What Is a Hashtag? Basics and How They Work in Social Media

What Is a Hashtag? Basics and How They Work in Social Media

Hashtags aren’t just a keypad symbol used before a number. This word has grown so much more over the last few years, especially when it comes to social media marketing.

Hashtags can make or break a social media post, promotional campaign, and even an overall marketing strategy. Fortunately, utilizing the right hashtags on social networks just might be the ticket your business or brand needs to reach success.

This article will cover:

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by the pound symbol (#) that correlates to a specific topic, idea, category, brand, etc., on social media.

The hash symbol, also known as the pound sign or number sign, is nothing new. This symbol is also known as an octothorpe—a term that came about in the 1960s—and is used to indicate a number. However, the hashtag only came onto the scene in 2007 when a Silicon Valley marketing specialist came up with the idea. The marketing expert, Chris Messina, saw the hashtag used as a group organizational tool in various internet chatrooms. It was an “aha” moment for him, but when he pitched the idea to Twitter, they rejected it instantly.

Messina didn’t give up, though. During the San Diego wildfire of October 2007, he had the idea to use #sandiegofire to discuss the environmental catastrophe. He asked friends to join in on the conversation using the same hashtag on their Twitter accounts. It wasn’t long before it caught on, and people discussed the topic in real-time through social media.

After a couple of years, Twitter finally adopted the idea and added a hashtag search bar option in 2009. The concept of using hashtags in photo captions grew immensely with the launch of Instagram in 2010, followed by Facebook in 2013, and the rest is history.

Why should businesses use hashtags?

Hashtags are the driving force behind the majority of social media users’ search activity. Over half of social media users are searching for product suggestions and reviews. If your business has a specific search term connecting to the brand, you’re more likely to come up higher in these users’ research. Relevant hashtags can elevate your business to a whole new level.

Here are a few reasons you should consider using a hashtag on your social media site.

Increase user engagement

The main purpose of a hashtag is to start an engaging conversation among social media users. Like when Messina used the #sandiegofire hashtag, it caught people’s attention from all different places.

When you use trending hashtags in a social media post, you become part of a global conversation surrounding that particular topic. Your posts become much more visible as people search for the hashtag, resulting in new followers and, even more importantly, increased post likes, comments, saves, and shares.

A good example of how hashtags can increase engagement is what’s known as a Twitter Chat, which is a popular way of communicating on Twitter about a specific subject. A company can create a Twitter Chat simply by assigning certain Twitter hashtags to the conversation, picking a date and time for the chat to go live, and inviting other Twitter users to join in. Many Twitter Chats occur regularly simultaneously each week (e.g., every Monday at 8 p.m. EST) and, over time, can continue to grow with more users entering the conversation.

To participate in these trending topics, all users need to do is include the designated hashtag in their tweets and retweets, and they’ll automatically be included—and depending on the size of the chat, potentially seen by hundreds of thousands of other Twitter users all over the world.

Another example is the hashtag follow feature on Instagram. Instagram users not only can follow other Instagram accounts but also actual hashtags. This means that when you use a popular search term as a hashtag in your post, it’ll show up in the feeds of all users who follow that particular tag.

Increase reach to your target audience

Hashtags are ideal when you need to reach a specific audience. Let’s say you’re a travel agency and want to target people on social media who are researching flights, hotels, and other travel-related topics. Using travel-related hashtags will help put you at the forefront of these people’s feeds.

Although tricky and constantly evolving, social media uses an algorithm that mainly plays by the rule that if you search for it once, it’ll continue to show up. Suppose someone has already begun the search for their travel itinerary. In that case, the social media algorithm will continue to show them more travel-related content. This is where the use of hashtags surrounding the travel industry will prove worthy, as now you’ll be included in the mix of content that the algorithm sends their way.

Additional examples include utilizing family-related hashtags to target parents, culinary hashtags to find foodies, and fashion industry hashtags to reach shoppers. Suppose you aren’t sure how to use hashtags properly or which ones to use for your industry and its target audience. In that case, it’s ideal to hire social media marketers to help research and establish the best and most efficient social media strategy.

