The significance of the humble hashtag

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The hashtag, the humble hashtag, is currently the king of organic marketing.

Don’t get me wrong, the hashtag and the hashtag alone will not make your social marketing program successful. But if your audience is active on platforms like Twitter and Instagram and you have a niche audience you’re trying to reach that goes beyond your followers, there’s really, shockingly, only one way beyond buying targeting services to connect with those like-minded people (other than 1:1). And that way is … the hashtag.

It had a prosaic birth. In 2007, Chris Messina (now with Google) was a user in the early days of Twitter and, with a single tweet borrowed from an IRC convention, turned a method early techies had used to identify conversations into the mostly widely-used tool to catalogue social content.

It seemed like a small thing and started out as a way to denote #followfridays and #w00ts, an expression of techie celebration, more than anything else. However, as time went on it became apparent that content on Twitter, and then Instagram, was hard to categorize beyond raw searches for keywords. The hashtag began to appear in ads and as part of political movements. Today, practically every event has one. (Remember #Angelinasleg?)

This is especially true of, important for and useful for B2B events and subject matter, where network security specialists and COBOL programmers can find each other and congregate. Finding an audience for niche content is always a challenge for B2B marketers, and for that reason many of them have flocked to Instagram and Twitter. Let’s say you’re attending the latest #internetofthings conference. Identifying and connecting with other people at the conference, or who enjoy talking about the Internet of Things, is suddenly possible, even easy. Is there a downside? Hashtag hijacking, but this is not really an issue for B2B, or has not been to date.

An important rule to keep in mind – using hashtags on Twitter and Instagram are very different. Here are some do’s and don’ts for each.

DO hashtag common words on Twitter. On Twitter, your goal is to use hashtags that already exist and will be searched by many people. It’s not a branding exercise, it’s a content-discovery mechanism. The hashtag #bluejays or #gojaysgo will get more views than #torontobluejays, which is used less frequently than the first two.

DO use common hashtags on Instagram, but recognize that those words with very high volumes will result in your content getting buried quickly. Try to strike a balance between frequency and visibility. For example, if you make beautiful stationery, the hashtag #beautifulstationery on Instagram has only 149 posts. Stationery, on the other hand, has 650,000 with an average of 40 posts an hour. One doesn’t have enough volume, the other might have too much for your image to get traction. The sweet spot is generally somewhere in the middle.

DO NOT use more than 2 hashtags in a tweet. Too many hashtags distracts from your content and its perceived value. Use as many as are populated with related images in an Instagram post, particularly marketing posts. (This is not a good policy for personal accounts though).

DO NOT over-post on Instagram or Twitter. Also, do not under-post, a lesser sin. The best guideline is whenever there is high-quality content, it will not be an irritant. Generally this is true, but a dominant flood of images or posts in someone’s feed can still be overwhelming – and it’s the single biggest reason people unfollow on Twitter. Marc Andreessen can tweetstorm, but you are probably not Marc Andreessen.

DO expect a lot of junk interactions or interactions whose motives might be sales-oriented on Instagram. During a recent 65+ posts in 7-days binge, we generated nearly 1000 likes (80% of which were not spam), and about 40% of those had some commercial promotional element to them. Meanwhile, 89% of the activity happened in the first 24 hours after the post. This is also true of Twitter, but less so than on Instagram, unless you include bots, which currently represent a staggering 97% of clicks on Twitter (Twitter only includes human clicks in its analytics).

DO NOT use links on Instagram. It’s just not that kind of platform. Links are the lifeblood of Twitter, so link away. Even to Instagram, even though Instagram no longer supports posting to Twitter directly.

DO research popular terms on Hashtracking.com for both. It’s an invaluable tool to understand which hashtags are trending and popular for all kinds of subject matter.

The best way to start is to find the most influential people talking about a subject and use what they use. Twitter provides helpful suggestions on this and Instagram will actually tell you how many instances of the hashtag have been used.

And remember – it’s an art and a science!

Photo via Flickr, Creative Commons

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Jennifer Evans

Jennifer Evans

President at B2B News Network
President, @B2BNewsnetwork (launched Nov 2014). Content, community and analytics obsessed. Inventor @squeezecmm. Past chair, @itac_online @whiteribbon