Lets start with the basics. What is a hashtag?
hash·tag: A word or phrase preceded by a hash mark (#), used within a message to identify a keyword or topic of interest and facilitate a search for it.
The first use of a hashtag on social media was by a former google employee back in 2007 since then one study by a media agency has been reported that 75% of people use hashtags (RadiumOne).
Hashtags help with categorization and discoverability on social media platforms. Adding a hashtag allows for searchability of whatever word or words follow the hashtag. Then when you click or search a hashtag all posts that have that hashtag are pulled up. Those that gain momentum then become trending; trending hashtags however, differ for each user.
But why do hashtags matter for marketing? Social media marketers must conduct hashtag research “to optimize their content for the most relevant audience (sproutsocial).” Creating hashtags that are specific to audiences allow your brand or company to be better received. A branded hashtag may also be created as part of a marketing campaign to generate awareness for a brand or a brand’s product. An example of hashtag use is Apple iphone users will post their photos take on their iphones with the #Shotoniphone on their social media account. All these posts are then aggregated by this hashtag and Apple will then share some of these photos on its account.
Hashtags are used differently depending on the social media platform. Twitter uses hashtags to “to find conversations to get involved in, or to start one of your own (sproutsocial).” On Instagram, hashtags aggregate all photos with the same hashtag and make it easier for users to discover more related content. It is a little more difficult to use hashtags on Facebook because most people’s profiles are private and hashtags are only discoverable on public accounts. Therefore on Facebook, most hashtags are used by brand accounts.
Below are a couple of charts from TrackMaven that help visually explain the relationship between hashtags and engagement for the main social media platforms: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.