Align with social causes

Hashtags are popular within the activism circle. Social media gives organizations and individuals a platform to start and continue a discussion about a social cause efficiently and effectively all over the world. Showing support for a cause through hashtag activism can benefit a multitude of causes and achieve fundraising goals, raise awareness, and build a trustworthy support system.

Examples of some more recent social campaigns include:

  • #BlackLivesMatter: This was originally a response to the Trayvon Martin shooting in 2012 that turned into a campaign against racially motivated violence, particularly police brutality, against Black Americans.
  • #MeToo: The movement bringing awareness to sexual harassment and sexual abuse cases, that became more widespread in 2017 when dozens of women came forward with allegations against well-known celebrities, and more survivors used the hashtag to demonstrate solidarity and share their stories
  • #IceBucketChallenge: This hashtag raised awareness about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and encouraged people to make donations for research.

Identify sponsored posts

Influencer marketing has become one of the most effective strategies for brand awareness. This refers to when a business compensates a social media influencer—who is a social media user with a large and loyal audience—to market their products, services, ideas, etc. Compensation might be monetary but can also be in complementary products, services, accommodations, experiences, etc.

In these cases, it’s required by law that the influencer disclose their partnership with the brand. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) states that influencers must reveal the relationship with a brand within their posts. Hence, their followers understand the post is essentially an advertisement.

Hashtags help immensely in these situations. Influencers can use #ad, #hosted, #sponsored, or #spon to show it’s a compensated collaboration of some sort, or sometimes, businesses create their own hashtags for partners to use that serve as the required disclosure.

Promote an event

Hashtags are especially useful for event promotion, both before and after the event takes place. This can apply to both in-person and virtual events. Before the event, the hashtag can be used to direct social media users to purchase tickets or create a conversation about what guests can expect from the event.

Having an event hashtag also entices people to post on their social media during the event. This has two major benefits: It increases the digital footprint for the brand and/or business hosting the event. It makes it very easy for guests to search on social media for photos and videos from the event to tag themselves and share on their social media platforms.

Examples of event hashtags might include:

  • Popular music festivals like #SXSW (Austin’s South by Southwest), #Lolla (Chicago’s Lollapalooza), and #Ultra2020 (Miami’s Ultra Music Festival).
  • National food and drink holidays that many restaurants and bars celebrate with various limited-time specials. Examples might include #NationalMojitoDay, #NationalWaffleWeek, and #NationalNutritionMonth.
  • Industry conferences, such as #10XGrowthCon (Grant Cardone’s marketing conference), #PULSE2021 (an annual leadership conference), and #FancyFoodShow (an exhibition for the food and beverage industry).
  • Small businesses can create hashtags surrounding their grand openings or specific sales, and charities can come up with hashtags to promote their fundraisers and so forth.

Make a campaign stand out

This is where your hashtag can truly shine. Campaigns are a key part of any business’s marketing strategy. These are the hooks that reel people in and turn them into customers or clients. Having a strong hashtag for a campaign is akin to having a catchy jingle for a commercial. It should stand out, catch people’s attention, and entice them to want to learn more about the brand. Having a campaign hashtag is also useful for businesses if you choose to work with influencers to spread the word.

Some examples of successful campaign hashtags include:

  • Lay’s potato chips #DoUsAFlavor, which asked social media users to vote on their favorite Lay’s flavor and enter for a chance to win a million dollars.
  • L’Oreal Paris’ #WorthSaying, which asked women to share things most important to them.
  • Charmin’s #TweetFromTheSeat, encouraging social media users to tweet funny, hypothetical situations from “the seat.”

Additional post and content context

Overall, hashtags are important for search engine optimization (SEO) on social media. These can be added to the caption content to beef up its searchability and give followers a better idea and understanding of the message they should be getting from the post.

