Thought Leadership
  • Content marketing

6 steps to a successful hashtag strategy

Hayley Smith
30th April 2015

Hashtags may be throwback to the pre-social days of the internet, but they're also a proven way to increase brand awareness and engagement. A well-planned hashtag strategy can transform your social presence. Here's how to create one in your coffee break.

The growth of hashtags is a delightful mystery for a geek like me. After all, hashtags are technological relics from the 90s, when they were in internet relay chats. They trickled onto Twitter by accident when Chris Messina suggested using them to group conversations:

ABOVE: Pandora's box is opened – Chris Messina's tweet in 2007 gave birth to Twitter hashtags

And now you’ll find them in every other post on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. What’s more, they’ve been proven to increase engagement.

So the time has come to stop ignoring hashtags and start building a long-term strategy for your brand. Yes, another strategy. But fear not—follow the steps below and you’ll have it completed in a coffee break.

1. Establish your aims

Yes, this is basic stuff. Every strategy needs to begin with an understanding of what you hope to achieve. It’s just amazing how many people forget this step. With hashtags, likely aims will be:

  • Brand awareness - Using your brand name as a hashtag enables people to click on it to find all posts about your brand. It also provides the easiest measurement of ‘success’ - more brand mentions means more awareness (let’s just hope they’re saying nice things for now - I’ll leave sentiment tracking to another post). Some brands get a little smarter and use their brand tagline as their hashtag – KitKat’s #haveabreak (and more social #mybreak) are great examples of this.

  • Campaign awareness - A campaign hashtag keeps all campaign posts together. But a clever campaign hashtag goes further by broadening the reach of the campaign. You know you’re on to something when non-followers start using your campaign hashtag. Check out socialmediaexaminer’s coverage of Travelocity’s #iWannaGo campaign.

  • Categorising and monitoring your tweets - Hashtags are great for search and discovery, but they're also a great way of adding metadata to your social posts so you can easily keep track of all related content with a single click.  

  • Inserting your brand into existing conversations - Using common hashtags such as #nowplaying #throwbackthursday or #London can help humanise your brand and extend its reach. Reacting quickly to trending memes can reach a much wider audience – but this approach is fraught with danger. Get it wrong, and you'll pay the price. Just ask Kenneth Cole or Gap:

ABOVE: Fashion brands Kenneth Cole and Gap managed to completely inappropriately insert themselves into conversations about the Arab Spring and Hurricane Sandy

You may have other brand-specific aims too. Add them to the list. And at this point it’s also worth thinking about how you’re going to measure performance. Are you interested in the number of third-party tweets with your hashtag? Follower growth? Engagement? Competition entries? Make a list, we’ll come back to it later.

2. Agree on your brand hashtags

Get agreement on which hashtags you'll use, and stick with them. Most successful strategies stick with a single brand hashtag (#justdoit, #timberland) and a series of campaign hashtags (#airmaxday, #inmyelement). Use to check how much these hashtags are currently being used. Then agree on the rules for usage. Remember that brands need to act like real humans on social media, so avoid adding all your hashtags to all your posts: it’s a bit like saying your own name every time you speak. Instead, use brand hashtags when you’re talking about your brand, and your campaign hashtag when you’re talking about the campaign. Simple.

3. Define which common hashtags you'll use

This could be a big list, but it’s well worth writing. And then refining. I’d advise aiming for a handful of common hashtags that are brand relevant - use to find related tags and assess popularity. Find out what your audience – and key influencers – are  already talking about and join the conversation. Use tools like (to see what’s trending globally), (for local trends) and and (to understand what they mean).

4. Define which trends you'll engage with

You can’t predict which memes will go viral in the future, but every brand should have a document that clearly states what subject matter it will engage with (and under what circumstances). Set yourself rules like “we’ll talk about football if England are winning” or “we’ll talk about the environment when there’s a positive story that directly impacts our customers”. Remember, it’s only worth engaging with trends if you have something entertaining, useful or inspirational to share that really adds to the conversation. And don’t be late to the party or you’ll be accused of hashjacking (yes, that’s a thing now).

5. Don't use too many hashtags

More than two hashtags will make your posts look desperate and spammy – like Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake in this brilliant sketch:

Worse, using too many hashtags could actually decrease engagement. There’s loads of data on this one, and its constantly changing – keep an eye on the regular reports from socialbakers. There’s also a clear difference between platforms. I’d recommend:

  • Twitter - 1-2 hashtags have been shown to improve engagement. More, however, can be detrimental.

  • Facebook - 1-2 hashtags can help brand awareness, but there’s lots of debate about whether hashtags are effective on Facebook

  • Instagram - 3-4 hashtags in the body of the text (additional hashtags can be hidden in the comments and they’ll still perform the same function in search).

  • Tumblr - Only the first 5 tags are searchable - any more should only be used for your own categorisation purposes.

  • Google+ - Use as many as you like. It’s not like anyone’s watching.

6. Measure and improve

Remember those performance indicators you set in step 1? Bust them out and tweak your strategy by altering copy, monitoring engagement and judiciously adding paid promotion for posts that are already performing well.

And one for luck…

Finally, a bonus tip: use hashtags that are short, memorable and easy to spell. Oh, and don’t be afraid to use capital letters to break up words. Sometimes it’s essential — as Susan Boyle’s team found out when it unleashed the most memorable hashtag fail of all time to celebrate the launch of her album (Yes, #susanalbumparty is a true story)

ABOVE: The greatest hashtag fail of all time – all it needed was some capital letters to show it was SusanAlbumParty, not SusAnalBumParty

Tom Dunmore looks after content strategy and planning for Mediablaze Group. He's also a freelance journalist and former editor-in-chief of the world's best-selling gadget magazine, Stuff. Follow Tom on Twitter – and don't forget to Follow Mediablaze too.

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