Probably the worst advice ever given in a major motion picture is this: “If you build it, they will come.”
At least, it may work on ghosts of old-time baseball players, but it doesn’t work in social media. Just because you have a Facebook page or Twitter account doesn’t mean you’ll get results. You have to put in a lot of work and do the right things to see those.
It’s the same with the hashtag, the ubiquitous little symbol — the “#” if you’re not familiar with it — that helps people discover interesting content on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and a few other social platforms. (Hashtags can also be used to make a post funnier or give context, such as a location, rather than prompt discovery of the post, but that’s a separate topic not addressed here.)
Here’s how hashtags are supposed to work:
Say someone likes Greyhounds. A lot. And they want to see beautiful photos of Greyhounds. So every day they get out their phone and check out all the posts that include the hashtag “#Greyhounds” on Instagram. They don’t already know or follow the people posting those photos, so they’re not going to see them if they don’t go looking for them.
Not only do they get to see content they’d otherwise missed, but if they like what they see, they can follow the account posting it. Eventually, other social media users will begin seeking out those hashtags to find content to share on their accounts that they’re not otherwise seeing. That’s all what’s known in social media as “discovery.”
But here’s a harsh truth: All the really popular hashtags, like #dogsofinstagram and #catsofinstagram, already have so much traffic to them that people get overwhelmed. The top content on those streams usually comes from a small number of big accounts that a lot of dog lovers are already following anyway. Not only that, but the content can seem very generic after a while. We tend to be more engaged with smaller, more specific passions — like a certain breed of dog — than the big, general ones — like dogs.
That’s why brands, organizations and businesses usually try to come up with hashtags of their own for their campaigns. The problem is, if no one knows about your hashtag, even if it’s a great one, no one will see it. And if no one sees it, you might feel that it failed, when the truth is, you just didn’t give it enough support.
Hashtags are like any other marketing idea: You have to work them to make them work. You have to publicize them. You have to keep using them. You have to give your core followers a chance to get used to them, and help encourage and educate them to adopt them, too. It takes a lot of time and patience, but a good hashtag, one that sells your cause, is worth the investment.
What does that look like? First, put your hashtag on every graphic you create, and in all or most of your blog and social content. You should also display it in your print ads and on your website. The Million Cat Challenge brands every graphic, and most of their social media posts, with #EveryCatCounts. The Shelter Pet Project puts #StartAStoryAdopt on its images, billboards, TV ads, and social content. Maddie’s Fund®, of course, uses #ThanksToMaddie.
The first time these hashtags were used, they had no power of discovery. No one was searching on them. But with time, these hashtags began to gain greater usage among the target audience, simply because they were being promoted and publicized so much by the original social account. Now, groups that receive grants from Maddie’s Fund use #ThanksToMaddie in their Tweets without even thinking about it. Shelters that join the Million Cat Challenge put #EveryCatCounts on their website. And hundreds of pet adoption groups as well as happy adopters use #StartAStoryAdopt or the Shelter Pet Project’s older hashtag, #ShelterPetLove, on their posts. Those hashtags have all taken on a life of their own, which means they’ve become ready to be used for discovery.
Does your organization have a hashtag story to tell? Share it with us on our Facebook page!
Also of interest:
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