How To Use Hashtags Right When Marketing To College Students

Hashtags are one of the most effective ways to boost your message and encourage engagement — if you do them right.

College students have a keen eye for social media awkwardness, whether it’s an inauthentic voice or a misuse of a platform. It’s important to understand how to use hashtags organically.

A hashtag marks your social media post with a searchable keyword or phrase. For example, a post about Spring Break could be tagged #SpringBreak. Hashtags are common on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Hashtags aren’t native to Facebook, so they’re less ingrained into Facebook user interaction. Hashtags do drive engagement on Instagram and Twitter, however, two platforms that are popular with college students.

Know which hashtag to use

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dream scenario 🍭 . #oldnavystyle

A post shared by oldnavy (@oldnavy) on

“Hashtags are meant to introduce your brand to a relative audience and get your content in front of new eyes. So when using a hashtag, think about the type of audience that would search that hashtag,” says Zellie Friedman, social media manager at Power Digital Marketing. “Are they valuable to your brand? If not, skip on the hashtag.”

Check out how your audience uses hashtags and evaluate which are the most popular. Then, study what other brands are doing.

“A great way to get ideas here is to see how your competitors use hashtags,” says Bilal Kaiser, founder and principal at Agency Guacamole and social media marketing instructor at UCLA Extension.

The most common hashtags celebrate a holiday or event (#SpringBreak, #MerryChristmas), spread a game or meme (#WhoAreYouIn4Words, #ThursdayThoughts), or focus on the news (#Election2016, #RIPPrince). But how do you find or create the right hashtag?

“A pro tip that I find vastly underutilized is checking out a hashtag’s relative popularity on hashtagify.me before affording it that valuable character space in your tweet or gram,” says says Jason Myers, senior account executive for The Content Factory. “This service is free and will give you a popularity rating on a scale of 1-100 as well as offer a lot of similar hashtags to consider including their relative popularity.”

It’s good for brands to use more than one type of hashtag, according to Kaiser.

“On Instagram, for example, my first recommendation is to mix hashtags specific to your product or brand like #redlipstick, #springbreakswimwear, but also broader ones that potential customers may find relevant like #makeuptips or #springbreak,” says Kaiser.

Kaiser also recommends using an original hashtag that is specific to your brand.”For example, if you’re running a fast food joint, could #frenchfrywisdom be an ongoing theme through which you share funny quotes/memes weekly?” Kaiser says.

This post by Old Navy mixes a variety of hashtag types: #oldnavystyle is unique and brand-related, while #styleinspo is one that everyone uses when talking about their fashion goals.

Realize that one size doesn’t fit all

Treating each platform the same shows a college-age audience you don’t understand social media, which communicates that you don’t understand them.

“The number one mistake most brands make is using a copy/paste approach to their social posts across all channels without regard for the fact that each network rewards or punishes hashtag use differently,” says Myers.

Twitter is text-based and hashtags are primarily a way to follow a particular topic or join in a conversation. For example, if someone wants to find out what people were saying about an episode of “The Flash,” or join in the conversation, they would search and use the hashtag #TheFlash.

A good example of a brand joining in an existing conversation is this post by Dunkin’ Donuts. When #NationalDonutDay was trending, Dunkin’ Donuts was a natural fit. It was authentic and simple. Dunkin’ didn’t try to cram in a promotional hashtag or turn a light-hearted celebration into a desperate plea for more social media attention.

Instagram, on the other hand, is a visual medium and hashtags are a way to navigate images or ensure that others can find yours. A dog lover might search #puglife for adorable photos of pugs or use the hashtag on photos of her own pet so others can find it.

Sephora knows how to make its brand fit in on Instagram, mixing a heavily searched hashtag. #NationalPuppyDay, with a branded hashtag, #DogsofSephora, for some puppy love while also tagging the dog on Instagram.

Don’t overcrowd your post

On any platform, it’s critical that your message is clear. Too many hashtags or wedging them into a post mid-sentence can confuse your audience and make your brand look out of touch.

“Don’t use hashtags in the copy of your post. Add it at the end of your copy,” says Mandana Budare, co-founder of Instaboost. “This keeps the focus on the caption of the message you’re trying to get across rather than distracting them to reading all the hashtags.”

On Twitter, this means one to three (relevant) hashtags at the end of a post to stay readable within the 140-character limit. For example, Netflix tagged this post #VampireDiaries at the end of the rather than trying to fit it into the sentence. Instagram’s format is more hashtag-friendly, and it’s typical to see posts with up to 30 of them. But Budare recommends putting only a couple hashtags at the end of the post and then putting the rest in the first comment, like in this post by GoPro.

Be authentic

It’s never good to appear like you’re trying to mimic your audience’s voice or jump on a bandwagon your brand doesn’t entirely understand.

For example, while college students will frequently use hashtags jokingly or ironically, such as #everythingistheworst, it’s rarely authentic for a brand to do so. Being straightforward is the surest way to avoid looking like you’re trying to be cool.

Domino’s tried to mimic the kinds of jokes college kids were making about brands trying to sound cool online by using slang and hashtags with ironic detachment. It didn’t go over well. Twitter users replied to the tweet saying the brand was “trying too hard” and asking Domino’s to “please stop.”

If everyone is talking about the new “Star Wars” movie, it might not be a good fit for a student loan company to offer cheesy puns about space. However, that may sound natural coming from a streaming video service or a fashion brand with a pop culture T-shirt line.

When jumping on a popular hashtag, understand the context of why the topic is trending and who is talking about it. Otherwise, your brand could end up unknowingly using a national tragedy to promote its goods, like Celeb Boutique did when it used #Aurora to promote one of its dresses by the same name after a shooting in Aurora, Colorado. The brand deleted the tweet, but not before multiple news outlets, like NBC News, picked it up.

Whatever you do with hashtags, it has to be customer-centered.

“Think of your customer’s journey and what type of social media content he/she might encounter on the way to you,” says Kaiser. “Whether it’s category based or specific to a product or purpose, be sure to use those hashtags in most of your posts.”

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