All hail the beloved hashtag! These days, they’re everywhere – slapped on the end of TV ads, plastered all over events and punted with merciless fervour by anyone with a passing involvement in marketing. But does anyone really understand what they’re for?

Hashtags are a #TrendingTopic at the moment, and while many marketers seem to feel that any public correspondence that isn’t immediately followed by a slew of word jams is somehow incomplete, few actually understand the purpose of this tool, and end up looking somewhat moronic as a result.

An excellent example of this discouraging approach to the art of hashtaggery was recently discovered outside a fairly unspeakable looking bar/pub/general revelry venue in Jeffrey’s Bay. The venue (which will remain unnamed for fear of retribution) offers little in the way of appeal, despite the inexplicable hashtag that adorns its doors – #Its_always_a_good_time. Yes folks, this is a REAL hashtag.

Now whether it IS actually always a good time at Unnamed Jeffrey’s Bay Bar is up for debate (although the chances seem slim given its warning against epileptic patronage). What is most definitely not up for discussion is the fact that nobody (unless in jest) is ever going to use that hashtag without making a hash of it.

Whilst this is clearly an extreme example of hashtag misuse, it is in fact reflective of a widespread misunderstanding of the humble hashtag and its purpose. No, it is not there to be ‘cool’ or to give street cred to your next event. Hashtags are search tools, meant to help users to find posts that interest them on various social networks.

Let’s head back to Jay Bay for a second. Let’s assume I’m looking for a bar (and am not epileptic in the slightest). Now I might choose some hashtags like #JBay or #nightlife to give myself an overview of what the situation was on the ground. What I would not, under any circumstance whatsoever, type into my search bar is #its_always_a_good_time. And that, folks, is why this hashtag is irrelevant. Yes, it’s also stupid, but that’s another story for another day. *

So what is the best approach to using hashtags? Here are a few tips to get you off on the #RightFoot:

1. Use hashtags on the right platforms

Before you get too trigger-happy with your hashtags, remember that not all platforms are created equal. Facebook, for instance, is not the place to go to unleash a torrent of ill-advised hashtags, given the fact that they serve very little functional value. The simple fact of the matter is that, while Facebook has enabled hashtag search functionality, they arrived at the party extremely late, and have done very little to change firmly entrenched user behaviour since. The bottom line is, hashtagging on Facebook will do nothing but make your brand look #awkward, so please, please don’t do it.

2. Think about who you want to find you

To make sure you’re using relevant hashtags, identify users that match your target audience. Pay careful attention to trends or accounts that they’re already following and which hashtags they use the most. This will give you a strong idea of what hashtags you should include in your posts to make sure your most desirable followers can find you.

3. Create hashtags that are easy to remember and are unique to your brand.

Think about the key elements of your brand or campaign. Choose a hashtag that speaks to both your brand and your main message or action that you’d like your customers to take. Try to use your main hashtag in as many of your posts as possible to firmly entrench it in the minds of your customers.

4. Keep it simple

When it comes to hashtags, simplicity is king. Don’t give your customers carpel tunnel by forcing them to type up peculiar words and lengthy phrases (and in the name of all that is good and pure, please don’t use an underscore). Keeping your hashtags short and concise will make ensure they’re far likelier to be used, remembered and embraced.

5. Don’t use too many hashtags

Too many hashtags can be distracting, difficult to read and, in truth, a little annoying. Using 5 -7 hashtags per post is ideal – perhaps 10 if you’ve really earned a following on any given platform. As a rule of thumb: if you’re heading toward the ‘read more’ zone, it’s time to stop. If you feel you need to use more hashtags, add them in a comment beneath your post – they’ll be just as discoverable and less of an eyesore.

6. No hash-jacking

There’s no faster way to lose the interest of your followers than by tagging your posts with irrelevant nonsense. If you’re posting a picture of a cappuccino, do not include #sunset #selfie or #ootd just because you’ve identified these as popular – it’s just not cool folks. Your customers will know that this is a misguided attempt to gain more views and are unlikely to be impressed by it.

*Sad (but not shocking) news update: The Jeffrey’s Bay Bar in question has inexplicably closed down.