The hashtag — that just turned 10 last year! — has become a social media phenomenon.
Now, it’s rare to see a social media post without one, especially on Twitter and Instagram.
When and how did the hashtag become such a trend?
Originally called the pound sign, online use of the hashtag didn’t appear until used on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) in the late 1990s, where it was used to create and categorize groups. The hashtag craze we know today didn’t begin until 2007, when Chris Messina tweeted out to his followers, asking how they felt about using the pound sign to group conversions:
As use of the hashtag grew in popularity, other social platforms adapted the use of them, too. It’s difficult to argue against the simplicity and effectiveness of the hashtag. It’s easily created and searchable, and has become an extraordinary marketing tool for businesses, organizations, celebrities, and even the average individual. (If you’re interested, you can view a more detailed reflection on the history of the hashtag here.)
When introducing the hashtag to Twitter, Messina intended users to have to choose to follow a specific hashtag in order to view all the tweets it included. Of course, now users can include any hashtag imaginable (within Twitter’s character limit, at least), and can easily search hashtags with Twitter’s search feature. Funnily enough, Instagram’s recently released feature actually acts similar to Messina’s original intentions.
Shortly after releasing Instagram Story polls last October, two months later they also introduced the ability for users to follow a hashtag. HItherto, you could click on a hashtag within a post or search using a hashtag in the Explore section of Instagram. By following a hashtag, you can now get highlights of that hashtag displayed in their newsfeed, just like it is with accounts you follow.
Once solely a Twitter feature, the hashtag is becoming an increasingly important aspect of Instagram. The designer behind this new feature, Matthew Ogle, stated in an interview with The Verge: “My job was to find ways to take the friction out of [searching the Explore tab], to being discovery and community-led goodness to where people already are. Hashtags have some really nice properties, because they are already this bottom-up, community-led aggregation.”
So, why are hashtags so important?
Despite many jokes and humorous sketches on the overuse of hashtags, when used properly, they really are an integral part of digital marketing. You can follow and engage with specific hashtags to stay updated on a current topic/trend, you can create your own hashtag to promote a new product or service, search a hashtag to cut through the digital clutter and find what you’re looking for, and so much more.
If you’re still unsure about the use of hashtags, we’ve highlighted below some of the main reasons, in our opinion, why hashtags are so important on Instagram. If you have other reasons why hashtags are important, be sure to let us know in the comments below!
As with any business, it’s important to figure out who your competition is, what they offer, how they advertise, so you know what makes your business the better choice. Instagram is extremely helpful because you can search the other business’ names and any hashtags that you know they use. Learning this information can help you gauge audience’s responses to your competitors’ post, giving you the knowledge of what works best and what doesn’t for your own social media marketing.
Additionally, hashtags are constantly changing and evolving. What was once a popular hashtag today, might be outdated tomorrow. Keeping up with the current news and trending hashtags will make your brand look credible and trustworthy.
2. (and 3.) Branding and Visibility
Although these are technically reasons two and three, we grouped them together because most of the reasoning goes hand-in-hand. Creating good visibility will enhance the success of your branding, and vice versa.
Branding and visibility are essentially the most effective uses of hashtags on Instagram. If you’re a new business, you can utilize hashtags to expand your audience and increase brand awareness. When users search your brand, they’ll see the relevant hashtags you’re using; or when they search specific hashtags, they’ll see your branded posts in the results. This usually results in gaining new followers and potential customers.
Or — whether new or more well-known — you can create your own hashtag for a product, service, or event you’re promoting. You can encourage your followers and customers to use the hashtag when they purchase/use a product or service, or when they’re at an event you’re hosting. Creating your own hashtag (or choosing a hashtag with little use) gives you change to dominate that hashtag with your brand. Continuously including that hashtag in your posts not only helps increase your visibility (as all hashtag use does), it will help users begin to associate your business with that hashtag, further establishing your brand.
One of the main reasons hashtags have gained such a reputation on social media is because of their ability to help marketers and businesses create targeted campaigns. According to Tweetangels, “when it comes to promotion, think of hashtags as the ‘word-of-mouth’ method.” In other words, when you post about a promotion, then your followers will use that same hashtag, then their followers will use it, and so on. Hashtags create great visibility for a campaign, and help you reach your target audience by using relevant hashtags that you know your audience is already following.
When used to promote an event, the hashtag not only connects you with your followers, but your followers with each other. The traction a hashtag can promote before, during, and after an event is substantial. For example, each year Inbound creates a new hashtag (e.g. #Inbound2017 for last year and #Inbound2018 for this year), and all the speakers, attendees, etc., use the hashtag before to advertise they’re going, during to share what event they’re currently at, and after to share their experience at it.
Another useful tip for using hashtags to promote your business is to pair it with a giveaway promotion. Have a photo contest where people upload their photos under a designated hashtag to win a prize. In February, many businesses utilize this tactic for Valentine’s Day promotions. Jewelry businesses have a best couple photo contest or a share your best love story contest for their followers to win free products.
With the entire world at our fingertips, searching about breaking news instantaneously is easy. Because of this, many political movements create a hashtag for their cause. This works basically the same as event promotion. People use the hashtag to say they’re running a fundraiser event and users share their posts before, during, and after. A very recent example of this is the creation of the #MarchForOurLives, where vicitms of the Florida shooting want to raise awareness for school safety and gun control.
While many businesses remain politically neutral, some are unafraid to share their stance on political issues. And many customers are loyal to brands because of their political stance. So, depending on your brand, it may be beneficial to use hashtags to show your support for the causes you believe in.
Although over 10 years old, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see the demise of the hashtag anytime soon. With its innate ability to gain visibility and reach millions of users around the world, hashtags are a crucial part of any successful marketing campaign today.
Whether you’re a new business looking to increase brand awareness, a well-known brand launching a new product, or a brand looking to give back to a political and charitable campaign, hashtags are a surefire way for you to get your voice heard on Instagram, and all social media.