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Hashtags: What you need to know

Hashtags might have begun life as easily referenced Twitter subjects, but they do more than merely function as the punchline of a Jimmy Fallon video. They have evolved into a unique communication platform that can serve as the connective tissue between social media channels—and demographics. They can instantly contextualize, categorize and connect your social media posts to your customer base as well as tap into a larger conversation.

Hashtags can create compelling conversation points that invite participation and focus dialog around your messaging. They can also serve the dual role of connecting your posts to a larger online community, while also inviting that same group in to see how your post relates to their interests. A good example might be a post about your restaurant’s patronage of a local farmers’ market with a geo-specific tag such as #NYCLocavore—relating to the subject and furthering the conversation.

This year’s Super Bowl was the best indication of how ubiquitous hashtag use has become to brands at all levels. Hashtags were used in 58 percent of all commercials, up from 7 percent just two years ago, while the use of URLs, Facebook or Twitter tags had all declined significantly. Hashtags are a one-stop solution to referencing your message across all platforms simultaneously.

Hashtags are now recognized by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Youtube and Vine. The importance of horizontal messaging is now more important than ever. Demographics for all of these platforms can vary dramatically–Twitter use is exploding with the over-50 crowd, while Vine dominates with everyone under the age of 25. Hashtags provide a way to create connections between groups—with your restaurant being the center of the conversation. Engagement and viral reach can be multiplied exponentially.

Of course, as with any of these platforms and social marketing tools there is just a big a potential for misuse and self-defeating excess. Incorrectly executed hashtags can just as easily marginalize your message, or even make it the subject of ridicule.

#Do’s and #Don’ts
1. Be organic. Create tags that relate to your message seamlessly and intuitively. Readability counts, so keep it brief, memorable and easy to spell. Alliteration is your friend; clunky locutions are not. Think #PerfectPizzaPairings vs. #BestWinesWithPizza.

2. Originality counts. Strive to come up with tags that are specific to your restaurant and content. #DeliciousPizza or #GreatSteak don’t really drive the conversation, either practically or conceptually, but #FreshBurrattaPizza or #DryAgedSirloin do. #SalsPizza isn’t going to do it; #SalsPizzaOn3rd should. Always check first, just to make sure.

3. Double check. Take a second look to make sure that the hashtag you’re using can’t be misinterpreted or turned against you. Recently McDonald’s used #McDStories to elicit happy anecdotes from satisfied customers. As you may have guessed, what they actually got was an easily referenced online collection of burger-related horror stories.

4. Be specific. One of the biggest crimes in the hashtag universe is the use of generic terms, or, even worse, hashtagging every word in a sentence. Hashtags such as #Food, #Burger, #Delicious become meaningless noise and more than anything else portray you as just slightly desperate for attention. Hashtags augment and amplify, connect and compliment. They do not compensate for lazy messaging. Be creative and precise.

5. Use capitals. You can quickly see why British singer Susan Boyle regrets not using caps in her now-infamous “#susanalbumparty” twitter post. There is very little upside for saving the extra seconds by not using capitals in your tags, while ignoring them can have a potentially huge downside. (Or, in this case, underside.)

6. Be succinct. Do not add more than a few hashtags to any post. Tweets with three or less tags are twice as likely to be acted upon (favorited, answered, retweeted). It is almost never a good idea to hashtag more than two or three words together. And it’s definitely a bad idea to hashtag an entire sentence unless you actually are Jimmy Fallon. While we all dream of creating the immediately adopted, ubiquitous meme, it is much more important to convey your message effectively. Save all that creativity for your personal posts.

7. Be accessible. It’s important, especially when writing about food, that you establish a common-sense baseline for exactly how esoteric your cooking references will be. You want people to follow the conversation, not Google it. #PorkStuffedCabbage: yes #PetitsFarci: no.

8. Use tools. Online aggregation services—Tag Board and Rebel Mouse are two of the best—will collect and collate your hashtags. This is especially useful if you are running a promo using a hashtag as a reference point. Let’s say you invite patrons to post photos of their favorite dessert at your restaurant including a specific hashtag and offer a prize for the post with the most interactions. You can then compile all the entries into one handy page. Tagboard is also very useful for checking for preexisting hashtags across all platforms. Another great tool is Rite Tag, which actually checks your hashtag to see how original it is and the statistical chances of it being discovered via hashtag search.

9. Remember to be creative, succinct and consistent. Hashtags can consolidate your messaging across platforms and help you reach and engage a much broader audience. Not using them, or using them ineffectively, will deprive you of an increasingly vital communications tool.

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