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Ten Years of the Hashtag: How Has it Shaped Digital Marketing?

Twitter may not have invented the hash symbol, but it certainly popularised it with the masses and revolutionised the way we discuss topics online. This week sees the revolutionary social media organisation tool turning 10, following a decade of development and influence in social media marketing. We all know where the hashtag found its strength, but where exactly does it originate and how has it changed digital marketing?

Added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014, the term ‘hashtag’ was defined as an organisational tool ‘originating on, and chiefly associated with, the social networking service Twitter’. Since this addition to the OED the hashtag has grown further than this single social marketing platform and is now widely incorporated by a number of digital platforms and utilised in marketing campaigns both online and offline.

Where did it start?

A long time ago, the # symbol was more commonly referred to as a pound sign, a number sign or an octothorp and was used by humans to interact with machines in a number of different ways.  The # symbol has been present on telephone keypads since the late 1960s, and has also been prominently displayed on computer keyboards and typewriters for decades and used in computing to ‘indicate the presence of an octal constant in a file name or extension’.

The first ‘public’ hashtag appeared in August 2007 on the social media platform Twitter, used by user @MrMessina. The social technology expert proposed the use of the hashtag with the sole purpose of gathering discussions and online exchanges regarding ‘Barcamp’, a technology conference gathering activity that spans worldwide.

According to reports, Evan Williams the founder of Twitter actually shared with Messina that he didn’t think that hashtags would be popular or truly take off because of their technical appearance and approach towards grouping discussions. Messina shared however that these hashtags would help to create inner circles to target users and avoid random visits from individuals who may not be truly interested in a particular issue or topic. It was officially formally adopted into Twitter’s code in July 2009, creating an automatic hyperlink from terms appended with the # sign.


Today, hashtags are a normal and accepted part of Twitter, and are seen by many as being an integral part of how the platform works. Without the hashtag, much of the conversations on Twitter would be lost. In current use, we see hashtags pass by in timelines or discover them via Twitter’s search feature, and engaging in the conversation is merely a few clicks away.

The key turning point in the hashtags history came when brands and businesses realised the potential marketing power of social media. Hashtags allowed users to add context to a tweet, join a wider conversation, and gain a glimpse into the most popular topics from around the world that were ‘trending’. This online space was considered by many as a relatively low cost of promoting a business, and businesses could easily search for conversations about their own brand to develop their customer relationship strategies.

Businesses began to coin hashtags to assign to their products and their marketing campaigns. They began to use generic hashtags in their social media content schedules, and joined in with conversations appearing on the trending topics list.

As this practice grew and grew, the pressure increased to create campaigns that could be summarised in a few short words while still being unique and memorable. This was not without its drawbacks, as first and foremost there is no ownership of a hashtag. There is nothing stopping individuals taking a hashtag and exploiting it in whatever way they chose. Also due to the lack of distinct formatting structure and consistency in capital letters between one user and another, hashtags that seem reasonably harmless upon creation can be read in very different ways once shared.

How is it Used?

Currently there are a number of options on how brands can use hashtags. They can generate and use them within social content organically, with no more cost than the time taken to come up with the creative idea. Alternatively, it is possible to purchase ‘branded hashtags’ on Twitter and target messages directly to individuals who use particular hashtags in their tweets.

These hashtags aren’t reserved for brands, and can even focus on focus on sporting events, award ceremonies and most recently the natural phenomenon of the Solar Eclipse. Branded hashtags can either come as plain text, or can be combined with emoji’s to create an even more powerful brand identifier.

The Future

We’ve already seen so much change surrounding the hashtag in recent years. This conversational tool has helped to shape marketing campaigns, define television interaction and create global communities across a number of platforms. We have seen the hashtag transition across social media websites, moving to Facebook in 2013 and Instagram upon launch after its powerful potential was realised.

But how will this develop in the future? Will the platform eventually develop so brands can completely own a hashtag, and control the conversations that appear in it? Will the hashtag eventually die out of use if audiences begin to doubt its legitimacy?

Where the hashtag will develop in the future is still uncertain – after only a decade we have already seen such a reshaping of the purpose of the hashtag from a conversational tool to a marketing tool and back again that any future changes to the feature could appear seemingly out of nowhere.

The most important thing for brands to remember is that the hashtag still remains an incredibly important tool. It allows you to monitor conversations surrounding your brand online, generate brand awareness and build brand loyalty with customers. No matter where this may develop in the future, it is important to use this to your full advantage in any social media campaigns you create.

At Fantastic Media, we can assist with your social content planning and scheduling across all platforms, to ensure that the right people are seeing your marketing messages and as a result, increase your ROI. Our integrated approach towards marketing means that we consider all channels when proposing any of our campaigns, including the potential of social media. Get in touch with our team today to find out how we can help you.

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