Last week, I was coaching the local youth cycling squad here in Traverse City. I’m a busy, important businessman, so I was only filling for the final week. Two days, a half-dozen kids, and the only expectation was that they all get back from the ride on time. It (seems) hard to lose a bunch of kids wearing bright orange Norte jerseys, and I’ve coached in the past; easy enough. It wasn’t just easy, it was a ton of fun. We rode for two hours a day, and aside from a delicious cookie stop, the highlight of my brief period as a substitute cat-herder was having the kids show me a trail I’d never ridden before. Who knew there’s life beyond your normal, predictable, go-to trail?
It was also eye-opening on a more professional level, too. These kids were between ten and twelve years old. Almost all of them had a smartphone, and while they didn’t try to use them while riding (because safety), once practice was over, they all were calling parents, Snapchatting friends, and even using apps like Life360 to see where their pals were. The most interesting part, however, was how they spoke with the phones still in their pockets. Almost every kid would toss a hashtag into everyday parlance. Hit a jump? “ I’m gonna #sendit!”. Crash on a stick while flying down a hill? “#FAIL!”. The idea of using these hashtags as abbreviated common hand in conversation was pervasive; once I noticed, I picked up all the kids from older and younger teams speaking the same way.
The hashtag itself is a phenomenon, and much more intelligent people than me have offered up incredible histories on how the pound sign became the hashtag. In brief, the hashtag got started in 2007 on Twitter as a way for people to follow specific conversations and topics. Users could see all tweets with that sign, interact with other users, and follow developments. Initially, only Twitter offered the function, but today, it’s an almost universal way to essentially organize news, trends, and more. Want to see what’s happening in, say, Traverse City? #TCMI sees hundreds of posts on Instagram per day during peak tourist season. Follow #Syria on Twitter and you’ll see an almost non-stop stream of news, opinions, and photos from the war zone. Put in #pumpkinspicelatte on Facebook and you’re going to see an immeasurable volume of coffee cups.
I exaggerate; it’s the fact that these hashtags are measurable which makes then so valuable to marketers. Platforms track how many people are using each individual hashtag; get enough tweets, and it could even become a trending topic in a specific country or even worldwide. Some of the most important world events become hashtags, especially during elections, disasters, and sporting events like the Super Bowl or World Cup. Many of the all-time best hashtags are applicable year-round or even every day, like #Funny or #WINNING or #MotivationMonday.
For brands, these hashtags offer a free, accessible way to put content in front of the right people. #Running or #RunningLife are tags that appeal and are followed by, you guessed it, runners. With a little work, brands can influence hashtags by incorporating their own taglines or campaigns. For instance, Nike has popularized #AirJordan to support its line of sneakers of the same name. Adding #sneakerhead puts their content in front of dedicated shoe-enthusiasts, which is both real, alarming, and big business. People love shoes.
Hashtags are also a great way to build brand identity locally. Coffee shops and restaurants, or really any company that doesn’t conduct sales online, rely on local foot traffic. Having 10,000 Followers on Instagram doesn’t convert into a sale if you’re serving salmon on Ann Arbor and 97% of your Followers live elsewhere. That’s why having a consistent presence on the hashtags and trending topics locally makes a difference; locals and tourists are more likely to stumble upon your content and stop by using location-specific tags.
Any company can benefit from studying, tracking, and experimenting with hashtags. Many social media scheduling options offer analytics on hashtags in real-time, so you can see how many other posts are using the same tag. Mix up your hashtags to match potential customers and conversations, and track which perform best. Most experts agree that posts on Instagram or Twitter with 6-9 hashtags see the most traffic, but as you learn your audience, you may reduce or expand that number.
Hashtags are memorable, they’re useful, and they really serve as a way to connect people to a community and businesses to customers. They’re also very, very fun to shout while doing a tailwhip on a mountain bike with a bunch of middle school cycling nerds.