MayeCreate was happy to speak at a recent giving campaign workshop (Thank you, CoMoGives) to help local nonprofits plan their campaign efforts (please visit CoMoGives.com) and utilize their social media assets effectively (and donate generously). During our presentation one question drew a particularly large amount of interest:

“What’s the difference between a number sign and an at sign?”

Or to rephrase: “What’s the difference between a hashtag and a social tag?”

Or to take it even one more step further: “What’s the difference between # and @?”

(Any way you think about it — great question.)

Hashtags and social tags (also called tags, labels, mentions or “ats”) are essential tools in your social media arsenal. Understanding what they are, how they work, and how to best employ them will allow you to increase your social media reach efficiently — increasing your results, without increasing the work. Sound good? We thought so!

Let’s break it down.

What is a hashtag?

When I was a boy we call it the pound sign….

“A hashtag is a type of metadata tag used on social networks such as Twitter and other microblogging services, allowing users to apply dynamic, user-generated tagging which makes it possible for others to easily find messages with a specific theme or content; it allows easy, informal markup of folk taxonomy without need of any formal taxonomy or markup language.”

Thanks Wikipedia! But what does that mean for the rest of us who glazed over at “microblogging”?

A hashtag is a symbol that social media networks use to allow users to categorize their content.

Simply place that number sign (#) in front of a word or string of characters (no spaces or punctuation) to tell the social network that your post, picture or video should be archived with all other content tagged with that specific hashtag. When someone searches for said hashtag they will then be able to see all the posts that have been tagged, sorted into a single stream.

Example, please.

Okay. Let’s say you tagged a picture of yourself living dangerously with the hashtag #YOLO (cause you a bad mamma jamma). Your picture is posted just like every other photo you’ve ever shared, but labeled so that the network knows to display it when anyone wants to search for images of you only living once. Convenient!

What is a social tag?

When I was a boy we called it the “commercial at” symbol… Just kidding! We never talked about it…

The @ symbol that we are all so familiar with (thanks to our email-dependent lives), functions in much the same way as a hashtag, but serves a different purpose:

When you place the @ symbol (the social tag) in front of an account name (a handle), it alerts that account that you are talking about, with or to them.

Example, please.

Let’s say you finish this helpful article and want to thank the author for writing it. Jump on your social media network of choice, search for their handle (@MayeCreate) and tag them in your next Facebook post. Like so:

@MayeCreate I found your latest blog post helpful, informative and fun! Thank you”

We would then be notified that you “mentioned” us, and would definitely respond with something along the lines of:

@YourNameHere So glad you liked it. Keep up the great job with the social tagging!”

It’s just that easy.

The functionality of tagging can vary based on the social network and user privacy settings. The important thing to take away is that it functions as an alert and not a private message.

When to use hashtags:

Hashtags are a great way to allow other users to discover your content based on their own interests. Every hashtag instantly increases your potential reach beyond just your follower count to anyone interested in that hashtag’s keyword or topic:

If your organization rescues animals, using the hashtag “#puppies” with puppy related content, is a solid way to get discovered by people who love puppies. But always remember to use common sense and follow best practices when using hashtags. Someone searching for puppies may be happy to discover that you rescue them, but your organization shouldn’t include the hashtag “#puppies” with a picture of a parakeet.

While “#puppies” may get a lot more views than “#parakeets” (sorry bird lovers, but it’s true) you still want to label your content correctly so that when people do find it they aren’t immediately turned off because it wasn’t what they were looking for. The first impression of your social media shouldn’t be that you are in anyway misleading or (probably worse) incompetent.

Are hashtags case sensitive?

Hashtags can contain letters, digits and underscores — but need to form a string (no spaces or punctuation). So, #comogives is the same as #CoMoGives and #CoMo Gives will get you all of the CoMo but none of the Gives. Generally, when formatting your hashtags you just want to keep them consistent, easy to read and aesthetically pleasing.

Speaking of…

How many hashtags should I use?

You can use up to 30 on an Instagram post and even more on a Facebook post… but don’t.

Studies continue to show that hashtags make your content easier to find and even increase engagement rates, but posts with too many hashtags can feel spamy leading to diminishing returns.

Social networks are a largely visual media and walls of hashtags are unappealing. So, only use relevant and targeted hashtags, and remember that different hashtags will get you different results. Ie. #happy4th will get you some attention around Independence Day, but won’t get much traction during Christmas. Other hashtags like #volunteer are more evergreen and can garner more interest over time.

I need a number!

Okay! As a general rule stay around 1-2 hashtags on Facebook, (branded hashtags like #CoMoGives work well here) and around 5-10 on Instagram. Your results will vary based on the social network you are working in — but regardless of the network remember to monitor your hashtags to see how well they are performing.

When to use social tags:

Now I totally get your logo!

Tagging people or pages (@MayeCreate) you admire in your posts is a good way to build your network. The account you tag will be notified, and if they interact with the post it may be seen by a certain percentage of their followers. This is what is referred to as “borrowing reach” and can be very effective, especially if you have pre-existing relationship with popular page or influencer. But again, use common sense. If you think someone did a great job, reach out and tell them, but don’t mention them in every comment you post until they block you. Use the same tact and decorum that you would employ mentioning someone else at a party. Remember: no one likes a name dropper.

Social tags are best used in collaboration. For example: Try tagging an event sponsor thanking them for their support. They may like, comment on, or share it with their own followers — giving them positive PR for being committed to a social cause while giving your organization more exposure.

The More You Know

Learning the nuances of hashtags and social tags can feel like learning a computer language. But you are now ready to integrate them into your social media repertoire. If you have any fundamental Facebook questions check out our blog for tons how-to guides, or download our free Intro to Facebook e-book for more in-depth information. Of course for any other questions you can hit us up on your social media network of choice (again: @MayeCreate). We look forward to hearing from you!

More about the Author

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Dana Taylor

Dana is a writer from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He’s passionate about both content coordination and social media, which is convenient... because that’s his job here at MayeCreate Design! He possesses his Bachelor of Arts in English from Western University and a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Finn. His interests include The Toronto Blue Jays, video games with strong narrative arcs, streaming British television, and trying new restaurants with his wonderful fiancée, Ashley. He’s a real renaissance man. Read more about Dana and his dog on our blog.

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