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Hashtags are a wonderful convention for uniting social users through common topics, and even shining a light on specific brand campaigns. But using them incorrectly can actually hurt your efforts! Here are some best practices to keep in mind.

General Dos and Don’ts

The platform where hashtags first came to prominence (Twitter) offers some great general tips that (mostly) translate across anywhere you’d want to use hashtags, including making hashtags easy to spell, and giving them a purpose.

But there are some other things to consider.

Hashtags Aren’t Channel-Universal

Hashtags are meant to make categorical searching easy – but not every social network requires them to accomplish that task. Both Twitter and Instagram make regular use of hashtags – in different ways – which we’ll cover in a moment – while channels like Facebook really don’t.

Where’s the harm? You can look horribly out of touch if you use hashtags where they don’t really belong. Or in ways that defeat their purpose. #LikeThisForExample.

On Facebook, hashtags aren’t necessary – but if you’re using specific branded hashtags elsewhere, it can make sense to bring them over for continuity’s sake. But keep it to 1-2 max. Engagement on Facebook actually declines as hashtags increase.

Hashtags help Pinterest users bring traffic to their boards more quickly and boost user-generated content (UGC). The perfect number there seems to be three, with 20 as the max recommended by Pinterest.

YouTube allows for hashtags in your description, which will appear below your video and above your title. But only the first three will show there – and if you add more than 15 your video could be pulled. Hashtags on YouTube are pretty new, so it’s possible you could benefit from the newness of it – you’ll have to follow your analytics to find out. More on that in a moment.

As for Twitter and Instagram, though both channels use hashtags, they’re hardly interchangeable.

Hashtag Volume Differs by Channel

In the early, 140-character days of Twitter, keeping hashtags to a minimum was pretty much a necessity. You just didn’t have the characters to spare. With that limitation lifted, brands might be thinking about adding a lot more hashtags – or cross post a hashtag-laden post from Instagram.

Though tweets using hashtags do get greater engagement on Twitter, that balance shifts in the other direction if you use more than one or two.

Instagram, on the other hand, is all about hashtags – and it would seem “the more the merrier” is the way to go. But even Instagram has its limits.

For starters, the new Instagram API only enables the tracking of 30 hashtags per business profile per seven days. And if you can’t track hashtags to assess their success, what’s the point? This isn’t a tragedy, of course, it just means a little forethought is in order.

But the better news is 9 to 11 hashtags is the sweet spot for Instagram engagement, so you don’t need to max out your tracking on every post.

Hashtags Can’t Be Random

Tracking hashtags is just a part of your social listening, of course. The other part is analyzing your audience to understand what inspires them to interact on social channels – and with your brand. This information, contextualized by sentiment, tells you which hashtags are worth attaching to posts in the first place.

So instead of throwing hashtags at the wall like spaghetti, and tracking to find out what sticks, you’re finding out what kind of pasta your audience likes and then serving that.

This is social marketing 101, of course, but it’s easy to lose sight of the basics when you’re focused on a specific detail. And like all best practices, everything above is just a guideline to start from.

If you discover your Twitter audience loves it when you share five quirky hashtags in every post, then that’s what you should do. Breaking the rules is fine if your analytics support it. But you have to know the rules before you can break them. And now you do.

Happy hashtagging!

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