A hashtag is a device used in social media to group relevant conversations. Tagging a word with a hash (or pound) symbol makes it easy for our posts to be filtered according to topic, and any developments in these topics to be tracked.

It’s a simple yet powerful tool for building conversations and spreading messages – and unfortunately rumours too – as we’ll discover in a minute.

Are hashtags just for Twitter?

The hashtag exploded on the Twitter scene around 2007 in an emergency capacity with #sandiegofire updates helping with the coordination of evacuation services. Prior to Twitter, hashtags were seen on microblogging site Jaiku, which is no longer operational since being aquired by Google in 2007 and as a funtion of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Hashtags are now a tool used across platforms such as Instagram, Google+, Flickr, Pinterest, Tumbler, LinkedIn and Vine, with Facebook finally joining the hashtag conversation last month.

Can I hashtag more than one word?

You can include several separate hashtags in a post (although more than about three can make it hard to read):

Hashtags in Tweets

Hashtags can be integrated into the content of a post, at the start, or stacked at the end #hashtagtips

Wanting to tag two or more words in the one hashtag? You’ll need to join it all into one word with no spaces or punctuation marks, eg #namestheywontcalltheroyalbaby,  or more simply #socialmedia as in the example above. If you type #social media with a space between the words, then only #social will be tagged.

Should I capitalise the start of each word?

One long, mushed up word can be hard to read. Plus it can cause aIl sorts of problems. Did you hear about the upset Cher fans who mistakenly thought the trending tag #nowthatcherisdead referred to their beloved pop queen and not the former Prime Minister of England? Awkward.

CamelCase is applying capitalisation to the initial letters of each word. From this last example we can see how #CamelCaseSavesLives. It also would have really helped Susan Boyle.

So remember Camel Case in those instances where your hashtag looks like alphabet soup.

How can we use hashtags?

Hashtags provide a simple yet powerful tool for filtering information and generating real-time conversations. So how might we put this capacity to good use?

Twitter fan wiki brings us this list of common uses for the hashtag.

  • Events or conferences, e.g.: “Tara’s presentation on communities was great! #barcampblock”
  • Disasters: “#sandiegofire A shelter has opened up downtown for fire refugees.”
  • Memes: “My #themeword for 2008 is conduct.”
  • Context: “I can’t believe anyone would design software like this! #microsoftoffice”
  • Recall: “Buy some toilet paper. #todo”
  • Quote: “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt #quote

Hashtags for business

Businesses and organisations are coming up with a range of uses for the hashtag to help promote their products and services.

Instagram provides a great opportunity for users to post snapshots which can be tagged and collated as part of a showcase or competition. Users might be encouraged to take a photo of themselves wearing/eating/drinking a product, or visiting a venue.

Tourism Australia uses hashtagging successfully across their range of social media platforms. They encourage amateur and professional photographers to upload images of Australia, which form the majority of the organisation’s content.

Twitter has a search function, but also now scrolls trending topics across users’ homepages. Whan a particular hashtag is trending, conversation can grow exponentially. Companies can benefit from tailoring content to make use of this exposure, whether by generating conversation or adding their voice to a trending topic.

Facebook has “clickable” hashtags, which gives Facebook users instant access to conversations around that topic.

The hashtag untapped potential

Findings from the Datafication study of Australia’s use of hashtags on Instagram suggest that business aren’t using hashtags as much as they could be. So the challenge is set to see how companies can come up with simple, clever and popular ways to use hashtags to create awareness.

Read more about Instagram for your business, or let us know If you’ve seen or heard of any great examples of hashtag best practice (or #hashtagfails!).

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