For example, suppose a beauty brand uses the hashtag #cleanbeauty or #crueltyfree. In that case, it’s a clear way to let their audience know they use clean and/or vegan ingredients in their products and are advocates for this kind of lifestyle. Another example would be if you are posting about a #giveaway or #sweepstakes, these hashtags could put your post in front of people who are searching for contests to enter on social media.

Where are hashtags mainly used?

A hashtag is a searchable keyword that helps increase engagement, reach, and brand awareness on various social media platforms, including but not limited to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Imgur. There are different criteria for using hashtags on various platforms, and some benefit more from the use of hashtags than others.

  • Twitter is the social media platform that started it all and the most popular place to find hashtags. Because of its straight-to-the-point trademark, only allowing up to 280 characters per tweet, it’s a much more simple platform to use and share a concise thought. As Chris Messina proved, all it takes is one good hashtag to reach the world. Twitter recommends using no more than two in each tweet, and it doesn’t matter where in the tweet they’re used.
  • Instagram, a highly visual social media platform, relies more on catching people’s eye with photos and videos than with captions. However, captions are the key to improving these visuals’ reach. According to research, having at least one hashtag in a post can increase engagement by 12.6%. Instagram allows users to use up to 30 hashtags; however, research shows nine Instagram hashtags are the sweet spot for the best engagement.
  • Facebook might be just as popular of a social media platform as Instagram and Twitter. Still, it’s also a platform that more people use for more private, personal reasons. For that reason, hashtags might not generate as large of a reach. In fact, one study showed Facebook posts without hashtags performed better than those with. If you want to use hashtags in your Facebook post, stick to only about one or two, and make sure they’re completely relevant to your topic.
  • Pinterest allows hashtags to be used within the description of your pin and also offers popular hashtag suggestions based on your content. It’s recommended not to use more than 20 hashtags within the 500-character description. Around two to five unique, SEO-friendly hashtags will suffice.
  • LinkedIn is a professional networking site, so any hashtags used should also be professional. You can use hashtags anywhere in your LinkedIn post, and there’s no limit put forth. However, LinkedIn suggests using no more than three.
  • Imgur is a photo-sharing networking platform that allows users to use up to five hashtags on a single post. Hashtags are beneficial to use as they can help users find the content they’re looking for. Use simple and descriptive hashtags that would be popular search terms for the photo, such as #puppies if it’s a photo of your dog or #familylife if it’s a lifestyle photo with people.

There are many different schools of thought when it comes to using hashtags: how to use them in a caption, the number to use, if they should go in the caption or in the comment sections, etc. With each social media platform’s algorithm changing regularly, recommendation guidelines are constantly evolving.

However, one social media study revealed that using ten or more hashtags in one post can decrease engagement by 68.2%. One way around this is to hire an independent testing specialist to run A/B tests between various posts that utilize hashtags in different capacities and then see which ones perform the best.

When not to use a hashtag

Hashtags might seem like something to include in a caption or comment at all times to increase engagement and reach. Still, there are times to scale back and specific situations when hashtags should not be used as with any social media trend.

Here are a few of those scenarios:

  • Don’t hashtag every word in a sentence. This looks sloppy and unprofessional.
  • Don’t use hashtags in the middle of a caption or comment because it could make the content hard to read, especially if someone uses the text-to-speech feature.
  • Don’t use the same hashtags every time you post. This has the potential to get flagged as spam, plus you won’t increase your reach if you’re just tapping into the same audience time and time again.
  • Don’t use hashtags to string together long sentences. Stick to the keyword or short phrase in the sentence only.

How to use a hashtag: 7 steps on making a good hashtag

It’s not enough to just choose a word and stick a # symbol in front of it. Your hashtags need to be strategically selected, relevant to your industry, be related to your posts, and targeted towards the audience you want to attract. Here are seven steps for leveraging your hashtags.

1. Start your word with the hashtag symbol(#)

This is the most important tip! Don’t forget the hashtag symbol in front of the word. An important thing to remember when creating a hashtag is that while it can contain both upper- and lower-case letters, numbers, and underscores, it won’t work if spaces or other symbols are included.

