Hashtags are labels used on social media and microblogging sites, including Twitter and Instagram. They are designed to help users find posts and topics of interest. To use them, just put a hashtag (#) immediately in front of the word or unspaced phrase that you want to use, for example #BCBS239 or #iotanalytics.

Think of hashtags as keywords for social media – Use hashtags to build your brand on social media, and try to keep using the good ones to emphasise your point and your brand message. They need to be clear, but also unique to you and your brand message. If you are struggling to find good hashtags, try a tool like hashtagify.me, which effectively acts as a keyword search for Twitter.

Hashtags are not just for social media use, they can be used to drive traffic to your website… Hashtag Engine Optimisation is a phrase used to describe the process of identifying trending and relevant hashtags, crafting effective content around them, broadcasting it on social media using the hashtag, and watching the traffic to your website go up. The advantage of this kind of operation is that it is immediate, but it also needs careful watching, because trends can come and go very quickly.

…but make sure your hashtag is relevant – There is nothing worse than spam, and that includes hashtag spam. Be creative, by all means, but use hashtags that are relevant to your topic and your brand. Using irrelevant hashtags could even get your account banned. This goes for both Hashtag Optimisation and general social media use.

Keep it short and sweet – Hashtags are included in the 140-character limit on Twitter, so it’s best to keep them short. That way, those responding will be able to say more. Make it too long, and people may be irritated enough to just skip the hashtag.

Consider the spelling of your hashtag – You may know how to spell it, but does everyone? A misspelled hashtag is useless, because nobody will ever find any tweets related to it. Make your hashtags easy to spell and easy to type, to maximise their use by others. And try to avoid words with multiple spellings, like organise/organize.

Two’s company, three’s a crowd… Style and quantity of hashtags are important. The general consensus is that one hashtag is ideal. Two is acceptable, especially if one is a geographical locator, but three is the absolute maximum. More than that, and you will start to irritate people.

Be specific enough, but not too specific – How specific depends on what you are going to do with the results of your hashtag use. If you wish to join a general discussion, or make comments about world events, then you need to use the same hashtag as others. If you are curating a Tweetchat or running a conference or event, then you want a tag that isn’t being used elsewhere, because you want to make it easier for people to follow, and probably also be able to gather together all the relevant tweets afterwards.

Specific hashtags are not just for Tweetchats and events… You can use them for anything where you want to be able to Tweet about the situation, and have people follow and respond. Companies have used them successfully for campaigns and competitions.

…but be careful what you wish for, because campaigns can backfire. Once your hashtag is out in the world, it is outside your control, and you may not like what others do with it. In particular, customers do not very often tweet positive things linked to hashtags, as McDonalds found it with its #McDStories campaign, which was rapidly taken over by negative stories. Despite McDonalds formally shutting down the campaign after two hours, the hashtag is still in use for negative comments over two years later.

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