Hashtags are all the rage. Most all social networks now recognize them and encourage users to employ them or follow them, but do they impact engagement? 

According to a recent survey by RadiumOne, 43% of respondents think hashtags are useful and 34% use them to search/follow categories and brands of personal interest.

The Utility of Hashtags

The survey sought to evaluate how consumers perceive, value and use hashtags so that advertisers may better strategize and plan for future mobile campaigns. Overall, 57.9% use hashtags and 70.5% use them on mobile. Furthermore, 58 percent say they use hashtags on a regular basis, with 41% of respondents noting use hashtags to communicate personal ideas and feelings.

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Hashtags, on one hand, are a good way to gauge follower sentiments. It’s not hard to guess a users’s state of mind when they use common hashtags like #SMH #FML, #FTW #Fail. Of course, hashtags also provide context -- we use them to indicate relevant topics associated with our articles or online conversations (like today’s #SocBizChat).

Users also use hashtags to find brands and products, identify trends and influence audience behavior. While it used to be that hashtags were rather organic, brands and advertisers have begun creating campaigns that include hashtags as a means to engage communities around a topic.

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Television shows and award ceremonies to products and sports tournaments (like the Super Bowl) are all getting in on the hashtag action. While they may be seeing some increased engagement around their tags, providing incentives could help further that interaction. The majority of hashtag users indicated that they would explore new content and share product information via hashtags if advertisers awarded discounts.

#HashtagFail

These survey results seem to contradict what a New York Time social media editor says about hashtags. Daniel Victor recently wrote about how hashtags can be harmful. Victor writes:

When the goal is to increase your audience, the hashtag’s effectiveness depends entirely on how many people are searching for it, a number to which we have no access."

He’s not wrong. Hashtags are used to identify trends or topics, but when was the last time you actively searched for tweets around a certain hashtag? Maybe for a conference or event, but not on a regular basis. Victor isn't against hashtags altogether. He admits they have some utility. He writes,

They’re great for gathering small groups of people; at a conference, there’s no better way to connect with other attendees and read brief summaries of sessions. When kept to a small scale, they can ably perform their service as a filter of relevant tweets."

The fact that the RadiumOne survey shows that more than half find hashtags useful is not something to ignore, but like anything within the constantly changing dynamic that is social media, hashtags aren't the holy grail of engagement, either. Following Victor's advice as well as the old adage, hashtags tend to work better when they are used in moderation and are thoughtfully employed.