Hashtags are everywhere. You can see them on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, at events, or even on commercials and movie trailers. It’s not a surprise that one of the questions I hear all the time, when presenting social media seminars, is, “What is a hashtag and why is it important for my business?”

To understand why hashtags are important, you have to go back a few years.

In 2007, Twitter users began using the # sign in front of words or phrases to create groups within Twitter. Then in 2009, Twitter took a cue from their users and began hyperlinking all hashtags in tweets. Now, in 2014, all major social networks (excluding LinkedIn) hyperlink hashtags because the adoption rate has been huge!

But what does hyperlinking have to do with the importance of hashtags?

When someone clicks on a hashtag on any of these social networks, they’ll automatically be shown all other public posts that include the same hashtag. This is incredibly valuable for a small business because it can expose your content to a wider audience, and help your business get found. If someone does a search on a social network, or Google, for a hashtag you used, your post — and potentially even your profile — can be found by someone you never would have reached without hashtags. This happens all the time. Hashtags are widely used to search for content within social networks and search engines, which means hashtags give you a great opportunity to get your information in front of potential customers without paying a dime!

Let’s take Constant Contact as an example.

We know that our customers and potential customers are small business owners and nonprofits who are interested in email marketing. That’s why we make sure, if they search a social network or Google for #EmailMarketing, they will more than likely stumble upon our content:

When they find our post they may open the link, they may watch the video or just check out our profile; either way, it allows us to get our name and information in front of a potential new customer.

How should I use hashtags?

Use hashtags on all social networks you have a presence on, but don’t go overboard! Too many hashtags can hurt your engagement and can get you unfollowed. In fact, when you use more than two hashtags, your engagement actually drops by an average of 17 percent. You’ll start noticing funny hashtags, people using lots of hashtags, and even #FullSentencesTurnedIntoAHashtag. But if you’re using hashtags to help your business, it’s best to hashtag the keywords that are related to your business and industry.

How do I start doing it today?

Write your social posts the way you always have, but make one or two keywords into a hashtag. You can do this by including a # in front of the word(s). If you do want to make a phrase into a hashtag (like email marketing), make sure you do not include a space, as shown in the example above. Do not put a space or symbol in your phrase or you will break the hyperlink. When I’m presenting at seminars I always remind the audience that social media is always an experiment. So if you’ve been confused by hashtags in the past, don’t be afraid to give them a try. Include one or two hashtags in your next social post and see if you get noticed. My bet is you will. Want more advice on how to get your business found online? Join us for our webinar on September 30th for simple strategies for using SEO, online listings, and social visibility to attract new customers. Register now