For example, a trending and popular hashtag is “Throwback Thursday.” The hashtag could be #throwbackthursday, #ThrowbackThursday, or #throwback_thursday, but it can’t be #Throwback Thursday. If you add a space or forget the hashtag symbol, it won’t be considered a hashtag or appear in any hashtag searches.

2. Keep it short—limit the number of words

The 1960’s U.S. Navy method known as KISS (keep it simple, stupid) works well here. Keep your hashtag as simple as possible. The point is to create something that’s easy to remember so it can spread far and wide without any confusion. If your hashtag is too long or complicated, people may not remember to use it. There’s also potential for the words to get convoluted, and the hashtag would then lose meaning.

Take #picoftheday as an example. The phrase is short and sweet, easy to remember, and has a clear and concise meaning for when and why it should be used. Additional examples include #winewednesday, #beachbum, #fashionpost. These are specific, clear, and short enough that social media users will remember them and know what they should be used for.

3. Relevance is key

This is important for audience reach. Your hashtags should pertain to your particular industry, content, and company culture so you can attract followers who’re interested in what you do and who you are. It might be helpful to hire a freelance social media marketer to do some research and find relevant content that’s already trendy within your industry’s community.

For example, if you’re in the restaurant industry, you might use #cheflife or #foodie; for a travel company, #travelgram or #travelphotography; and for the education field, #k12 or #curriculum could be used.

4. Make it memorable

Aside from making sure your hashtags make sense, they should also be memorable. There are plenty of basic and generic hashtags for every industry—e.g., #fashion, #food, and #cars—but if you really want your hashtag to move the needle, create something that’s more specific and stands out.

One way to do this is to play on a trending topic, especially something that affects people on a national or international level. #COVID19 and #stayhome are two great examples of this. They refer to something specific that people all over the world are familiar with and will remember to use if posting about these particular topics.

5. Use different casing

Hashtags can be all lowercase, uppercase, or a combination of both. This is more of an aesthetic preference and doesn’t affect the searchability of a hashtag. It can make some hashtags easier to read, though, specifically those that use acronyms, like #WFHlife (work from home) or those with more than one word with double letters. For example, the popular vitamin and supplement brand Life Extension capitalizes the first letter in each word to keep the two e’s from blending together: #LifeExtension versus #lifeextension.

6. Don’t spam hashtags

Don’t overuse hashtags. Depending on the social media platform, your posts might get flagged as spam. For example, posting 10 hashtags in one Tweet, especially if some of them are irrelevant to your post, is considered “spammy” because it doesn’t add value to the post for existing followers. Refer to the section above that discusses the recommended number of hashtags for each social media platform to be in good standing.

7. Use a hashtag generator

If coming up with hashtags seems overwhelming, there are plenty of tools available to help. These hashtag generators can show you just how effective a specific hashtag is by showing you how many times they’re used in general or how many times they’ve been used in recent posts, as well as the types of discussions and trending topics they’re being used for.

Examples include:

How to find the most popular hashtags

Hashtag generators are a great way to search for the most popular hashtags for social media, as well as using other social media tools that we’ll discuss below. These tools often have features that show the highest trending hashtags in real time.

Another option is to hire an expert in social media to look into other accounts in your industry that emulate your company culture and see what hashtags they’re using. A simple click on a hashtag can show you how many times it’s been used. You can see the content it’s being used for and if the posts are generating engagement.

Some ways to find the most popular hashtags include:

Look at related hashtags on Instagram

There’s no shame in copying other accounts when determining the right hashtags to use for your social media posts. In fact, this can be very beneficial. Search for top Instagram influencers relevant to your field and check out the hashtags they’re using for their posts. If you notice that a lot of these popular accounts are all using the same or similar hashtags, it’s probably a good idea to use them too. Since their audiences are likely ones you want to reach, using the same hashtag(s) can help you put your posts on the radar of those specific followers.

