Many (most?) people are confounded by the differences between # and @ tags; and as a result, they tend to use them interchangeably. Doing so, however, can undermine the goals one is trying to achieve by incorporating tags into their social media communications. This article clarifies the differences and offers guidance on how they work on various social media platforms
Years ago I created tips for using Twitter hashtags, which complemented a broader set of best practices guidance for using Twitter. The fact that these are our most popular SMART Articles illustrates the ongoing challenges people face in using social media effectively.
Although hashtags originated on Twitter, they have spread to various other social media channels as well. And they aren't the only way to tag someone or something. Although it doesn't have an official name, there is also the @ tag, which serves a different purpose.
Based on some recent work with clients, I realized that many (most?) people are confounded by the differences between # and @ tags; and as a result, they tend to use them interchangeably. Doing so, however, can undermine the goals one is trying to achieve by incorporating tags into their social media communications.
Let me try to clarify the differences and offer guidance on how to use # and @ tags...
First, let's frame social media updates and comments in the context of interpersonal communication. With that in mind, the best way to think of the difference between these two tags is that using the @ refers to a person/group in a conversation, and the # refers to a topic of conversation. Using the # tag generally indicates that you want to participate in a larger, ongoing conversation - for example, a conference (#SHRM15) or a popular subject (#socialmedia). Using the @ tag signifies to someone that you're talking about them, giving them a head's up about something, and/or would like them to respond.
To bring it down to earth... If you're at an event and you hear someone using your name or they call out to you, that's equivalent to using an @ tag. If you join a conversation about a subject you're interested in and welcome other people to join you by speaking loudly enough for them to overhear, that's equivalent to using an # tag.
In some cases you may use both @ and # tags to reference the same thing. For example, a tweet with @potus and #potus indicates you're both talking about the President of the United States and alerting him (or whoever runs that Twitter account) about your comment. Most of the time, however, it's better to use one or the other for a specific reference, as described above.
Nuances in Using Tags in Social Media
Like many things with social media, the use of # and @ tags is not universal across platforms or with different social media management tools. To add even more complexity, they also don't work the same across different devices (e.g., desktop vs. mobile apps). Here are some nuances to keep in mind for some of the most frequently used channels and tools, based on my experience with each of them.
- You can use both @ and # tags in original tweets, replies, and comments for retweets.
- A list of accounts will populate when you use the @ tag, and popular hashtags will populate when you use the # tag. When the account or topic you want to use appears, select it from the drop-down list.
- You can @ tag individuals and organizations in both individual updates and page updates, as well as in comments on each. A list of accounts will populate when you use the @ tag. When the account you want to use appears, select it from the drop-down list.
- # tags work in both updates and comments; however, there is no drop-down from which to select a topic. You will have to know the exact hashtags you want to use in advance.
- You can add both @ and # tags when you're creating a scheduled post for a page.
- You can @ tag individuals and organizations in both shares and comments. A list of accounts you follow will populate when you use the @ tag. When the account you want to use appears, select it from the drop-down list. If you don't yet follow an account you want to tag, you will either need to follow it first or look up the precise user name before tagging them.
- # tags work in both shares and comments; however, the drop-down functionality seems to vary by mobile device. If you're using a hashtag for the first time, you may have to look it up in advance to find the right one. Once you have used a hashtag, it should autopopulate for future use.
- If you want to tag an individual or organization in Google+, you can use either the @ symbol or the + symbol. A list of options will start to populate after you start typing.
- You can @ or + tag individuals and organizations in both individual updates and page updates, as well as comments.
- # tags work in both updates and comments. A list of options will populate after you start typing.
- You can use the @ tag in an individual status update to tag both individuals and organizations. A list of options will start to populate after you start typing, but it's not particularly reliable. Often the individual/organization you're trying to tag doesn't show up right away, and it may take multiple attempts to get the drop-down list to include them. Many people give up before that of course, which makes @ tagging relatively ineffective on this platform.
- You can also use the @ tag when commenting on someone else's status update.
- @ tags don't work in company page updates, group posts, or group comments.
- # tags aren't functional in LinkedIn and should not be used unless the intent is add an aside to a comment (e.g., #focused or #todolist)
- You can @ tag other Pinners in both pins and comments. Although a drop-down of options appears when you start typing after the @, it is not necessarily complete, which limits the effectiveness of @ tagging.
- You can add # tags to both pins and comments, but they're generally not very useful primarily due to platform limitations. If you choose to add hashtags to a pin, you have to know the exact terms you want to use in advance as there are no drop-down options to choose from.
- