Social Media Hashtag Best Practices

Picture of Aliza ShermanAliza Sherman is a web pioneer, author, and international speaker. Sherman is the author of 8 books about the Internet including The Everything Blogging Book, Streetwise Ecommerce, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Crowdsourcing and Social Media Engagement for Dummies.

Social Media Hashtag Best Practices

Over the last decade, social media has transformed the way people – and companies - communicate and market. From Twitter’s character limit to the use of emojis, how we type out our messages today looks vastly different from the early 1990s. An addition to text content that comes with a range of rules is the hashtag.

Hashtags are keywords or phrases without spaces preceded by a hash mark or the pound sign (#), such as #food, #health, and #ValentinesDay. Early use of hashtags on Twitter helped group together similar content and provided search terms to find that archival content. Hashtags continue to be used as search tools on social networks, particularly Twitter and Instagram.

The communications culture on Instagram embraces hashtags and users even make up hashtags as part of the message itself and not just a search term or topic identifier. Hashtags as the message could be something like the following:

I saw this cute dress for sale. #AndThenIBoughtIt #WhatADeal #MyFavoriteThing #TotallyRecommended.

Each social network treats hashtags differently, some making hashtags an important part of a post and the search function while others penalize posts that contain too many hashtags, making them less visible to others on the network. There are, however, some universal best practices for hashtags.

  1. Check a hashtag before using it. You may see a hashtag trending in social media and think it is a good idea to use it in your posts. Even the most innocent-sounding hashtag could be used to express something negative, so first click on the hashtag and read what is being said in conjunction with that hashtag.
  1. Be careful when you make your own branded hashtag. For example, McDonald’s came up with the hashtag #McDStories to share stories about the company’s commitment to fresh produce and its work with farmers. Instead, some disgruntled customers used the hashtag to talk about food poisoning. You cannot control what others do with your hashtag, so be careful when using a hashtag with your brand.
  1. Use capitalization in your hashtags as needed. To avoid confusion when you use a hashtag phrase, you may need to use caps. For example, the hashtag #herskill can read differently than #HerSkill. The hashtag #whatihadfordinner is harder to read than #WhatIHadForDinner.
  1. Use popular hashtags appropriately (but check them first). For increased visibility, you can add popular hashtags to your posts, particularly ones tied to specific days of the week (#MotivationMonday, #WellnessWednesday, #ThrowbackThursday, and #FridayFeels) or holiday and seasonal hashtags (#ChristmasEve, #FourthOfJuly). You can also do a Google search to identify the most popular hashtags of the moment, such as #love, #beautiful, #cute, and #fashion.

While there is no hard-and-fast rule about how many hashtags to use, various hashtag studies point to the following maximum hashtags:

  • Instagram – up to 30
  • Twitter – 2 to 4
  • Pinterest – 5 to 6 (Pinterest recommends no more than 20)
  • Facebook – 1 or 2 but preferably none (some studies say Facebook posts with hashtags get less engagement)

Keep in mind, if you automatically cross-post from Instagram to Facebook or Pinterest to Twitter, the number of hashtags you use may be optimal for the first social network but too many on the second one.

Hashtags are part of how people communicate these days. Ignoring them or misusing them can put your social media posts in peril. Understanding the language of hashtags and the rules each social network applies to hashtags can increase the visibility and engagement of your posts.