The Year of the Hashtag

The trends are changing. I noticed a huge shift with the engagement tools promoted in this years Superbowl commercials. For the last few years companies have done everything to get us to follow them on Twitter or like their Facebook page. What they have came to realize is that simply having a larger number of fans or followers does not necessarily result in engagement. Those of us who have been doing this social networking thing for a while now know that a small portion of your followers actually engage with you. Though having a large number of followers looks good, it is not a valid measurement of successful engagement in social media.

In this years Superbowl commercials we saw a switch from companies asking us to follow them to using hashtags in conversations. These companies were asking us to start conversations or if we were going to talk about them, to use a certain hashtag. This is a smart move because simply following them does nothing for conversation or engagement. Even though their commercials of the past may have talked us in to following their social media profile, if we talked about their commercial we most likely did nothing that tied it all together. Hashtags do this.

A social media hashtag is a word or phrase tied together in part of a conversation that provides a way of grouping messages together. On Twitter, hashtags are easy to search. They become clickable. When you click on them you see the group of all conversations that used the same hashtags. Hashtags are used on Twitter, Instagram, Google+ and countless others. Facebook however, does not use hashtags. Some of the most popular hashtags include: #love#cute#happy, and #beautiful but the most useful hashtags were created for a purpose, which is to start and engage conversations. Sometimes this happens as a result of a cultural movement and other times it has to do with products or services. For example, when Charlie Sheen spun out of control, the hashtag #Winning became the most popular hashtag in the world. This was due to a comment he made during an interview where he referred to himself not as bi-polar but bi-winning. The SanFrancisco Giants Baseball Team used the hashtag #BeatLA during it’s games against the LA Dodgers to get fans to start conversations about the game. I remember Tweeting out #BeatLA multiple times throughout the season and at least a dozen times during one of the Giants vs. Dodgers games I attended in the 2012 season. This also gave the SFGiants an easy way to track who was talking about their brand. If the majority of the conversations taking place include the same hashtag, you can track performance much easier.

Reaching Critical Mass

Something becomes popular because a large amount of people have began using it or discussing it all at the same time. It’s a lot harder to reach critical mass when your product, service or topic is very segmented. This is where hashtags make it much easier for critical mass to be reached in social media conversations. People use the hashtag because they want to be part of the conversation. Because hashtags group the conversations together it makes it much more likely that the topic will reach a critical mass then if these conversations were taking place without some sort of unifying element. Sometimes people will work the hashtag into a comment and other times the hashtag will be at the end of a comment to assure it is part of the group.

Here are two examples of hashtag use:

  • Congrats to the @SFGiants! #Worldseries Champions #2012
  • Going to see the @SFGiants crush the @LADodgers. #BeatLA

These are just examples of what has worked in the past. I know that most of us SMB (Small-Medium Business) owners will never become a trending topic on Twitter and that is ok. Hashtags are not just for large trending events and conversations. Conversation grouping is just as important for small conversations as it is for large conversations because it allows us to easily measure engagement.

Why Hashtags work

You wouldn’t create new social media profiles for each topic you were trying to turn into a conversation would you? That would be like starting from scratch each time. Most of us have a wide variety of conversations we end up in on our social networks. Our businesses have multiple products and services. How do we track our reach? Hashtags make this possible. As mentioned above, a hashtag works as a unified identifier that we can use to search and measure engagement even if that engagement never goes beyond Twitter. I often use hashtags in conversations I am having just to infuse myself into other conversations. If I am talking about my Photography, I will use the hashtag #Photography or #WeddingPhotography. This will infuse me into a grouping of conversations that have to do with Photography or Wedding Photography and sometimes results in retweets or new followers.

On Instagram, the popular photo sharing smart phone app, hashtags are used to include your photo into a group of other photos. For example, if I took a picture of a nice car I saw and used the hashtag #musclecar, it would group my photo along with other Instragram photos of Muscle Cars. If somebody was browsing the search results for the #musclecar, they would see my photo. I have gained countless new followers by using hashtags.

As you can see, hashtags work in different ways and have multiple uses. They help group conversations together so you can track online engagement and they help with discovery by grouping conversations together. It’s a recent movement that is gaining momentum fast.

In the commercials for the 2013 Superbowl, more than half of the commercials had specific hashtags and encouraged you to use them on Twitter. Very few of the commercials mentioned Facebook, Google+, Instagram or even Youtube. I have also noticed hashtags at the end of movie trailers for upcoming movies yet to be released. There were over 25 hashtags used in Superbowl commercials this year. Some of the hashtags included in this years Superbowl commercials include:

  • #betterwithmms – M&M’s Love Ballad commercial
  • #braverywins – Audi’s Prom commercial
  • #thekiss – Godaddy’s crazy model vs. nerd kiss commercial

The television show Community was going to be cancelled at the end of season 3 due to low ratings however it had a strong following. At the end of the season finale the hashtag #sixseasonsandamovie was shown and shortly after it started trending. Actor Joel McHale posted a thank you tweet in response to the popularity of this hashtag on May 18th, 2012.

At the time I am writing this, people are still using the hashtag when they post about the show or the fact that it will be returning for a fourth season. They started a movement and the networks listened. Community fans will get at least one more season out of NBC.

Tips For Creating A Great Hashtag

Keep it simple! Notice that all of the hashtags used by big media are simple. Make it easy to understand. Have you ever noticed that some words canbegroupedtogether and read easily while others are notaseasy to read when grouped? When you group some words together, it creates other words. You want to avoid this. A hashtag has to be grouped together, once you add a space or a dash, the hashtag breaks. Only letters and numbers can be used in a hashtag and they have to be grouped together.

Hashtags vs. Usernames

On social networking sites you typically create a username or handle for your account. My handle on Twitter is @Jeradhill. When you are having a conversation with someone on Twitter or you want to include them in a post on Instagram, you use their handle. For example, if I was going to include my friend @JamesMHorton in a tweet it would go something like this: “Grabbing lunch with the infamous @JamesMHorton today.” If I am reaching out to a Twitter user for something, I would also include their handle. See this Tweet to @Rdio where I inquire about a feature I asked about almost a year prior.

I wanted to get @Rdio’s attention so I used their handle and then I used a hashtag to get my point across and include my tweet in a stream of other conversations where people used the same hashtag.

Closing thoughts

Though many do not yet understand what hashtags accomplish, and many are annoyed by their use, they are the internets way of grouping conversations. Just like Twitter became a buzzword that even our grandparents understand, the hashtag will become mainstream as well. As we move through 2013 we will see it used more and more until the other social networks find a better way of measuring the engagement of conversations. The hashtag works because we can see their use in each conversation posted. Hashtags can be a part of any conversation, which is why they are so great.

Start using hashtags in your conversations and postings on Twitter and Instagram. I can promise you that it will result in more followers and increased reach. If you represent a company, product or service, you should find a way to incorporate the hashtag into your conversations to build buzz and even create a hashtag for people to use when talking about your product or service.