hashtag rulesWho knew Mariah Carey and I had so much in common! It turns out we both use hashtags to name our products. Mariah (or, more likely, her smart marketing people) titled her recent single #Beautiful. For the very same marketing reasons – increased visibility, branding, world of mouth, and SEO – I chose to name my social marketing advice column here on MobileGroove, #DearKen (you know I did it first!). As marketers, hashtags are a relatively new tool in our ever increasing arsenal to maximize the reach, engagement, and virality of our brands’ messages. With Facebook’s recent hashtagization (making up words really is one of the best things about being a marketer), there’s no better time to talk about hashtag optimization best practices for your marketing and communications.

A quick reminder before I start, that the opinions expressed here are my own. They come from my hands-on experience managing social marketing content and campaigns, leading social marketing teams, and consulting for social marketing clients. You, your organization, and your brand are unique! Please use what works for you, and [guiltlessly!] toss the rest! Do you disagree with any of my advice, or think I have forgotten something? Please share your experiences with us in the Comments section below, so all of us can continue the discussion and the learning.

Thank you for your tweet, and for your very timely question. Twitter’s incredibly free-form nature tends to confuse marketers at first, and hashtags even more so. What is the “purpose” of hashtags? Hashtags allow you as the creator of social content to “tag” your content so it can be more easily found by your target audience. Think of hashtags as just one more capability to help you communicate your brands’ messages.

Created in 2007, it may help to compare hashtags with billboards. Yes, billboards. Billboards were created – best we can tell (the event wasn’t live-tweeted) – in 1835. Having been in use now for almost 200 years, billboards have long-established best practices. Billboards’ “messages must be brief and attention-getting” (just like Instagram and Pinterest!). Hashtags, “invented” by Chris Messina on August 23, 2007, will be just six years old this year, so like any other six-year old, how we manage them today is guaranteed to be different from how we manage them tomorrow.

Let’s dive in!

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is any combination of letters, words, and numbers — real or made up — in any language with a #-sign (charmingly called the “octothorp” by my fellow Bell Labs peeps) before it. Note that there are a few key limitations. A hashtag cannot, by definition, contain symbols, nor can it be all numbers. Twitter has a geek-approved explanation of why on their website.

Why do people use hashtags?

According to Twitter, “the hashtag was created organically by users…as a way to categorize messages.” My translation of this is that people use hashtags to increase the “discoverability” of their posts on Twitter, and many other social networks. Great examples include: Major League Baseball’s #MLB, where the hashtag directs their players, fans, and sponsors to all MLB-related posts; and #BostonStrong, where the hashtag increased not just the effectiveness of the fund-raising campaign, but the feelings of connectedness and community in support of people’s grieving and healing processes. Hashtags are also increasingly used to emphasize the content itself and/or add a specific tone to posts, akin to how people use emoticons and emoji to increase the effectiveness of their communications on their mobiles.

The 2013 Superbowl saw hashtag use reach the tipping point with hashtag mentions in TV commercials overtaking URL mentions for the very first time. For the foreseeable future, hashtags are here to stay, and you will dramatically increase the ROI of your marketing efforts by using them.

Where should I use hashtags?

While hashtags originated on Twitter, they are now used on most of the major social networks including: LinkedIn, Facebook, Sina Weibo, YouTube, Google+, Vine, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr.

How long can a hashtag be, and how long should a hashtag be?

By definition, the length of a hashtag on Twitter is limited by the length of the tweet itself, 140 characters. That said, hashtags are usually much shorter. When you’re creating a hashtag to be used at a conference, presentation, or other event, for example, your objective is to find the shortest possible hashtag that is easy to spell, remember, and pronounce. Remember, when we create hashtags, we need to keep speech recognition services such as Siri and Google Voice in mind, just as we now do when we create brand names and URLs. And yes, your hashtag should be “clean”.

Clean? You mean I shouldn’t use profanity in a hashtag?

“Clean” here means that the hashtag you create is, ideally, not already in use. If the hashtag is already in use (which happens often as no one can “own” a hashtag, or bar others from using one that is already in use), then you have to check whether the existing alternate uses of the hashtag will support, or impede your use of it. You can find out if anyone is using the hashtag you want by doing a quick search on Twitter (http://search.twitter.com). Taking this one small extra step is NOT optional. Entenmann’s, a popular U.S. maker of baked goods, learned this lesson the hard way. They found their promotional hashtag, #notguilty, inadvertently inserted the brand into the middle of an extremely off-brand national discussion about a controversial murder trial. Their goof, and the resulting public apology, will be a marketing classroom case study on hashtag use for decades to come.

