It’s quite entertaining to watch how grown-ups sift through the trends that trickle up from the tweener and teen sets to decide which ones are in fact new social norms or business practices. For the most part, Gen X and older generations -- who are today’s business leaders -- have embraced social media. Other than the poor few who go too far (think of a 45-year-old man with a selfie stick and an Instagram addiction), we’ve incorporated the new communication tools in our personal and professional lives rather easily. 

That does not mean we always understand the language of the social media culture, its lingo or symbols. For instance, after initial awkwardness, emoticons or emojis (the little icons with faces, places and feelings) have made it into my work e-mails: Go team! smiley

However, they can be a little much at times. Imagine the job candidate who signs the thank-you note with: So psyched! yes

Clearly, there is a time and a place for everything.

So What About Hashtags?

Unlike emoticons, which have passionate fans but very little real use, hashtags are a true social media and communication tool. Using a hashtag the right way makes a topic or post searchable on social networking sites. This solves a coordination problem and facilitates conversations so there is a thread to follow on sites like Twitter -- a thread that would otherwise appear as just a stream of posts. It’s a great way to commemorate an event (#WorldCup2015), celebrate a success (#USAWomensSoccer), focus on an idea (#BigData) or promote a social conversation (#Ferguson). Hashtags are so important that there are entire media agencies to advise you on yours!

However, most trendy topics have the risk of overuse or misuses, making a person look ridiculous. Hashtags don’t come with an instruction manual, so here are some pointers to make you #MarketingSavvy. 

  1.  Hashtag history and construction: The use of the symbol started within Twitter. The protocol is to place the hash character (#) in front of a word on an unspaced phrase, either in the main text of a message or at the end.
  2. Where to hash and tag: Most social sites support hashtags, allow sorting and searching, and provide the trending data. However, it is important to never overuse hashtags in posts -- then they become just another form of emoticon saying #ILikeHashtags.
  3. Some dos when using hashtags: Be specific and use words that are easy to remember/spell. Keep it brief and relevant to you. Capitalize each word. Have a call to action (like read my blog #MarketingTips).
  4. Some don’ts, please: Don’t go overboard. Avoid trending hashtags that have nothing to do with you. You are a business person, and the lure of cute/fun/silly makes at least a fool a day in your social circle. Don’t be that guy. 

I see embarrassing examples all the time from good friends and family trying to put their toes into the hashtag waters. Often it’s a 40- or 50-something person who wants to be cool, not realizing that hashtags in every Facebook post are telltale signs that you just don’t understand the language! Anyone with teenagers knows the eye roll that comes with lame attempts to be cool, so it is worth paying attention.

Creating A Business Feedback Loop

Here is an example of how we are using hashtags in a relevant and commercial way. When we launched our consumer research and changed our brand to Financial Life Management (from Private Wealth Counseling), we wanted to create an industry conversation. Across our social channels, we began to add the tag #finlife to our posts. Over time, other people in our industry who engaged with us in conversation began using it, too. It’s simple, it means something and we keep it consistent. My team searches to find all the posts that have the #finlife tag. By looking at the threads, we get good ideas and feedback, and in a few cases we have created new business connections that will pay off. 

What was once a fringe activity practiced by digital hipsters is now an important component of marketing communications and new-age commerce. Hashtags have a purpose and a place. Unlike other forms of exclamation and self-expression, hashtags offer organizations and individuals the opportunity to advance concepts and further discussions. #HopeItHelps and you’ve learned more about #HowToHashtag.