Here's How You Should Actually Use Hashtags

It's hard to believe now, but until 2007, the humble pound sign was just a pound sign. Yes, it was also called a hash back then, but who referred to it like that, anyways?

The pound sign's transition from insignificant icon to being the cultural identifier for Gen Y (and probably Gen Z, too) is believed to have started with a single tweet. Chris Messina, a former Google developer, probably had no idea that his crazy concept — using pound signs to denote groups — would catch on, turning the world as we know it into a land of #tbts where everything is #beautiful. #truth

Since that fateful August day in 2007, which was, incidentally, the same year that the first generation of the iPhone was released, hashtags have taken on a life of their own. We use them as conversational punch lines, as ways to ignite cultural movements such as Black Lives Matter, fuel political activism, and, of course, we now see them affixed to every advertisement and branded message out there.

But as the hashtag's use grew exponentially, the understanding of how it's meant to be used has become blurry. Do you include one, five, or 10 with Instagrams? Do you create your own catchy phrase, or use one that's already popular? Can a hashtag be too long or too short?

In a quest to answer those questions and more, we compiled the ultimate guide to using hashtags. Click through to learn and tag on.

Design: Louisa Cannell.
There are a few purposes to using a hashtag. "It's a way to categorize conversations so that people can discover content around a certain topic, to contextualize content, and to express an opinion or support something," says Jeremy Leon, VP of strategy at social media agency Laundry Service.

If you want your content to be easily searchable, you want to use a hashtag that is already well established. Instagram lends a helping hand: Go to search, select "Tags," and start typing the category that your post would land in, such as food. Instagram will list the most popular hashtags so you know which ones to use. That way, if someone is on the hunt for #foodporn, your photo will show up.

In addition to getting more Likes on your own photo, you also have a better chance of being reposted. "[Using] #eeeeeats puts your photo on the map to potentially get regrammed by the account for exposure to their hundreds of thousands of followers," says Stephanie Abrams Cartin, CEO and cofounder of social media marketing agency Socialfly.
Design: Louisa Cannell.
If you're creating your own hashtag, and not using one with a large following, apply the principle behind KISS, that acronym you learned when writing term papers. The simpler and clearer the hashtag, the better. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, if you're trying to build your personal brand or ensure that your hashtag is used by others, you want to reduce the chance that they'll misspell it.

Plus, "The more complex [the hashtag is], the less likely it is that someone will pay attention to or be compelled to do anything with it," Leon says.

So, while #ICantBelieveMyMomIsDoingThis might be intended as a funny punch line to your tweet or Instagram, it is too long to actually be effective.
Design: Louisa Cannell.
Originality in hashtags pays off. If yours is fresh and is barely used by others, your hashtagged images will show up closer to the top when others search for it. But it's also important to be as clear in your messaging as possible.

If you need a reminder of how an ambiguous hashtag can go horribly wrong, look at #McDStories, the tag the fast-food giant wanted customers to use when sharing happy experiences. The only problem was that the hashtag didn't specify happy stories. "As soon as one tweet with a negative story picked up momentum, that hashtag became ineffective," Leon says.
Design: Louisa Cannell.
There are two ways to be relevant in your hashtag use. First, make sure that the hashtag you use actually fits what you're posting. "It could come off as annoying to other people if you post something bad but add #love — it's kind of a turnoff," Cartin says.

Then, where applicable, use a hashtag that is relevant to what's happening in the news, be it politics or pop culture. "Look for hashtags that are timely," Leon says. "Real-time content and real-time hashtags are seeing a lot of traction, especially for huge events that are happening in the now."
Design: Louisa Cannell.
If you want to gain more followers and Likes, it might seem counterintuitive not to create a personalized, branded hashtag. But going too far can work against you.

"The more self-serving a hashtag is, the less likely it is to receive organic traction," Leon says. "No one wants to badge their content with a brand hashtag. Make sure the hashtag is a badge of pride, and something that allows someone to express an opinion."

Leon points to Hillary Clinton's #ImWithHer. The hashtag works well because it allows someone to align themselves with Clinton, but it is still subtle enough.
Design: Louisa Cannell.
Instagram will allow you a max of 30 hashtags in a single post and Twitter is, of course, limited by number of characters. However, just because you have the space doesn't mean you should use it.

"More than one hashtag looks messy and makes it harder for someone to comprehend the message of your copy," Leon says.

Instead, put your hashtags in a comment below your Instagram caption or as a reply to your tweet. Or, use Cartin's Instagram hack: "We recommend writing your hashtags in your notes in your phone and beginning them with five periods descending down in order to auto-hide the hashtags," she says. That way, others won't see the hashtags unless they expand your caption.