Social Media 101: What is a hashtag?

Hashtag CMPR

The other night, while delivering a presentation on social media, a familiar question was raised: “Excuse me, but I’m not totally sure what a hashtag is or how to use one?”

What is a hashtag?

I have found that what is most confusing to new social media users is that they are unaware of the dual identity for the common symbol “#”.  On the one hand we know it to be a pound sign, but it also goes by the name hashtag.  So the old, “press the pound key” you hear on voice recordings is the mild mannered version of “#”, whereas the hashtag has grown to be a huge part of online marketing and social media.

What does a hashtag do?

For phone calls, a hash/pound will help you get to a certain voicemail box or person (or robot) to speak with. For social media, it’s a whole different ballgame. On Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, a hashtag acts as kind of “file cabinet” that contains information related to one idea.

For example, say you write on Twitter, “Ugh. Today at work I dropped the birthday cake for Jane. And then I tripped and landed face first into it. #FAIL.” When I type in FAIL with the # symbol in front of it, it will turn into a blue link that, when clicked, will send you into a Twitter stream where everyone else is posting about fails. By adding a hashtag in a social media post, you are allowing your post to be filtered, curated, and discovered.

How are hashtags used?

Hashtags are used for all sorts of reasons, including: news items, funny moments, branding, ways to relate to others, labels, and much, much more. Here are some examples:

News Items: When Director James Comey was dismissed last week by the White House, many media outlets that are active on Twitter reported on it using the hashtag #ComeyFiring.

Funny: Once in a while somebody will start a hashtag that gets picked up virally and everyone joins in on the fun. For instance, the hashtag #explainafilmplotbadly gets attention now and then, like this one about Star Wars VII: A Force Awakens:

Branding: If you have a company and want to start a brand campaign, you’ll want a single hashtag that you can use over again. When Coca-Cola started making Coke labels with names on them, their hashtag for the campaign was #ShareaCoke.

Labels: On Instagram, it is becoming increasingly popular for people to create a cutesy hashtag for their weddings; and make sure that guests who post pictures also use that hashtag. For my wedding, we will be using the hashtag #WinterbottomsUp as a play on Winterbottom and “bottoms up”. Hopefully everyone who posts on Instagram at my wedding will label pictures with that hashtag so that when we click on it, Instagram will filter and we will be able to see all the photos people posted at our wedding. You can do this on Twitter too. Are you planning to run in a marathon and want to chronicle your journey from running 1 mile a day to 26? Create a hashtag that is unique to you, so that you can click on it and search through those specific posts (such as #LucysRunningJourney or #TomsMajorMarathon).

Relating To Others: Are you a writer struggling to make it big? #WritersLife is used by other writers and authors. If you’re a college student, #collegelife might be one you can relate to. Other examples are hashtags like #FridayReads where you can join thousands of people discussing what they are reading this weekend. This NPR post below included both #FridayReads and a Free Comic Book Day hashtag:

What else is out there?

Some other good hashtags on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook that are popular with writers and readers include: #FridayReads, #amwriting, #amreading, #writerslife, #authorlife, #bookstagram (Instagram specific), #authorsoninstagram, #writersoninstagram, #bookshelfie (taking a photo of a current book you are reading on your shelf).

Twitter, Facebook, or any social media outlet can be daunting when you’ve never really been a social media fanatic. But the best way to practice using these hashtags and to begin to cull an audience is to just start doing it! Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there. If you really aren’t sure of where to start, even just tweeting about a book you are reading or a movie you watched the night before (with the hashtags #book #StephenKing #DarkTower or #movie #GuardiansoftheGalaxy) will help you test the waters of social media!

For more information on social media terms, check out our introduction post.

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