But let's back up a bit, in case you're unsure what a hashtag is. Designated by a number sign (#), the hashtag is paired with a word or phrase to perform a variety of functions. Twitter users attach hashtags to tweets as search mechanisms, categorizing tools and marketing tactics.
In your small business' case, you may choose to attach a hashtag, such as #smallbiz, or even your brand's name itself, as #nike might do. This improves the chance that other Twitter users will find your tweet in targeted Twitter searches. But hashtags also streamline your own processes. For instance, you may ask users to include a unique hashtag in their own tweets as part of your newest Twitter marketing campaign. Throughout your campaign, the hashtag files tweets for easy search and organization within Twitter.com.
Now that you're familiar with the basic hashtag concept, let's apply principles specific to small businesses. Follow these five tips to improve your brand's hashtag strategy.
1. Seek business-specific conversations. If you use Twitter for nothing else, use it to learn from others. Head to hashtags like #SMB or #smallbiz for advice, resources and current news of the small business variety (also follow along during Twitter chats). Although broad hashtags like these can generate an overwhelming number of tweets every day, tune in every so often for a quick update. A couple of scrolls down the feed could inspire your next blog post, marketing tactic or bestseller.
If you seek a more specific conversation, narrow hashtags down by topic. The #marketing hashtag contains a ton of small business-related content, as does #sales. Or take a peek in the #startups or #entrepreneurs hashtag for inspirational profiles in the space. Finally, if you're looking for tips on meeting like-minded businesspeople, try the #networking hashtag.
2. Keep it simple and consistent. When crafting hashtags for your own tweets, it's important to keep a couple rules of thumb in mind. First, keep your tags simple and direct. In a tweet about your latest blog post, which explains your company's use of finance apps, don't create a long, complex hashtag. Pair the tweet with hashtags like #apps and #SmallBiz, versus #SmallBusinessAppsandTools. Overly complicated hashtags like these are neither search-friendly nor commonly used, so your tweet will get buried quickly.
Secondly, don't weigh your tweets down with excessive hashtags. If your intention is to be thorough, a thoughtful, precise selection of 1-2 hashtags per tweet works. Seven hashtags reads like desperate marketing, and is a sure way to lose followers quickly.
3. Create your own hashtag. Hashtags are a great way to generate buzz around a marketing campaign. Domino's Pizza encouraged followers to tweet with #letsdolunch. Once the number of tweets reached 85,000, Domino's dropped prices by more than half during the hours of 11:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. that day.
Turn to Twitter when launching a contest, another great marketing tactic for your brand. Simply ask people to tweet with a specific hashtag when they submit ideas, jokes or photos. That way, when the entry period is over, you'll be able to easily locate submissions in one place.
Events are great opportunities for creating conversation around hashtags. Award your event a unique hashtag well before the actual date; you'll be able to generate content and discussion about the event before it even begins. (For example, Mashable created the hashtag #MashBash for one of our largest events ever, at CES 2012.) Then during the event, encourage participants to tweet with that hashtag with signage and other hashtagged swag. People in attendance both physically and via the web then will be able to follow interesting activities and discussion.
Finally, get creative. Use hashtags for Twitter chats and invite an industry expert to answer tweeted questions from your brand's followers. Or begin a game on Twitter using hashtags. For instance, ask people to tweet #PastTenseSitcoms, like "Family Mattered." It's a clever way to get people excited to connect with your hip, entertaining brand (we'd be remiss to not mention our own #Mashtags fun here).
4. Organize social dashboards by hashtag. One of the most convenient ways to stay on top of relevant hashtags is to designate easily accessible columns within your social dashboard. Whether you use HootSuite or TweetDeck, you can establish columns by social network, search term, Twitter list or hashtag.
Consider adding a small business-themed hashtag column to check whenever you have a moment. Add further columns as they become relevant, for example, when you launch a hashtag marketing campaign or contest. Then delete the column when the hashtag has run its course.
5. Take advantage of follow friday. In January 2009, Micah Baldwin announced on Twitter that he would suggest people to follow every week from then on. The Follow Friday trend soon took off with the hashtag #FollowFriday, but is now more commonly shortened to #FF.
You can craft a #FF of your own tweet in one of two ways. Create a list of people to follow and squeeze as many Twitter handles as you can into one tweet, with the hashtag #FF, of course. Make sure this list has a theme: are these the best foodies to follow? Political analysts? Activists? Comedians? Narrow down the type of people you're suggesting and indicate that in the tweet.
Some people choose to support only one or two people per #FF tweet, which is a more personal approach. You may consider crafting a tweet for a single person if you wish to compliment or communicate with that person, be it a journalist, executive or potential business partner.