When our small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) hire us to help them create and launch social media campaigns, invariably the use of hashtags in social media comes up. How should businesses be using hashtags, if at all? These companies are not like REI or Red Bull — they’re not looking to launch a viral campaign. Yet they are also not individuals. They are viable businesses who have something to say and someone they’d like to reach.

In business, hashtags are used in different ways. But at their highest purpose, they are intended to make your content discoverable to a larger audience, ideally an audience that is interested in what you have to say (or show).

Before adding hashtags to your social media posts, carefully consider your audience, your intent and the value of your content. Here’s the skinny on what hashtags are and why to include them, plus some tips for using them successfully.

The basics

Who: Used by companies, individuals and groups.

What: A hashtag is a keyword or phrase (#mashedtogetherwithoutspaces) preceded by the ‘#’ symbol, used in social media posts.

When: For use when you want to make your message or content more discoverable, especially to a specific audience you believe will find that content valuable, interesting or relevant.

Where: Used on social media (most commonly on Twitter and Instagram).

Why: Hashtags are used for multiple reasons, most commonly to reach new people on social media, grow your platform presence or spark a conversation.

How: When a user adds a hashtag to their post, the social media platform aggregates any posts with that hashtag into a constantly updating feed that others can browse.

SMBs typically use hashtags in three main ways:

#1. Add a popular hashtag to your post

Why? To gain likes and new followers or to appear alongside others posting with that hashtag.

There are always new hashtags trending, resulting in a sort of curated list for users of that social media platform to browse. Users look at these hashtag feeds and find new accounts to follow, info on a certain topic to read or photos to like.

Examples: #sustainableinvesting, #smallbusiness, #creativethinking, #meetthemoment

How to: Research popular hashtags by browsing the social media platform or looking at what hashtags popular (and similar) users or brands use. Only use ones that are relevant to your post, and don’t use too many. Also, experiment to see what hashtags get a response by evaluating how many new likes and follows you get after posting. Hashtag trends are always changing, so put in the effort to find ones that will be timely and effective.

#2. Create your own hashtag

Why? To support your POV, marketing campaign or powerful statement and, in doing so, engage with customers or like-minded individuals.

Companies often create hashtags to support an ad or social media campaign with the intent of getting their customers to engage and post their own content with that hashtag. On the other side of the spectrum, individuals can create hashtags to start an online “conversation” and engage with others who have the same interest.

Examples: REI’s #OptOutside campaign and Red Bull’s #PutACanOnIt campaign

How to: Search on the social media platform you’re planning to use. You’ll want to use a hashtag that either hasn’t been used yet or doesn’t have very many people actively posting with it; otherwise your posts will get lost in the shuffle. Make sure it’s easy to read and remember and not too long. Consistency is key, so use the same hashtag across multiple posts.

#3: Hashtag for comedic effect

Why? These are often very long and just provide funny commentary on the post.

If you’re using hashtags for their intended purpose (categorization and discovery), don’t string too many words together with a single hashtag. But if you're writing long hashtags to be funny, the sky's the limit!

Example: #howdoievendothishashtagsthing

How to: Put whatever you want in the hashtag — just don’t expect it to help grow your social media presence.

10 tips for using hashtags

1. Less is more. Use hashtags sparingly and purposefully. More than three is considered spamming and is generally off-putting.

2. Be discriminating. Be specific and intentional when using content marketing hashtags. Unless you’re posting a funny hashtag, reserve hashtags for your very best posts.

3. Be relevant. Use hashtags that relate to your topic. Tagging a post with an unrelated hashtag won’t attract your ideal audience, friend or customer and could annoy and turn people off.

4. Do your homework. Check out the hashtag before you use it (type it into the platform’s search bar) to make sure it contains content and photos that align with your intentions. Some hashtags that seem relevant to your message might not actually be.

5. Be aware. If privacy is your thing, know that on most networks, if you use a hashtag on a public account, anyone who does a search for that hashtag can find your post.

6. Get help. Use sites like Hashtags.org to find hashtags for business owners that are currently popular (trending) on social media.

7. Know your goals. Some followers are valuable and some are not. Know the difference. If you just want to collect followers, no matter who they are, that’s one thing. If you want a specific type of follower, that's something different.

8. Know where to use hashtags. Hashtag marketing campaigns are most relevant to Twitter and Instagram (not so much on Facebook and not at all on LinkedIn). Using hashtags on sites that don’t index, like LinkedIn, can make you look uninformed or like you’re spamming the same content across all your social media platforms.

9. Get informed. The best way to learn how to use hashtags for small businesses is to pay attention to what others are doing on that particular social media platform. What works best for Twitter may not work well on Instagram. Watch what the pros do!

10. Be creative. Try incorporating hashtag phrases in the middle of your post, not just at the end. 

Kari Olivier worked in various corporate marketing roles before migrating to the agency side. Kari is a writer, workshop facilitator, marketing strategist, and advisor to leaders at Fortune 500 companies and SMBs. She is co-founder of Jute Creative, a branding, marketing and communications agency in Portland, Oregon.

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