Hashtags 101 – A Primer for Nonprofits

In 2013 “Hashtag” was added to the Webster dictionary:

“a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that classifies or categorizes the accompanying text (such as a tweet)”

They’ve been the subject of Saturday Night Live skits, have been used for political revolution (#YesAllWomen, #BlackLivesMatter), and are used to enhance TV ad campaigns.

My 13-year old son uses the term with his friends. Even though he doesn’t know what a hashtag is, he’s heard the term used repeatedly on TV, radio, and the internet. And now in the Webster dictionary.

Yes, hashtags are now mainstream.

Hashtags 101: What is a hashtag?

Hashtags were created by Twitter users in 2007 to make tweets easier to search.

In 2009 Twitter made hashtags hyperlinked, so users can simply click on the hashtag instead of typing it into the Twitter search box.

But hashtags are much more than a simple way to keep tweets shorter than 140 characters. Hashtags are used as shorthand for ideas, news items, and even politics. For example, #FirstWorldProblems, or #BlackLivesMatter.

Hashtags can also be used to express emotion or sarcasm (#WTF, #LOL, etc).

lol hashtag

It’s no wonder that Webster took the term seriously.

How should your nonprofit use hashtags?

Hashtags are being used by nonprofits to achieve a number of goals:

  • Organize people around causes they care about
  • Increase awareness about issues and campaigns
  • Build grassroots campaigns
  • Organize activists and advocates

9 Tips for Better Hashtag Use

A hashtag is not a strategy. Just using them is not enough. Like any tactic, hashtags are only useful when used strategically. Here are a few strategies (with tactics) for using hashtags:

1. Connect with your current supporters

Right now, people who support your nonprofit are using hashtags to talk about your cause. I’m talking about actual donors, volunteers, sponsor, and advocates!

Use a tool like hashtagify.me (below) to discover the top hashtags for your cause.

How many of these people are already in your database? You’d be surprised!

hashtags 101

Make a regular habit of monitoring the top hashtags in your cause, and follow the top users. The top users for each org varies, but have at least one of the following characteristics:

  • They consistently use hashtags related to your cause
  • They mention your cause in their bio
  • They follow nonprofits in your cause space
  • They support your nonprofit

2. Survey the most common hashtags for your cause

Get a lay of the land for how your community uses hashtags.

Which phrases or words are most commonly used in these hashtags? Are they positive or negative? What emotions do they express?

For example, #LookLikeAnEngineer (below) expresses the anger and injustice of gender stereotypes in tech careers.

Top hashtags on twitter

3. Boost social reach with trending hashtags

People interested in conserving wildlife don’t limit their tweets to nature, wildlife, and conservation. They also tweet about trending news items, like #CecilTheLion or #CleanPowerPlan.

Make a habit of monitoring the news for trending topics related your cause.

Ask yourself:

  • Who’s joining these conversations, and how are they connected to our nonprofit?
  • Does our community expect us to be part of these conversations?
  • How can we add value?

4. Track social campaigns with a hashtag

One of the easiest ways to galvanize your community is to invite them to share pictures, videos, etc on social media.

Connect them together with a branded hashtag for your campaign. This adds value by connecting them with others who share their passions, and promotes your nonprofit in a non-obtrusive way.

A branded hashtag also allows you to more easily track mentions of your campaign. Check out Keyhole for hashtag tracking (below).

keyhole hashtag tracking

5. Have a friend review your hashtag

When Britain’s Got Talent star Susan Boyle released her record-breaking album, her agency promoted it with the hashtag #SusanAlbumParty. Seemed harmless at first, until the offensive tweets about her “bum party” started showing up. Needless to say, the campaign was a disaster.

The lesson? Make sure you have a friend with a dirty mind review your hashtag.

6. Don’t use too many hashtags

According to research from Social Bakers, using too many hashtags might actually hurt engagement:


Too many hashtags can make your posts seem spammy, which you DON’T want.

7. Adopt hashtags used by your community

You can’t own a hashtag, so don’t bother creating one you think no one else will use. It’s much better to start with the most common hashtags already used by your community.

For example, Diabetes Hands Foundation regularly uses #diabetes (below).

diabetes hashtag


8. Use hashtags on all social media platforms

Twitter is where hashtags were born, but now hashtags are used on Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Maintain consistency in your hashtag use across all networks. But note any hashtags that are specific to each network (#Retweet, #Regram, etc).

9. Be careful about automating hashtags

Tools like Hootsuite allow you to automatically post content published via RSS, and add a prefix to the post. Adding a hashtag to the prefix seems to make perfect sense (saves time, creates more reach, etc).

But automatically posting hashtags can lead to spamming your community. This can be a turn off for regular users of that hashtag.

What else?


John Haydon