#Hashtags. Millennials love them, baby boomers hate them. Regardless of where you fall on the hashtag love-hate spectrum, these little pound signs are going to stick around for a while. Why? Because they’re useful. Most of the time.

“It seemed like a good enough way to group search results. Nowadays hashtags are so common that they’re used ironically, in contexts that have nothing to do with Twitter or linking subject matter.”

— Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, author of Things a Little Bird Told Me

Hashtags leaped off the touch phone and onto social media when Twitter users began using them to sync search results on any topic they sought in 2009. Twitter would generate a link to show the user a full page of search results where that topic was mentioned.

Since then, hashtags have evolved to coordinate communication, promotion, and conversations during major events, concerts, and fundraisers. People use them to spread the word and follow the progress of television shows, government meetings, crowdfunding campaigns, breaking news, and more in real time.

So, how do you use them in your marketing? Companies have placed hashtags strategically to make some of the biggest public splashes with two goals in mind: 1st goal is always engagement (get them to use the hashtag and embrace your company) and the second is always conversion (get them to commit an action). For example, Dragon Age Inquisition helped to engage over 250,000 completions in its video game simply by tweeting and hashtagging with #DAI or #DragonAgeInquisition. Esurance drew thousands of fans and over a million mentions during #esurance30.

Consider hashtags to be a strategic move in a larger campaign–they can’t bring you success alone, but they sure as heck can help a lot.

Big reasons why you should be using hashtags in your campaigns:

  1. Position your brand with authority. Example: Frank Body’s #letsbefrank campaign expresses a call to action and also includes a bold statement with its hashtag. No other company can possibly take over this unique hashtag.
  2. Make your company known geographically. Emerging business in a city or establishing a new presence? Want to reach people in a specific place prior to a launch? Warm them up using a city, state, or geo hashtag such as #USA, #SanAntonio #BOS. A lot of cities already have popular hashtags, so research which one is best for you.
  3. Talk to the people who actually want to hear from you. With hashtags such as #catlover or #Pokemonster, you’re speaking to people who are already on your wavelength. Now optimize that conversation.
  4. Create a social movement. Showcase your personal or company values with established social movement hashtags such as #GivingTuesday, #keepitintheground or #YesAllWomen
  5. Start and follow conversations. If you have expertise in a subject, you can start an educational conversation using a hashtag and allow this conversation to last over a period of weeks or install weekly posts, such as #FixYourSink, #cleancloset2015 or #DogBehaviorRules. Or, you can jump into relevant conversations and offer tips or insight to people already talking on social media…you do this by searching for hashtags that include keywords similar to your business such as “HVAC,” “marketing,” “astrology,” “event photographer,” “app dev,” etc.
  6. Reach new clients and customers. Use the same tactics above in conversations to find potential leads and customers. Make sure that your posts include a call to action for these new leads. Every hashtag effort must funnel through toward a conversion of some kind.
  7. Let your people spread the word for you. If you are doing a giveaway, promotion, or provocative campaign, including a hashtag makes it easy for people to identify the subject of your promotion and spread the word. #RTforTeacherRaises, #WinCoffee4Life or #HGTVDreamHome are a few examples.
  8. Create a sense of belonging in your tribe. Having a brand-identity hashtag such as #OpenHappiness (Coca-Cola), #WOD (Cross Fit) or #lightbulb (Bright Planning) helps your customers find new users and welcome them.

Quick break: here is Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake demonstrating the ridiculousness of hashtags:

Some people LOVE hashtags so much they want to use them immediately in every campaign, but they jump in without thinking it out. This can lead to ridicule, PR disasters, shouting into the abyss, and other mini business failures.

The Best Strategies for Optimizing Hashtags in Your Marketing Campaigns:

1. Research a hashtag before you use it. I can’t stress this enough.

2. Pick something short and memorable.

3. Use an ongoing hashtag for your general company name or purpose. Test these among employees or a small user group before implementing in larger campaigns.

4. Follow hashtag usage and retire it when necessary. If a hashtag is suddenly hijacked by another person or event (for example, let’s say “YellFire” is your Fire Beer tagline and suddenly a political group is using “YellFIre” as a way to negatively slam a minority group or candidate), retire it and shift your campaign to another hashtag.

5. Place a hashtag where people will see it. You don’t have to have the same hashtags across all social media platforms, but be careful of using too many at once. Choose carefully and place strategically to get the most eyes and followers.

Bad, Terrible, No-Good Moves When It Comes to Hashtags

1. Do not use long phrases for hashtags. No. You’re asking for too many spelling errors and potential mistakes by your staff and users.

2. Do not use more than 3 hashtags in any campaign. And don’t even think of a paragraph’s worth of hashtags (Instagram users are notorious for this).

3. Do not pass up the opportune moment to piggyback notable conversations. If your company needs to be part of a major moment–such as during #SOTU (State of the Union) and the President is discussing climate change and you sell solar panels–then jump on that hashtag and let your problem-solving services be known!

4. Do not skip research before using a hashtag. This can lead to some embarrassing moments for your company.