By Alyssa Curran and Jim Hennessey

Hashtags. People all over the world are now seeing hashtags emblazoned everywhere, on commercials, print materials, clothing, even spoken aloud as part of daily conversation. But what is a hashtag? No, it’s not some new media variation of a hashbrown or the latest way to price goods. Hashtags are social media filing systems, or more simply, the word or phrase you use after the # on social media channels. It’s a simple way for the followers of your event to join conversations, add their thoughts or browse through topics on social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.

Who could forget famous hashtag moments like #SFBatKid, which chronicled the city of San Francisco’s mission to join with the Make-A-Wish® Foundation to help a five-year-old cancer fighter see the world through Batman’s eyes for the day? The hashtag generated an estimated 1.7 billion impressions, and President Obama even gave a shout out on Vine.

In contrast, there have also been many regrettable snafus with hashtags: like, for instance, the #notguilty tweet that pastry company Entenmann’s sent out the day of the Casey Anthony murder verdict. Entenmann’s, looking to make a playful tweet about enjoying snacks without guilt, inadvertently thrust itself into a fiery, controversial conversation – one that carried on about Entenmann’s social media strategy for days after.

Now that you know how hashtags can be used, let’s talk about the different kinds of hashtags as they pertain to business. There are two types of hashtags that events and organizations need to use as part of their social media strategy – Tracking and Discovery.

Tracking Hashtags
Tracking hashtags are used to track the specific content and posts that relate to your event or organization. They typically fall into one of two categories – Brand or Campaign.

Brand hashtags are the hashtags used for an event or organization’s name (i.e., #The3Day or #BikeMS). They’re a great way of creating a community and allowing your event to engage with your followers, as well as monitor what people are saying about your event.

Campaign hashtags are similar to brand hashtags, but are used to promote your event’s campaign line or theme. While brand hashtags may remain the same year-after-year, campaign tags allow you to engage followers with the current theme or positioning of your event. For example, our MuckFest® MS events have #MuckFestMS as their brand tag, but this year we utilized #BuiltforLaughs as the campaign tag. Not only is a campaign hashtag a great way of keeping track of social reach, it actively spreads the word as users get involved.

Discovery Hashtags
Discovery hashtags do just that – help new audiences discover your content. Discovery hashtags also, typically, fall into one of two categories – Trending and Content.

Trending hashtags, like #TheDress or #MyWeirdNeighbor, are hashtags that have quickly gained popularity on social media and as such, are the most used hashtag at that moment. They can come and go within minutes as they are based on real time. Using trending hashtags is a great way of getting your content out to a huge audience, and it can be a really effective way of doing so.

There are rules for using trending hashtags – don’t get involved in trends that are irrelevant to your event or if the topic doesn’t suit your organization’s tone of voice, and don’t use hashtags that are irrelevant to your tweet just for the sake of exposure. Make sure you’ve spent some time reading other posts with that trending hashtag to make sure you don’t misunderstand and insert yourself into a conversation that isn’t appropriate to your brand. Be clever or funny, and be fast – if the hashtag is no longer trending, don’t bother.

Content hashtags are non-branded hashtags which are related to your post’s content, rather than your event or organization. They can be used to add context or humor to your post, or simply to help the post be found by more people. Content hashtags include product, lifestyle, location and event but essentially, if it’s not promotional it’s content. The key to content hashtags is using them sparingly – nobody wants to see a tweet with six hashtags. While some people use many hashtags on platforms like Instagram, in general, being selective and using hashtags sparingly is your best bet for success.

Now that you know how hashtags work and what kinds of hashtags exist, it’s time to put them in effect. With the right research and some careful planning, hashtags are a wonderful way to either start and grow an ongoing digital conversation, or insert yourself into a conversation. Nobody can debate that these cultural lexicons have made social media even more #awesome.

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