Do Hashtags Really Work?

by Sammie Jones | Jun 9, 2020

Let’s talk about hashtags. You know, that little # that every marketer selling you their social media growth strategies seems to swear by. And, as a fellow marketer myself, I used to be one of those people screaming, “You get a hashtag, and you get a hashtag, and here’s one for you!” across all social platforms (especially Twitter… sorry, Twitter family). But my perception of hashtags has since done a 145°, but not a complete 180°, and here’s why.

You’re a consumer, too.

The blunt, underlying truth about hashtags: You hate to see them as a consumer, but love to use them as a business.

As a content strategist, my immediate reaction to hashtags is generally positive – great, use them, grow your reach, increase that following. But as a consumer, I find myself subconsciously rolling my eyes every time I see a brand use a hashtag in the middle of a post. Why? Because it doesn’t feel natural and instead comes off as really, really salesy.

We as consumers go to social media for authentic, human-oriented interaction regardless of whether that interaction comes from your best friend on Facebook or a brand on Twitter. And the last time I checked, people typically don’t speak #likethis in the middle of conversations. So why should you as a brand?

The function of hashtags has changed.

When hashtags first emerged in the wide world of social media, their purpose was to bring people discussing the same topic online together, most predominantly in the Twitterverse. You wanted to see what everyone had to say about the Yankees game last night? You headed to the search bar, typed in #yankees, and out popped a solid 10K tweets about Derek Jeter’s home run, strikeout, triple double whatever (I don’t do baseball, clearly). 

But social media algorithms, capabilities, and UX have changed a lot since hashtags emerged in 2007. So much so that even the creator of hashtags, Chris Messina, said that native tweet functionality has superseded the function of hashtags in many ways.

Read the whole thread here.

So, have hashtags finally seen their better days?

Eh, kind of.

Hashtags still hold their own in terms of increasing reach and brand awareness, but it’s all about where and how you use them that will ultimately drive the results you want (hence my 145°). Hashtags are a tool and need to be used correctly in order to do more good than harm. You wouldn’t take your hammer and try to nail in a screw… the same concept applies here. 

How exactly do you use a hashtag correctly, you ask? Long story short, it ultimately depends on your brand and content strategy. But there are a few basic guidelines that I think will help you determine when and where they are the most appropriate for you. 

Here’s a brief overview of hashtag best practices on various platforms:

  • LinkedIn: Hashtags are probably the most useful and impactful on LinkedIn. It makes the most sense, as LinkedIn is a networking and business informational platform. If you’re unfamiliar with how to use hashtags on LinkedIn, click here. And if you haven’t already read my blog post on how to use LinkedIn for your business, check that out too.
  • Instagram: Instagram trails LinkedIn closely with the impact of hashtags, but contrary to LinkedIn’s “less is more” guideline, you can go to town with how many Instagram hashtags you use. Just 2 helpful tidbits from an Instagram lover, here. 
  1. Please don’t put more than 2 hashtags in your caption: Instagram is about aesthetics, and there is absolutely nothing ‘sexy’ about 50 hashtags at the end of a caption or 10 scattered throughout the content. The Instagram algorithm gives no preference to posts using hashtags in the caption vs. the first comment. So for the sake of your followers, please put them in the first comment on your post. 
  1. Do your hashtag research: Hashtags make your posts more discoverable on Instagram. The last thing your users want to see when they’re searching for, say, #dogsofinstagram, is a picture of your product that has absolutely nothing to do with a dog. Be sure to stick to hashtags that are relevant to your brand, product, voice, and audience.

Favorite #dogsofinstagram post, for academic purposes only(ish).

  • Twitter: Unless you have a really, really good branded hashtag, are running a campaign with a hashtag, or are attending a trade show/conference with a specific hashtag, I’d advise against using them in posts for the exact reason posted in the Twitter thread above. 
  • Facebook: Facebook is not the place for hashtags. Unless it’s used strategically in a Facebook Group. End of story.

Have any thoughts about hashtags or how you use them? Send me a message on LinkedIn, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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 by Sammie Jones

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