Why you shouldn't worry about Hashtags and a simple guide to finding the right ones

Don’t worry about Hashtags

Katie Davidson

A UX designer with roots in digital marketing.

One of the most common questions I get from my digital marketing students is “What hashtags should I be using?”

Most of the time, my answer is:

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Don’t worry about hashtags, worry about quality and authenticity.” quote=”Don’t worry about hashtags, worry about quality and authenticity”]

In fact, according to the 2018 Mention Report, Twitter and Instagram posts with no hashtags, handles, or emojis have the best engagement.

If you remember back in the early days of Twitter when the character limit was due to SMS limitations. Hashtags were the only way to search through topics, and continue the conversation. Nowadays, social media platforms are able to pick up on trending topics, with or without a hashtag.

While many of the trending topics are still hashtags, it’s really a list of topics that are trending. Notice how ‘Durango’ and ‘Uber’ are both trending topics without any hashtags.

Twitter Trending TopicsHashtags can be a headache…

For the most part, it’s a relief that my students don’t need to slog through hashtags to figure out how to get people to see our posts. It was always a step that added confusion. We’ve all seen the epic hashtag fails such as #susanalbumparty (Poor Susan!)


Or hashtags that have seriously backfired such as #McDStories – a McDonald’s branded hashtag that was intended for happy customers to tell their stories… That didn’t turn out well! The hashtag was taken over, by people eager to air their grievances with McDonald’s.

In my opinion, the worst use of hashtags is when a company tries to hijack a trending hashtag without understanding the implications.

One of the worst uses of a hashtag by a major company was when DiGiorno’s tried to cash in on #WhyIStayed, a hashtag for victims of domestic violence.

It’s critical that if you’re going to use a hashtag, you should do your research, and make sure you understand the whole story. While you’re probably ok using most of the silly social media holiday hashtags, steer clear of sensitive hashtags.

Bad hashtags are worse than no hashtags…

I’ve worked on campaigns that were doomed from the start because the company used a hashtag that was either too vague, already in use by someone else, or were marketed towards the wrong demographic. The campaigns would fail to launch because even if their customers were using the hashtag, they were lost in the general social media noise.

Worse is when a company wants to use a hashtag that has a negative connotation behind it. For example, I worked with a tour company that wanted me to try to use a trending hashtag for a city they give tours in – but it was trending because of a disaster in the area.

Another misuse of hashtags I see is targetting the wrong demographic, I see photographers add a huge string of hashtags on their Instagram photos that will include the camera make and model, the lens, the aperture… but they don’t give any context to the photo. But, when I’m browsing Instagram, I’ll usually search based on what sorts of photos I want to look at for example #JapanPics or #BirdsofInstagram.  If the photographer doesn’t add any contextual hashtags, they’re marketing to other photographers, and not to potential customers.

Don’t forget about Shadowbans

It’s critical to do a search for any hashtag you intend to use. I suggest turning off your safe search, to see what comes up when you do a search. If it’s already being used, make sure that it’s in line with your brand and values.

If it’s not being used, or if it was used for a while but isn’t being used any more… it may have been shadowbanned. For example, the hashtag #TGIF was shadowbanned for a while, so even though it was an obvious choice for a Friday post, it wouldn’t help me get infront of customers.

But don’t write off hashtags completely…

Hashtags will be most useful when you’re first trying to grow your account. If you don’t yet have a following that converts, use hashtags that your customers will be searching.

The most important thing is to do a search for any hashtag before you use it. Even innocent sounding hashtags aren’t always safe. And in some cases, you might accidentally use a shadowbanned hashtag, which

The key is to find hashtags that appeal to your customers, not your competitors.

When I’m thinking about my hashtag strategy, I always start by trying to get into the mind of the customer. (My best strategy for getting in the mind of the customer is to use The Target Table.) I want to make sure I’m using hashtags that appeal to the customer, and not ones that will only appeal to my competitors.

For Twitter, I stick to one or two hashtags per post, though most of the time I don’t use any. If I do use a hashtag, I try to use one that I know my customers are going to search for, or I use a hashtag that is part of a larger conversation. For example, as a marketer, I could use the hashtag #superbowlads to weigh in on my thoughts on what worked and didn’t.

For Instagram, hashtags are still the key to growing your account and being discovered by new customers. But I’ve noticed with many of my students, once they have a large audience, it’s time to throw in some posts without any hashtags. Get candid with your customers!

Here is how I approach hashtags on Instagram:

Let’s say I sell jewelry, here’s how I would think about my hashtag strategy:

  1. Think about hashtags my customers would use to describe their personal style:
    #Chic #Goth #Boho
  2. Tell people what the image is in simple terms:
    #Jewelry #Ring #Necklace #Ruby
  3. Tell my customer why they should feel good about their purchase:
    #ConflictFree #HandMade #Upcycled
  4. Communicate what makes it unique:
    #UncutDiamonds #NaturalGemstones
  5. I would usually let people know that my work is for sale:
    #Jewerlyforsale #Buyhandmade #Etsy
  6. And then I use hashtags my customers would use if they were super happy with my product:
    #JewelryAddict #HandMadeLove #ILoveJewelry

I always start simple with my Instagram hashtags, I try to think of what words would be used to describe my product, article, or service, and communicate that to my customers. I also try to think of what my happiest customers would say about my work and turn that into a hashtag.

I don’t overthink hashtags, but I do write down hashtags I have seen work in the past. I keep a list of each of my favorites and use them whenever they’re appropriate.

Here are a few other times I suggest you use hashtags:

FTC disclosures – If you’re doing an affiliate post or a post that requires you to disclose that it’s an ad of some sort, using hashtags is a simple way to stay in compliance. Use hashtags such as #ad or #sponsored to let your followers know.

Specific campaigns – If you have a large event, or a sale, using a specific hashtag can help your fans get excited, and increase the hype. For example, I usually attend WordCamp here in Denver, and the hashtags #WordCamp and #WCDenver are both popular at the event. Be prepared to actively monitor a hashtag if you decide to use one, make sure you give your customers direction on how to use it and guide the conversation back to something productive.

Have some fun – I know I’m a fan of #NationalPuppyDay (March 23rd), and so I’ll be on social media celebrating cuteness overload. Social media is a great place to re-humanize your brand, and having some fun with silly social media holidays is a great way to connect with your audience.

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