It’s also important to research other hashtags before deciding to post, just in case there happens to be a double meaning. You can use Instagram’s search bar to easily and quickly look up hashtags. Simply type in your main industry hashtag, e.g., #travel, #food, #fashion, etc. You’ll see different hashtags related to that niche, as well as the number of times they’ve been used on Instagram. You’ll then know which hashtags are most popular for your industry and used more often than others, which can help you when deciding which ones to use.

Researching hashtags is not only important in that it’ll help you choose the best ones for your post, but it also helps to make sure you’re using the hashtag in its correct meaning. A hashtag that sounds relevant to your industry might refer to something completely different. You don’t want to run into a situation where you’re using a hashtag that has a negative connotation or could be considered as such. You also don’t want to use a hashtag really specific to another brand so as to not confuse your followers—or theirs.

Use social media tools

There are many social media tools on the market, all focusing on the idea of simplifying and automating the process for users. When creating a social media campaign, every piece of the puzzle should fit into place perfectly—and these are the tools you need to bring the puzzle together.

Tools such as these can help find the best and most popular hashtags to use, allow you to schedule posts, monitor posts and comments, track analytics and create reports, and so much more. Here are a few of the most commonly used social media tools:


Hootsuite is a full-service social media management tool that allows for network integration between Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and YouTube. This tool is meant to be used by social media managers who oversee multiple accounts over multiple platforms.

Hootsuite allows users to create and schedule content across platforms simultaneously, manage various channels, posts, and messages, plan and map out campaigns, and analyze results. What’s more is that on each user’s dashboard, there is a column called “My Industry” that allows you to search for keywords so you can follow the conversations they’re included in. This allows you to engage with people talking about the topic, find leads and potential new customers, and even check in with your competitors.

With over 18 million customers, Hootsuite is one of the global leaders in social media management and is considered by many as one of the top tools to use.


BuzzSumo is a cloud-based app that’s primary goal is to help you create the most effective strategy for your social media content. It allows content specialists to generate ideas for posts based on social engagement data that shows what is or isn’t working on social media. BuzzSumo uses insight and analytics from over 8 billion research articles to create an unsurpassable bank of engagement data for its customers to use.

With BuzzSumo, you can search for content in various ways. You can discover what’s trending within the last 12 months or even as recently as the last 24 hours, compare and contrast different social media networks to see what content (hashtags included) works better on which platform, and explore performance results from various types of content to see what has the most engagement.


Hashtagify started for Twitter but now also includes Instagram. It’s a tool used to search for hashtags, monitor their performance, and identify the top influencers relevant to your brand.

Hashtagify is the ultimate hashtag search engine. It goes into great detail about analytics for hashtags, making it a perfect tool for creating campaigns on these two platforms. Explore all-time statistics or those that are more recent, browse accounts using the hashtag by influence, follower count, and specialization, and even compare hashtags with different case usage, such as #mondaymotivation versus #MondayMotivation.


Brand24 is a monitoring tool that businesses use to track relevant conversations happening across various digital networks, including but not limited to social media, news, blogs, forums, and podcasts. It’s good for online reputation management, as your business can see if the company’s name develops a negative online presence and also allows for easy and understandable tracking of competing businesses.

When it comes to hashtags, Brand24 has a search tool that allows for campaigns to be tracked and analyzed based on which hashtags are used. It can also be used to find top influencers for that particular hashtag or relevant industry and measure their social media reach.


Hashtags are a crucial component of any social media strategy. Don’t make the mistake of not having a plan as you begin stringing together your digital marketing.

Many independent social media professionals on Upwork can help you find the best and most effective use of hashtags in your social media marketing campaigns. Use this comprehensive guide to using hashtags to help get the most out of your social media posts—and lead you to the path to success.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this section. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.

Projects related to this article:
No items found.

Author Spotlight

What Is a Hashtag? Basics and How They Work in Social Media
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

Get This Article as a PDF

For easy printing, reading, and sharing.

Download PDF

Latest articles

X Icon