Let’s break our #hashtag addiction and end the most annoying digital trend ever

This post originally appeared on the CloudPeeps blog.

OK, we have a public service announcement to make. The whole hashtag thing has gotten out of hand. We get it. Really, we do. You want to drive traffic, attract relevant followers and engage community members. There’s certainly no harm in that, but using 1,000 hashtags in a single tweet is not the answer.

Remember when the hashtag originated? The whole idea was to create a solution in crowded digital ecosystems like Twitter for making content more discoverable and for gathering conversations around a topic to one place. Apparently, Chris Messina was the “father of the hashtag” on Twitter in 2007.

Flash forward seven years in June 2014, the term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Needless to say, the hashtag isn’t going anywhere any time soon — like emojis, it’s a part of our lives now. However, the hashtag could be put to better use. Here’s five ways to properly use the hashtag and bring the #overuseepidemic to an end.

1) For events

We see events as the most relevant and effective use of hashtags. This includes being used at physical events, such as conferences or meetups where everyone is tweeting valuable nuggets from speakers, allowing attendees and hosts to go back and discover anything they missed or to find folks in attendance that they want to connect with.

Twitter chats and hangouts are also appropriate for hashtag use. Brands and people have been creating conversations around specific topics using a hashtag on Twitter to bring everyone together at the same time each week. Some examples are#bufferchat and #cmgrhangout, or you can find a list of our 10 favorite Twitter chats here. Hashtags make it easy for organizers and marketers to then gather user-generated content into a nice brand story using tools such as Storify with minimal effort.

2) For campaigns and social activism

It’s been an incredible experience watching movements for social justice take place online. Whether it’s rallying support or celebrating a win, it’s fascinating to see people from all over the world come together in support of something they truly believe in. A favorite example being #lovewins.

Other historic (or will be historic) hashtags around social activism have been#BringBackOurGirls to raise awareness when the Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram kidnapped 276 schoolgirls in the town of Chibok. And #YouOKSis started by black feminist Feminista Jones to bring awareness to street harassment, but specifically the importance of bystander intervention — and how extremely rare it is.

These are proof that when used properly, hashtags can rally the power of community at least to raise awareness and let people be heard, if not to create action. Sometimes new hashtags are created in defense of existing ones, and that’s ok too — social media provides a forum for global discussions, and we should be taking advantage of that.

Hashtags are used for non-political campaigns as well. Amazon’s #PrimeDay celebration this past Wednesday is a prime example — see what we did there?

To celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary, they offered Amazon Prime members even better deals than usual. And nothing gets people talking like a good deal. With thousands of tweets, the hashtag allowed customers do the marketing for Amazon, even if not all of the buzz was positive.

3) For contests

Hashtags can be used to blatantly market yourself while staying classy — a favorite method among brands being contests. The idea is for fans to submit photos for contests to Instagram using the same hashtag. The winner is then selected either by the brand itself, a panel of judges, or by the community determined by number of “likes.”

For the Vans US Open competition, they partnered up with Fiat for double the exposure and double the brand promotion. By using a hashtag, they can easily track submissions and participants can scope the competition, all while generating brand awareness.

Social media contests are also often centered around winning access to a particular event, but some brands host them weekly and give-away low-cost items such as gift cards.

4) For education and promotion

It is common for people to use hashtags such as #contentmarketing or #cmgr to discover relevant information. If you have a question around a specific topic you’d like to ask a knowing audience, an event to promote to a relevant group or content to distribute, go ahead and use a descriptive hashtag, but try to limit it to one to keep your tweets looking clean.

We hate to be the ones to say it — and we’d be lying if we said we’ve never guilty — but a ton of hashtags in one tweet or Instagram post looks spammy and compromises your brand image. If you’re going to use them to educate, do so sparingly and keep it relevant. Here’s a couple of examples of how to use these general hashtags correctly.

5) For community building

You can bring a community together with the use of a hashtag without having to offer some sort of give-away or prize, and without touting your own brand. For example, Herschel Supply Company started tagging their own photos with the hashtag #WellTravelled to describe the lifestyle their brand emulates.

Their fans caught onto this and also started using it to express themselves and their journeys. This creates a sense of community and purpose around a brand without being overly blatant in their marketing.

How to not use hashtags on social media

The # doesn’t make a topic hot, the topic makes the topic hot

When tweeting, you can discuss a topic of importance and still be discoverable without having to use a hashtag. Take a look at the trending terms on your Twitter homepage. It’s likely that there are terms without a hashtag. If someone is searching for a specific reference, they’ll find your tweet with or without the #.

Instagram, on the other hand, requires a hashtag to search a certain topic, so you may want to add one there.

Stop putting hashtags in your bio

Putting hashtags in your bio (unless you’re referencing a specific Twitter chat or event you host) does absolutely nothing for your discoverability. Do a quick search for the topic you’re an expert on, and you’ll see what we mean.

The accounts that show up in the results are the ones with the term in their handle, are verified or have large followings. If you want to be discovered based on your expertise around a specific topic, try sharing relevant and interesting content on that topic and using the term where applicable within tweets.

Limit your hashtag use

It’s ok to use a generic term on Twitter and Instagram as a hashtag in order to connect with others interested in the same topic occasionally. However, we suggest limiting it to two to three per post, or else it may look like you’re desperately seeking followers or looking to spam folks. If you’re just getting started on Instagram, you’re better off increasing your frequency to two-three posts per day and limiting hashtags rather than trying to fit them all into one caption.

For Twitter, a good rule of thumb is to not use more hashtags than words.

Final thoughts

When used properly, hashtags are an effective tool in rallying community support, raising awareness and connecting community members. After all, anything worth a Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake parody is worth paying attention to, right?

Go ahead and experiment with hashtags, but do so sparingly and never compromise your brand voice or look and feel just for the sake of exposure. If you want more on proper hashtag use, check out these resources:

Need help with the dos and don’ts of hashtags? Hire a Peep to help build your social media following!

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