January 8, 2014 by

Thanks to Saturday Night Live’s runaway hit sketch “#Hashtag” last September, even people living under rocks have heard of hashtags. If you’re in charge of your business’ social media, however, you may not be any more confident as to how to make the humble pound sign work for you.

But it’s not difficult, promise. Maren Hogan, CEO of Red Branch Media, makes it simple: “It’s just a quicker way to search.” A social media post (usually in Twitter, though Facebook is playing along) that’s tagged with #BigOmaha or #HRTechChat is instantly added to an entire conversation that other social media users can follow. “If you want your content to stand out,” Hogan says, “or if you’re trying to reach a niche audience, you can use [the hashtag] in skill-specific chats.”

What if you’re not ready to jump into a real-time chat on Twitter just yet? Hogan says blog it, tweet the link, and tag it with the chat’s hashtag. But don’t be afraid to chime in eventually. “You can chat with real professionals all over the world,” Hogan says. “You can establish yourself as a thought leader.”

Even if you’re not adding to a Twitter conversation about your industry or laughing with other tweeting conference-goers about the latest keynote, you can search hashtags for some basic lead generation. “Even by following something simple like #omaha,” says Ben Pankonin, founder and CEO of Social Assurance, “I can start to follow what people in Omaha are saying about a given topic.”

Third-party applications like Hootsuite allow users to create “streams”—feeds that contain only tweets pertaining to certain topics. One of the ways to filter a stream is, of course, by following a particular hashtag. “In health care, you may want to know what nurses are looking for,” Pankonin says. “So you might follow #RNChat. If you’re looking for people who are in finance, you might follow #finserv.”

Hogan relates one innovative lead-generation technique she’s seen: “Someone wasn’t able to attend a conference for her industry, but she followed the hashtag and took note of people who were tweeting from it.” Ta-da! A target market list based on hashtag users.

Okay, but how does one find these hashtags in the first place? “To find hashtags already in use, you have to be paying attention,” Pankonin says. “Listening. Trying out keywords. You have to look around. It takes a bit of discovery to get you there.”

The hashtag is nothing if not versatile. Other uses aside from search include cross-posting. Simply adding #fb or #in can send your tweet flying to Facebook or LinkedIn if you’ve linked your accounts.

And let’s not leave out the faux hashtag. Tagging a photo of an employee’s dog in the office with #newrecruit isn’t so much beneficial for search or lead generation as it is for, well, a light laugh. “They can be a great way to be relevant and human and funny,” Hogan says.

“People are social,” Pankonin points out. “Companies recognize that we see people face to face less frequently than we used to. In social media, humor translates very well.”

“Just recognize when a trend is happening, when it’s cresting, and when it’s over,” Hogan cautions. “The only one who’s going to hashtag YOLO these days is someone who’s desperately out of touch.”

Unless part of your online presence is you cheerfully being 15 minutes behind the times, she adds. Then, yeah. Go for it.

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