Of course, your hashtag should also be ‘clean’ in the more traditional sense. This means that — with the notable exception of hashtags used to promote “edgy” music, clothing, and entertainment brands (and sullen teenagers unhappy with their parents) — profane hashtags are not appropriate for most B2C and B2B brands.

That said, before you use ANY hashtag — whether it’s a seemingly random “alphabet soup” acronym, a brand name, or something you made up yourself — you MUST do a search for it on http://urbandictionary.com. You do not want to be THE brand in the marketing case study that didn’t do their homework, and didn’t realize its hashtag had a colloquial and/or foreign language meaning that was shockingly inconsistent with your brand’s message/image (or just plain shocking). Use the same amount of care in choosing a hashtag as you do a product name, unless you want your grandchildren to read about you and your hashtag faux-pas in their marketing textbooks.

Finally, have people from different backgrounds (especially people with wickedly snarky senses of humor) look at your hashtag so they can catch what you may miss. Britain’s Got Talent contestant, singer Susan Boyle’s creative agency certainly wishes they had. In case you missed it, her agency selected a multi-word hashtag to promote her new album. Stunningly, no one involved ever thought to parse the #SusanAlbumParty hashtag to mean something entirely different.

How many hashtags can I use/should I use in a social post?

There are gorgeous, award-winning ads, and there are “ugly” ads that convert. The choice you make depends on what it is you are trying to achieve. If you are trying to connect with people in a post, you will, most likely, limit yourself to one or two hashtags. But, if you’re an executive recruiter, and you’re #HIRING: #RubyOnRails #Programmer for a new #Boston #mobile #SaaS #app #startup #job, you will most likely hashtag #every #single #word of your post to increase your reach, and increase the probability of finding the perfect employee for your client.

Can I stop someone from using my hashtag?

<shaking fist wildly in the air>

Dang you kids! Stop using my hashtag!

The short answer is no. And why would you want to? The very reason you create a hashtag is to have people use it. Virality = ROI. Your goal is to reach the maximum possible number of people.

Since no one can own a hashtag or restrict its use in any way, it’s important to be aware of hashjacking. Hashjacking is defined by our friend Urban Dictionary as what happens when “somebody else jacks your or others’ hashtags to promote their…product [or cause].” This can have a positive impact, a negative impact, or zero impact on your brand. It depends entirely on the circumstances.

When everyone was watching the 2012 London Olympics, using the same hashtags connected people around the world to the athletes, their sponsors, and their supporters. During the Super Bowl, hashtags enabled everyone to comment in real-time on the commercials, the halftime show, the blackout, and even the game itself. But when McDonald’s agency [no relation to Susan Boyle’s agency, btw] ran #McDStories to encourage people to share their positive experiences at McDonald’s, all of us who make our living from social marketing were cringing, knowing the ugly would hit the fan within seconds. It did!

What is a trending hashtag, and what makes it trend?

Trending hashtags happen when hashtags are used by so many people within a short period of time that they become popular, or “trend”. It takes surprisingly few tweets for a hashtag to trend locally. Naturally, it takes more tweets for a hashtag to trend nationally or globally. One of the more entertaining uses of Twitter is to view the trending hashtags in different cities around the world. The overwhelming majority of news media organizations now monitor trending hashtags as a formal part of their news gathering and reporting processes.

What tools can I use to search for and optimize my hashtags?

New free, freemium, and paid hashtag analytics tools are being released almost daily. Here are some [in no particular order] to get you started: http://tagboard.com, http://keyhole.cohttp://oneqube.com, http://hashtracking.com, http://socialmention.com, http://whatthetag.com, http://tagdef.com, http://hashonomy.com, and http://www.ritetag.com.

Should I register my hashtags?

This gets a “no” answer from me. Does it do any harm? No. Does it do any good? Not that I’ve seen. That said, for the 60 seconds it takes to register a “new” hashtag on a site like http://tagboard.com, http://twubs.com/p/register-hashtag or http://www.hashtags.org/register/ for your conference or event, you *might* get a little extra visibility.

Social marketers, Egyptian activists, and sullen teenagers all use hashtags in their social posts because doing so increases the likelihood their posts will be seen by their target audiences. Hashtags are fast, easy, and free to use. Think of hashtags as the custom SEO for every single one of your social posts.

Ken’s notes:

What are the best and worst examples of hashtags that you’ve seen? Like good art and bad art, we all know it when we see it. When you do, please share it with us in our Comments section below!

I truly appreciate everyone’s questions, thank you! Do YOU have a question about social marketing technologies, tools, and best practices? Tweet your question to me @KenHerron with the hashtag “#DearKen”.  All tweets will be acknowledged, and considered as being submitted for publication.