Demystifying the Hashtag and How to leverage # on Twitter

When training in social media at both the introduction level and intermediate level – when I get to the section on Twitter, it’s clear that people are confused, and often fearful, of the relatively harmless, ‘Hashtag’. I’m often met with questions such as; ‘but where do I get a Hashtag from?’, or, ‘who creates the Hashtag for me?’  or, ‘what if I use a hashtag that’s already been created?’.  So, just as in my recent post where I clearly spelled out how to set up and leverage Hootsuite to manage multiple social media accounts – in this post, I am setting out to demystify what a hashtag is and how anyone can be using and leveraging hashtags on Twitter, effectively - covering:

  • What a Hashtag is
  • How you go about creating them
  • Tips for leveraging them
  • How to explore Hashtags already out there

Firstly, what is a Hashtag?

On a keyboard, or phone keypad – we’re all used to seeing a hash sign, #.  On Twitter, the term Hashtag is simply where  a # sign has been placed in front of a word or group of words, (eg: #hignfy, #hislop, #glee, #londonriots, #havingabadday)  to collectively ‘tag’  or ‘group’ tweets that all mention a particular Hashtag.

For example:  The popular BBC1 satire news show, ‘Have I Got News for You’, promotes a Hashtag #hignfy.  Whilst the show is airing, people watching the show can collectively share opinion.

As the example shows below – I have simply gone to my search box on Twitter and typed in #hignfy.  You can see I’ve snipped just a small sample of the conversation that is happening around a program that aired the night before.  Of course, had I done the search as the program was airing, I could have joined the buzz of a more ‘live’ conversation.

what is a hashtag on twitter and how to use hashtags on twitter

The people talking and sharing about #hignfy do not have to be following each other on Twitter – but instead, they can all be discussing the program, asking questions, sharing opinion etc – simply by mentioning the #hignfy in their tweets.

Therefore, if I wanted to find any 'Have I Got News for You' program fans – I could search on the #hignfy to see who is talking about it.

It’s highly unlikely that any of them would mention that they are program fans in their Twitter profiles.  Therefore, without hashtags, how else would I ever have known they were fans or be able to connect and reach an audience that I’m interested in connecting with?

What do we take away from this?

Effectively, a hashtag (#) is a way of searching for tweets that have a common topic.   They are effectively, an ‘anchor’ to group conversations that allow you to create communities of people all interested in the same topic. The hashtag makes it easier for them to find and share information related to a particular topic.

For example; when the London riots kicked off in August last year – anyone wanting to know or share anything about what was happening could follow news by searching #londonriots and if sharing news, they could include #londonriots in the tweet.

The hashtag was used by thousands of people – for different purposes; the police and emergency services were using the hashtag to report updates, as were local councils and local authorities. People were searching the hashtag to keep up-to-date with where there were problems and whether it was safe to get home.

Remember, these people were in no other way connected, the common factor was the fact that they all wanted to know about or report on the London riots.  Therefore, the #londonriots became a topic that a diverse set of people were talking about.

Similarly, when I deliver social media training, myself and other trainers training with Business Training Made Simple, all share articles, tips, advice and offers via #smetraining2012 whilst we are training.  At the outset of any course, we advise delegates of the # - and at the end of the course, we go to Twitter search (or Hootsuite) to show them the stream of information we have created during the course, and also show them tweets that already exists on the hashtag,  so they can clearly see all the resources and conversations happening around the hashtag.  So, it becomes a useful tool to share information and resources to a diverse audience.

Hashtags often Trend on Twitter

When you get enough people talking about or mentioning the same # - then it can ‘trend’. (You see ‘trending topics’ – on your Twitter home page on the left hand side).  All that effectively means is that a huge ‘buzz’ is occurring about a topic or hashtag – so much so, that it becomes a topic that is ‘being talked about the most’ – on Twitter.   Given that there are approx 250 million tweets a day, then trending is no simple task.

As you can see from below – right now, London trends include three #.  #IJustLoveItWhen #listofturnons and #yeahIwantthat .  Effectively, a huge amount of people are including those hashtags into their tweets – so much so, that they are trending.

hashtags and trending on twitter what is a hashtag what does # mean on twitter

(Note: I never said all # were purposeful – and it just goes to show that a hashtag can be created about anything, and that many are pretty mundane).

Hashtags, Search and Awareness

As shown earlier, I can go to Twitter search and simply put in my # term to find out what’s happening around a topic – or to see if a # exists.

Using the #hignfy example again, you’ll see below that when I enter the terms ‘have I got news for you’ into  the search box,  there are people talking about the program, but they are not using the # to connect with others.  It’s the same program, they’re talking about some of the same issues, but – they are not using the #hignfy (in fact some are using #haveIgotnewsforyou and #bbchignfy).

hashtags on twitter what is a # on twitter explaining what a hashtag is hashtag help

Therefore, these conversations did not appear when I did my #hignfy search. (Incidentally, #hignfy is the hashtag officially promoted at the beginning of the program by the BBC).

I suppose that cements the point that if you want people to use a hashtag, (so you can create an audience around a topic) you need to promote it effectively.

It’s interesting to see that a number of recent Nike advertisements have featured, not a URL but instead a #. Their huge billboard and cinema ads featured not a url – but instead the hashtag #makeitcount.  If you do a search on Twitter on the #makeitcount, you’ll see the conversations.

