The hashtag — that is now 12 years old! — has become a social media phenomenon.
Now, it’s rare to see a social media post without one, especially on Twitter and Instagram.
When and how did the hashtag become such a trend?
Originally called the pound sign, online use of the hashtag didn’t appear until used on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) in the late 1990s, where it was used to create and categorize groups. The hashtag craze we know today didn’t begin until 2007, when Chris Messina tweeted out to his followers, asking how they felt about using the pound sign to group conversions:
As use of the hashtag grew in popularity, other social platforms adapted the use of them, too. It’s difficult to argue against the simplicity and effectiveness of the hashtag. It’s easily created and searchable, and has become an extraordinary marketing tool for businesses, organizations, celebrities, and even the average individual. (If you’re interested, you can view a more detailed reflection on the history of the hashtag here.)
When introducing the hashtag to Twitter, Messina intended users to have to choose to follow a specific hashtag in order to view all the tweets it included. Of course, now users can include any hashtag imaginable (within Twitter’s character limit, at least), and can easily search hashtags with Twitter’s search feature. Funnily enough, Instagram’s recently released feature actually acts similar to Messina’s original intentions.
Shortly after releasing Instagram Story polls last October, two months later they also introduced the ability for users to follow a hashtag. HItherto, you could click on a hashtag within a post or search using a hashtag in the Explore section of Instagram. By following a hashtag, you can now get highlights of that hashtag displayed in your newsfeed, just like it is with accounts you follow.
Once solely a Twitter feature, the hashtag is becoming an increasingly important aspect of Instagram. The designer behind this new feature, Matthew Ogle, stated in an interview with The Verge: “My job was to find ways to take the friction out of [searching the Explore tab], to being discovery and community-led goodness to where people already are. Hashtags have some really nice properties, because they are already this bottom-up, community-led aggregation.”
So, why are hashtags so important?
Despite many jokes and humorous sketches on the overuse of hashtags, when used properly, they really are an integral part of digital marketing. You can follow and engage with specific hashtags to stay updated on a current topic/trend, you can create your own hashtag to promote a new product or service, search a hashtag to cut through the digital clutter and find what you’re looking for, and so much more.
If you’re still unsure about the use of hashtags, we’ve highlighted below some of the main reasons, in our opinion, why hashtags are so important on Instagram (and for all social media and apps!). If you have other reasons why hashtags are important, be sure to let us know in the comments below!
As with any business, it’s important to figure out who your competition is, what they offer, and how they advertise, so you know what makes your business the better choice. You can use Instagram hashtags to research competitor accounts, their top posts, and their most-used hashtags.
For example, let’s say you are a graphic design freelancer aiming to grow your business. You would be able to log in to your Instagram account and go into the search bar to look for your competitors and discover the most used and popular hashtags on the “graphic design” topic. In the below screenshots, you’ll see that under the “Top” category, there will be a list of all hashtags, accounts, users, and places. And to specifically look for graphic design hashtags, you would just click the “Tags” category and view that list.
Learning this information can help you gauge an audience’s response to your competitor’s post(s), giving you the knowledge of what works best and what doesn’t for your own social media marketing.
Additionally, hashtags are constantly changing and evolving. What was once a popular hashtag today, might be outdated tomorrow. Keeping up with the current news and trending hashtags will make your brand look credible and trustworthy.
2. (and 3.) Branding and Visibility
Although these are technically reasons two and three, we grouped them together because most of the reasoning goes hand-in-hand. Creating good visibility will enhance the success of your branding, and vice versa.
Branding and visibility are essentially the most effective uses of hashtags on Instagram. If you’re a new business, you can utilize hashtags to expand your audience and increase brand awareness. When users search your brand, they’ll see the relevant hashtags you’re using; or when they search specific hashtags, they’ll see your branded posts in the results. This usually results in gaining new followers and potential customers.
Or — whether new or more established — you can create your own hashtag for a product, service, or event you’re promoting. You can encourage your followers and customers to use the hashtag when they purchase/use a product or service, or when they’re at an event you’re hosting. Creating your own hashtag (or choosing a hashtag with little use) gives you the chance to dominate that hashtag with your brand. Continuously including that hashtag in your posts not only helps increase your visibility (as all hashtag use does), but helps users begin to associate your business with that hashtag, further establishing your brand.
One of the main reasons hashtags have gained such a reputation on social media is because of their ability to help marketers and businesses create targeted campaigns. According to Tweetangels, “when it comes to promotion, think of hashtags as the ‘word-of-mouth’ method.” In other words, when you post about a promotion, then your followers will use that same hashtag, then their followers will use it, and so on. Hashtags create great visibility for a campaign, and help you reach your target audience by using relevant hashtags that you know your audience is already following.
When used to promote an event, the hashtag not only connects you with your followers, but your followers with each other. The traction a hashtag can promote before, during, and after an event is substantial.
Another useful tip for using hashtags to promote your business is to pair it with a giveaway promotion. Have a photo contest where people upload their photos under a designated hashtag to win a prize. In February, many businesses utilize this tactic for Valentine’s Day promotions. Jewelry businesses have a best couple photo contest or a share your best love story contest for their followers to win free products.
With the entire world at our fingertips, searching about breaking news instantaneously is easy. Because of this, many political movements create a hashtag for their cause. This works basically the same as event promotion. People use the hashtag to say they’re running a fundraiser event and users share their posts before, during, and after. A very recent example of this is the creation of the #MarchForOurLives, where vicitms of the Florida shooting want to raise awareness for school safety and gun control.
While many businesses remain politically neutral, some are unafraid to share their stance on political issues. And many customers are loyal to brands because of their political stance. So, depending on your brand, it may be beneficial to use hashtags to show your support for the causes you believe in.
BONUS: 6. Localization (on a global scale)
Especially after the introduction of Instagram Stories, using geographical tags in your Instagram posts have become a useful tool in marketing on a local scale. And when tagging locations like city neighborhoods or popular cities, you can reach local, state, regional, and national audiences.
A pro-tip from AdEspresso by Hootsuite states that, “the location tag is an excellent way to promote local brick-and-mortar businesses or increase exposure in a specific area, especially if Instagram pulls it into location-based Stories in the explore feed.
The success of local marketing with hashtags on Instagram is thanks to Instagram Stories. Now, according to Business Insider, they seem to be working on a new tool called “Clips” that will potentially mirror and mimic features of the popular app TikTok. What does this mean for Instagram?
Well, the newer app TikTok — originally Musical.ly until 2018 — relies on hashtags to share content just like Instagram. A key driving factor in TikTok’s success is its strong focus on localized content through localized hashtags. According to an article by Influencer MarketingHub, “the app also uses local trending hashtags to suggest topics for content creation to its users [which] helps the app capitalize on local trends and generate viral content…” Therefore, if Instagram launches a tool that either meets or exceeds the marketing success TikTok has seen, the potential for localization on global scale is imminent.
Although over 12 years old, it’s highly unlikely we’ll see the demise of the hashtag anytime soon. With its innate ability to gain visibility and reach millions of users around the world, hashtags are a crucial part of any successful marketing campaign today.
Whether you’re a new business looking to increase brand awareness, a well-known brand launching a new product, or a brand looking to give back to a political and charitable campaign, hashtags are a surefire way for you to get your voice heard on Instagram, and all social media.