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Seven handy hints for hashtag help

Brown bearHashtags are interesting things - one minute they look cute, cuddly and amusing and the next they roar into life, turn around and bite you. I thought this post would be helpful to those wrestling with the way in which they use hashtags, with public relations and communication professionals uppermost in my mind. So below you'll find seven handy hints to help avoid hashtag horror.

Hashtags are an essential part of social media. You use them to mark conversations, themes, subjects, campaigns, contests - in fact, use them to mark whatever you like. From an aside to an assignment, hashtags find conversations and topics that people are interested in. They will indicate trends, crisis and launches, heartbreaks, happenings and heart-warming heroes. 

As a practitioner you need to think carefully about putting your hashtag to work. A hashtag is another name for the pound sign - # - just used in a different way online. Click on any hashtag and you will see all the comments and conversations associated with that subject, allowing you to join the conversation, analyse opinion or identify influential individuals concerned with the topic.

The hashtag was born on Twitter in 2007 and today you will find it used across all social media channels.

So, what should you consider?

  • Make it relevant to your topic and not too broad. A good example came with #Obamacare, used specifically to mark discussion and events surrounding US healthcare changes. If you just use #Obama as a hashtag you will find it will cover anything and everything connected with President Obama and his administration, making the conversation difficult to track and monitor.
  • Be as specific as you can and don’t over hashtag. A rough guide would be one to three hashtags on Twitter and Facebook (although one is best) and more on Instagram or Vine. Google Plus will pick up on the first hashtag in your update and display that on the side of your post. Too many hashtags and your post won't make sense and too many hashtags is a sign of spamming so your words are likely to be ignored.
  • Keep it simple - don’t try to be too clever. Trying too hard with a hashtag can lead to a backfire on social media. You can also use hashtags to help develop your tone and voice. A hashtag can be used as an aside (#justsaying) or a signpost like #FF for Follow Friday, a way to recommend particular users you like to your own followers and friends on Twitter particularly.
  • Research and test your hashtag.  See what else is out there, what’s been used and what gives the right context to your hashtag use. Try Hashtagify Me or Tagboard as a starting point. Your hashtag may have a different meaning in different countries - so check that out as well to avoid cultural blunders.
  • Beware the well intentioned hashtag that reads in a different way. Singer Susan Boyle’s album launch hit the wrong note when her PR company came up with the hashtag #Susanalbumparty. Likewise, fans of the singer Cher went into mourning when they saw the hashtag #Nowthatchersdead - except it was a hashtag that concerned the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and had nothing to do with Cher.
  • Sensible housekeeping is called for when using a hashtag. Be aware of what’s around you, what’s happening and your organisation’s reputation, otherwise you may end up in the same boat as those that launched #qantasluxury and #McDStories with disastrous results. Risk management, proper monitoring (and on-going monitoring) will help you keep track of your hashtag and pre-planning will help ensure that your use of a hashtag is in keeping with your overall social media strategy and beyond that your organisational goals. You don’t want to repeat the #myNYPD fail.
  • Finally, never release a hashtag into the wild. Think about it first, use it appropriately and carefully and be aware that it can get out of control very fast. Don’t let that stop you talking - just have a plan in place should your social media communities have other ideas around its use and meaning. 

And, like all social media advice, think of this like The Pirates' Code - not so much rules as guidelines. In then end, use a hashtag anyway you want - just give it some thought before you do, because once it's out there it won't be tamed.