Get Wise with Hashtags

It’s a pretty fertile advertising tactic, but it’s a highly interesting one – and one that seems to be becoming more popular. After all, it gives brands and advertisers a mechanism to anchoring a community of diverse people around an online conversation by widely promoting the #.  And if your audience is on Twitter, then it’s a great way to get people participating with your advertising campaign.

Of course, conversely, McDonalds recently promoted the #McDStories.  The objective was to encourage people to share stories (which clearly they were hoping would be positive) around their experience of McDonalds.

Social Media platforms enable everyone and anyone to publish and share their views and opinions – and therefore, with this campaign, McDonalds received not just positive stories but also highly negative stories alongside their #McDStories.  They of course, were promoting the #McDStories – so they themselves were alerting audiences to view these negative stories.

The lesson – be sure you’re using the # smartly. After all – you are creating an anchor for lots of people to share and talk – therefore, ideally, you don’t want to create a ‘bashtag’, where everyone is sharing their gripes about you. .

Where you do get Hashtags?

Anyone can create a hashtag. There isn’t a repository where you go and ‘get one’.  You can simply create one yourself by adding the simple # before typing a keyword or group of words.  However, it’s a good idea to ‘check’ a hashtag out before you start promoting it.  You want to check the hashtag you are about to use, is either unique, or isn’t associated to something totally irrelevant already.

For example, let’s say you are running an event for Vets – you’ve got 300 people coming, and so there’s no way you’re going to be able to have a conversation with each of those delegates. Whilst you can take a few questions from the floor – again, that’s not engaging with every delegate that may have a question.

By promoting a hashtag for your event, and showcasing this at the outset in promotional materials – you can get people connecting and talking; before, during and after the event.

Let’s say I create a brand or hashtag for the event #vetsandpets . I could go to Twitter, insert that hashtag into search and see if it was being used elsewhere.  You can see that there are no tweets for that # - so I’m safe to use it.


hashtags on twitter, what is a hashtag

NB: Be mindful that Twitter tweets are limited to 140 characters - so you don't want to use a ridiculously long # eg: #vetsandpetsannualevent2012  - rather use #vets&pets

Tapping into Relevant Audiences via Hashtags

To promote my event to a wider targeted audience, I may want to check out other hashtags to see if I can tap into other audiences using #hashtags that are appropriate and relevant to my event.

For example, I initially, typed in #vets – but that was pulling up a lot of tweets about ‘veterans’ – whereas, when I typed in #veterinary – you can see that there are a number of related hashtags that I can explore and perhaps use in my tweets alongside my #vetsandpets event hashtag to grow awareness into a targeted audience.

However, word of warning here – you do not and I repeat do not, want to be hijacking trending or popular hashtags which are totally unrelated for promotional intent.

The term ‘mashtagging’ is defined in the Urban Dictionary as the following:

n. A social networking status update, Tweet, or post that contains an unnecessarily large number of tags or tagged names often unrelated to the context of the post.

There have been a few incidents where brands have piggy-backed on trending topics, often highly sensitive such as #Cairo and #Egypt – around the time of the uprising in a totally unrelated way and they’ve come off really badly.

You can see from below – a while back (late 2009) HabitatUK’s tweets included well known brand hashtags or trending hashtags to promote their products into wider audiences.

what is a hashtag explaining what a hashtag is

Since when did HabitatUK sell #Apple products?  The onslaught that followed their hijacking attempts was not pretty – and highly damaging to the brand at large, getting them a reputation on this far reaching channel as Twitter spammers.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Twitter can close your account if they think you’re out to spam by using hashtags incorrectly. So beware.  If enough people complain or report you to Twitter, then it could be goodbye Twitter account.

What do we take away from this?

  •  Check out whether the hashtag you are looking to promote is already in use. A simple search on Twitter should do it.
  •  Look for relevant hashtags around your hashtag and review who is talking around the topic – they may be relevant for you to talk to too.
  •  Don’t spam by jumping onto trending or popular hashtags that are totally irrelevant to your promotion or conversation. It’s spam, it’s frowned upon and upon reflection of those that have done it already, it’s caused a considerable amount of negativity towards a brands reputation.
  • If you want other relevant audiences to find your conversations – then use a keyword enabled hashtag which they may search on.  If it’s for a bespoke event or campaign, then be sure to promote the hashtag so that users know about its existence.

Finally, I’m often asked whether there is a directory of hashtags.  I have had a look at things such as Hashtagify, Twubs, – but as yet, I haven’t come across a simple real-time directory where I can view all the hashtags ever created.

Perhaps it’s out there already – and if so, do share – or perhaps Twitter is working on a program which separates out and stores all #hashtag references alphabetically – to create a huge repository to review.

That said,  given how random hashtags are – I’m not sure how useful a directory would be.  For now, my advice is to do some simple real-time research using Twitter search before you create a hashtag.

I hope this post has helped to explain what a hashtag is, how to use them and how not to use them – however, any questions or comments – would love to hear from you.

Happy hashtagging



@Michelle Carvill is owner and Marketing Director at Carvill Creative – the online visibility experts. A digital marketing and design agency based in Maidenhead, Berkshire.  The agency covers all aspects of online visibility - covering social media marketing and social media training, user focused website planning and conversion focused website design.


For marketing and social media advice – view the Carvill Creative Blog