeday.

We have a music school as one of our clients and there’s often a trending hashtag that asks people to combine bands with another topic that we try and get involved in. This gives you personality, adds a personal element to your brand and proves that you’re not a slave to scheduled tweets.


However, if I have one plea to you in this blog it’s this: Do NOT jump on a hashtag for jumping on a hashtag’s sake. Not only does it look desperate but it can actually do a lot more brand damage than good. This example by Gap is an extreme case, but highlights how even the big brands can get it spectacularly wrong.

When deadly Hurricane Sandy hit the US in 2012, Gap jumped on the hashtag #Sandy to suggest people stayed indoors to do a spot of online shopping. Not their smartest move.




This leads me nicely onto other more spectacularly bad hashtag use. Political parties and politicians are perhaps the best example of where hashtag use has not been well thought out or executed.

Twitter users are a witty bunch. If you don’t want something trending for the wrong reasons, steer clear of trying to get a hashtag trending. For a bit of entertaining reading, look into #WhyI’mVotingUKIP, #Susananalbumparty and #AskELJames.


As I mentioned earlier, hashtag use on Facebook hasn’t taken off in exactly the same way as Twitter. A 2016 report from BuzzSumo analysed more than a billion Facebook posts from over 30 million brand pages and concluded that posts without hashtags generated more reach than those with tags added. By all means test using them in your posts, but use them sparingly. Analyse those posts with hashtags and those without and determine which did better. Was the reach affected? Did your engagement rates increase or decrease?


On Instagram, hashtags are used by brands and the Instagram community to find images on a particular theme. With no character limit, you often find brands using several different hashtags at the end of a post. (Sometimes hiding them from view by adding in a few sneaky returns).

Adding hashtags to a post can be a great way to help attract relevant users to your brand, but again be wary of overuse. You don’t want to look like you’re super desperate for likes. Play it cool.


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Takeaways for how to use hashtags like a pro:

  • Don’t overuse
  • Keep them relevant
  • Use mainly on Twitter and Instagram but you can experiment with Facebook
  • Research the trending topic you’re going to jump on
  • Don’t use punctuation or spaces in your hashtag (it won’t work!)


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About Olwen Shaw

Olwen is OVG's Communications Director and has a particular interest in all things social media. She's a fan of nana-ish activities, running (sort of) and really wants to own a dog named Atticus.

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