Hashtags: Listen, Add, Create
When we think of marketing, we usually think of speaking: getting the message out about our products and services.
In the digital age it’s all about listening— or, what marketers and social media experts call “social listening.” Social listening means using social media to “listen in” on what’s trending, what services people want, and what types of concerns customers have. Social listening gives businesses free insight into customer needs and desires—and can be an useful marketing tool.
One of the easiest ways to engage in “social listening” is to search hashtags on topics relevant to your business, product, or industry. Hashtags can also be used to brand your products and services, making them easier for customers to find. To make hashtags work for you, start by “listening” to social media; then, add to existing topics or create your own.
“Listen” to existing hashtags
Hashtags (#) use the “pound sign” before a topic (#BabyAnimals) to “tag” tweets, images, and posts. In addition to starting with #, hashtags generally follow the same formula: they have a topic that is alphanumeric (abc123), is all one word (no spaces), and generally cannot contain special characters ($%*).
When you do a search on a particular hashtag, you can see all the content users have tagged with this topic—which is what makes social listening possible. You may find out what’s important to your customers, what other products and services they like or want, and even what problems they’ve had with your competitors.
To begin social listening, try searching for hashtags on topics relevant to your business, product, or industry.
If you’re not sure which hashtags to search for, try a Google+ search. Unlike Twitter and Instagram searches which only yield exact results, Google+ brings up other hashtags it considers relevant to your search. So, a #Travel search on Google+ might also get you #KeyWest and #Prague.
Once you’ve zeroed in on a hashtag of interest, you can do a multi-platform search on sites like socialmention which collects results from Facebook, YouTube, Digg, Google, and others. You can also use monitoring resources such as Google Alerts or Mention to email you about topics or hashtags you select.
For up-to-date social listening, Huffington Post blogger Simon Tan suggests a quick daily search for your brand name (including possible misspellings), slogans, key messages, and words relevant to your industry. By checking frequently, Tan says, you keep on top of the conversation, and you only have to read the newest entries each day.
Add to the conversation
When you’ve found a hashtag on a topic relevant to your business, you can add to the conversation. Keep your contributions interesting and useful. Most social marketers agree, a Twitter conversation is generally not the time to go for the hard sell. It’s great opportunity, however, to increase your brand recognition by engaging potential customers.
According to Forbes writer Mark Fidelman, some of the most successful uses of Twitter involve content that is “relatable” rather than promotional. Says Fidelman, “Not only do businesses need to shift their messaging away from company specifics and toward the industry in general...they also need to create content that actually applies to the lives of their followers.”
You can share relevant tips or information (including helpful links) or simply say something that is funny, creative, or engaging. A Nielsen study found that 1/3 of respondents in the UK who “followed” a brand on social media did so because of “interesting/entertaining content”—roughly the same number as those who followed a brand for “freebies.”
Create your own hashtags
Another way to use hashtags is to make your own. Some businesses brand their Facebook page with a unique hashtag that gets repeated in all their topics. For example #HD for Home Depot could proceed subtopics like #HDTips or #HDPlantSale.
The Social Media Examiner offers some tips for creating hashtags: good hashtags are short enough to squeeze into a 140-character tweet (leaving room for content and about 20 characters for retweeting); easily recognizable as relating to your brand or product; and creative or catchy.
Social media expert Stuart Elleray says most searches on Instagram are for trends, subjects, and locations—so you may also want to include your city (#Portland), your niche (#Shoes), or your industry (#Fashion).
Once you’ve made a hashtag, asking users to take action such as “liking” a post or tweet, commenting, or uploading their own content (such as a photo) in response to yours is a good way to get more attention to your hashtag.
Before you use a hashtag, do your research. You don’t want to make the mistake Entenmann’s did when they inadvertently promoted their baked goods under the hashtag #NotGuilty when this hashtag was already trending around the Casey Anthony murder trial.
A final word about hashtags: while Twitter and Instagram allow up to 30 hashtags, it’s generally best to keep it to three or fewer. You don’t want to end up like the characters in Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s over-the-top hashtag skit. #seriously