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#History: How The Humble Pound Sign Became the Hashtag

In the twenty aughts, keywords were the king of online marketing. While their use has evolved and changed, the basic principle has remained the same. But as the first decade of the new millennium came to a close, we saw the birth of a new concept in online marketing and the keyword (poised to be the new king of online marketing) with a reach into social media audiences that is unprecedented. That concept, surprisingly enough, is a single character – but one that allows one to build a brand, a community, a catchphrase, and an identity all in one fell swoop thanks to this:

Chris Messina Invents Hashtagging
The birth of the hashtag on social media, courtesy of Chris Messina

The pound sign, now most commonly called the hashtag, was first used by IRC users to categorize content into groups back in the late 80’s. They would put the hashtag in front of a word or phrase with no spaces, which allowed for easy grouping and tracking of conversations on a particular topic or with a particular group. This usage set the groundwork for the modern hashtag, but it would be nearly two decades before they would be revived from the ashes of IRC and acquire their modern usage. This occurred when a Google employee by the name of Chris Messina
suggested using the old IRC hashtag grouping concept on Twitter.

This planted the seeds for what this lowly symbol would become. In 2007, Nate Ritter appended his update Tweets on the San Diego fire with #sandiegofire at the suggestion of Chris Messina, exposing the world to the hashtag concept for the first time. It was used to provide up to date, live information not available through other media outlets, and to literally save lives with vital information on evacuations, meeting points, supply points, and anything else that could help local residents.

nate ritter tweet #sandiegofire
Nate Ritter uses #SanDiegoFire to save lives

It wasn’t long afterwards that Twitter officially adopted the hashtag, incorporating it into its code so that hashtagged terms were automatically hyperlinked to display all posts using that same tag. This instantly created communities and sub-cultures on the platform, as well as a powerful new tool for disseminating, gathering and connecting information on a particular topic. It wasn’t long before hashtags made their way into popular culture, showing up in internet meme’s, celebrity social media posts, TV shows (the most infamous appearance being Jimmy Fallon’s recurring#Hashtag” skit), and more.

Now, hashtags have become ubiquitous across all social media platforms; Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Vine, Tumblr, Pinterest, Google Plus, Flickr . . . the list is always growing. Search engines such as Google are now indexing them and showing them in search results. When you click on a hashtag through one of those platforms, they will bring you to a page that displays all the posts across that platform with that hashtag. You can see what other hashtags people are pairing it with, who’s using it, what it’s being used for, and so much more; in fact on many platforms, they will display trending hashtags, which are the ones seeing the most use at that moment or for a particular time frame.  This allows one to instantly connect with or create a community centered around a particular topic or trend and gain valuable insight into what’s relevant to that community.

While users are always coming up with new ways to put the hashtag to use, they tend to be used for three purposes:

  • Content – These are hashtags used to define something, such as a product (#DesignerUnderwear), place (#Disneyland), event (#4thOfJuly), or lifestyle (#FitFam). These hashtags tend to be the most community oriented.
  • Branding – These are branded hashtags, whether simply the name of a brand (#AndrewChristian) or a branded term or phrase that is part of a marketing campaign (#ACTrophyBoys). This type of hashtag offers some of the most flexibility and opportunity from a marketing stand-point, but also requires the most nuance.
  • Trending – Hashtags of this sort are, as the name says, trending, seeing large scale usage across multiple platforms. They are usually viral phrases or have to do with a current event, such as the #LoveWins hashtag that exploded after the SCOTUS ruling in favor of same-sex marriage last June. These tags are the hardest to predict and control but also have the greatest reach and impact.

We’ve covered what hashtags are, their origins, and the different categories they tend to fall into; but how do you put them into use? Well luckily, we here at Vertical Rail aren’t strangers to the hashtag.  In our next segment, we’ll go over how a savvy marketer can use them to drive brand exposure and conversions!

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