Hashtagging is a great tool for connecting otherwise unconnected conversations. Use of hashtags helped grow support for revolutions and funding for planned parenthood. But not all uses of hashtags are so lofty in their intent; some are simply used for amusement (#ISeeWhatYouDidThere), and others to sell products in obvious advertising campaigns (#ad). Simply said, hashtags can light the way toward other conversations and information…

On Twitter, hashtags are heavily used to connect the globe to similar conversation streams. Twitter defines hashtags as: “used to mark keywords or topics in a Tweet. It was created organically by Twitter users as a way to categorize messages”. That same definition can be used for Google Plus’ implementation of hashtags as well. In both channels, these tags are free-form entry, but can also be defined by the community for certain topics (for example #FF for FollowFriday on twitter, or #ThirstyThursday on Google Plus). The great benefit of these tags is that when entered into your post, they are rendered as links and when clicked will take you to search streams showing all other tweets or posts using the same hashtag. From a reader’s perspective, it is a wonderful way to see what others are saying on similar topics, but from a content creator’s perspective it is an even better way to elicit larger visibility to your content beyond just those who follow you.

And therein lies the rub; the fatal flaw which allows for abuse of a simple system. Because it is a system which was first designed and implemented by the community, the “rules” aren’t programmatically implemented or controlled, they are instead embedded in an unwritten social contract. This has allowed for some to use hashtags in new and inventive ways, and others to abuse the system for their own gain.

The follow Friday (#FF) tags on twitter, for example, are a great way to find interesting new people or accounts to follow and expand your own network, but conversely I’ve also see tweets which contain more tags and user accounts than actual words. Likewise I’ve seen Google Plus posts with more tag links than actual content, or tags which are simply irrelevant to the content being shared.  But again, I *have* found some amazing photographers by following a few of the theme hashtags making the rounds. So, there is indeed a balance to be struck when using hashtags in your posts, and if you are a content marketer you absolutely should be using them in a very intentional way. By intentional I mean thoughtful and directed; I don’t mean to simply litter your post with as many tags as you can or to hijack tags.

Here’s a mocked up example of abusing hashtags. Note, the only things I changed here was to remove the original post’s face and name to replace with my own as a way to protect their identity:

And here is an example of what I’d consider a best practice. You’ll note that I could have added one ore maybe even two more tags and still been within what I’d consider appropriate use:

Now, taking the two mocked up examples above, I ask you, which post are you more likely to engage with and which are you more likely to scroll past without even reading? (That’s a rhetorical question, but if you’d still like to answer feel free to leave a comment!) You’ll see the diminishing returns become very evident here. There is a fine line to be walked when trying to achieve greater visibility to your posts. That in mind, here are some best practices when using hashtags:

  • Limit yourself to no more than two tags per post on Twitter. For Google Plus users, limit yourself to five or fewer unless you are interweaving them throughout your content in a 1 tag to 20 word ratio.
  • Add context to your posts with hashtags; use hashtags to enhance your content rather than be the primary content. Posts should be primarily content not all hashtags.
  • Check what else is being posted to the tag before using it. Tagging ‘blind’ can bite you. Take the #Aurora tag as an example of why some quick research matters.
  • Be relevant: use topic appropriate hashtags. As an example, tagging every photo you post with #photography may work on your personal blog, but it is far too vague for social channels. Likewise, tagging a photo of an open field as #streetphotography is abuse of tagging.

Remember, users following tag streams expect relevant content, and when irrelevant posts begin flooding the tag not only will you lose your desired audience, but many may even go as far as to block you for being spammy or at the very least lacking in netiquette. And really, that’s about the worst thing that can happen in this social world: losing your audience.

So I put the call out to you all, be judicious when choosing your hashtags; be intentional, be respectful, and most of all… add value!

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