Hashtags are a great way to spark conversations online, connecting countless numbers of people around an endless number of topics. And, as we’ve seen over the last few years, they have the potential to be very powerful.
For example, #BlackLivesMatter (referring to the hashtag, not the organization), created in response to the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, started as a reminder to all that Black people’s lives are valuable. The hashtag grew as a reflection of a new wave of consciousness among Black people, and served as a marker of a historic movement against police violence in our communities.
Hashtags #StandingRock and #NoDAPL arose last spring to raise awareness about the harm that the Dakota Access Pipeline would cause and the tribe’s efforts to halt to the project. These hashtags prompted people across the country to express outrage and inspired thousands to travel to North Dakota to take part in the fight.
But hashtags don’t have to reach “trending” level to be valuable. Whether you use them to educate people about an issue, promote an action or event, or call out a policymaker, hashtags can provide valuable online support for your offline organizing.
While creating a hashtag can seem very simple, I have learned through trial and error that being more thoughtful can really pay off. Below are some tips to help you craft and get the most out of your hashtag.
1. Determine your purpose and audience.
This is the most important step in choosing the right hashtag. Think about why you’re creating a hashtag. Is it to tell the story of your community? Or to educate people about an issue you face? Or to bring visibility to your organization’s work?
Once you know your purpose, you can zero in on your audience. Think about who you’re trying to reach and what you want them to do. Try to be as specific as possible in identifying the people you want to engage.
2. Keep it simple.
Great hashtags are simple, easy to remember and easy to spell. They should clearly communicate your message to your audience. #HeretoStay is a perfect example. Its simple message makes clear to policymakers that the millions of immigrants who call the United States home and those who support them are taking a stand against deportation.
3. Keep it short.
Short hashtags are easier to remember and less likely to be misspelled. They also take up less space. This is especially important on Twitter where users only have 140 characters. Plus longer hashtags tend to look messy. For example, #KeepItShort is much cleaner than #RidiculouslyLongHashtagsCanBeABitMuch.
Be mindful of using acronyms as a way to keep it short. A hashtag that is vague or ambiguous is unlikely to gain traction if doesn’t mean anything to your audience. And, if they’re unfamiliar with the acronym, it will be very easy for them to get the letters out of order or forget them entirely.
When creating a hashtag to brand your organization or campaign, I would err on the side of making it longer rather than using acronyms to shorten it, especially when you’re engaging new audiences. You want to give people the opportunity to get to know your brand and/or cause before using abbreviations. For example, #BlackLivesMatter had to be widely used and recognized before people could recognize it as #BLM.
#MLS2STL is a good use of acronyms for a specific audience. Most people in St. Louis are familiar with the controversy over potentially building a Major League Soccer stadium in the city, and can make the connection fairly quickly. This hashtag works because the acronym is relevant to the audience. Outside of St. Louis, it probably wouldn’t mean anything. Which brings me to my next point…
4. Make it relevant.
Use words and phrases that speak to your audience. If you’re a grassroots organization, you might be interested in engaging people in a specific geographical area. You can do this by adding a marker to indicate the location you are in. This also allows you to take a generic word or phrase and personalize it enough to keep it from getting lost in the world of overly used hashtags. #FlintWaterCrisis helps you follow a specific topic, as opposed to the generic #watercrisis, which will direct people to posts about a wide variety of issues in different places. #WokeVoterSTL is another example that’s been widely used in St. Louis (can you tell where most of my on-the-ground organizing takes place?).
You should also make the hashtag relevant to your campaign and/or issue area. #BreakThePipelineSTL describes the campaign (breaking the school to prison pipeline) and the location (St. Louis, again). It’s slightly longer, but very descriptive.
5. Make it engaging.
Create a hashtag that stimulates a response. A good example of this is #13thTaughtMe. We recently used this for an online film screening and discussion of the documentary, 13th. It acted as a fill-in-the -blank statement. As I write this, #HolidayShoppingIn5Words is trending. Prompts like these are fun. People love to come up with creative ways to respond. Having an interactive hashtag makes it seem more like a conversation, and can boost your online engagement.
6. Research it.
As you brainstorm hashtag ideas, be sure to search for them on the social media platforms you plan to use to see if they are already being used and how much. You want your hashtag to point people directly to your campaign and it will be difficult for people to follow the conversation if it’s already known for something else. If there is a hashtag that you love that is currently being widely used, remember that you can always use a marker to personalize it (see tip #4).
7. Promote it.
Once you choose your hashtag, include it on any related graphics and materials. It’s not just the job of the social media person on your team to use the hashtag on the organizational accounts; everyone on your team should be using it when they post about your campaign.
You may end up having so much fun creating hashtags that you come up with several that work well. But as a rule of thumb, you should try to stick to one. Generally, the more hashtags you use to promote one thing, the less effective they are.
Don’t try too hard to incorporate all of these into one perfect hashtag; it may drive you crazy. Figure out what’s important in your situation and go with it. Trial and error will help you see how your audience responds to your hashtags. Have fun with it!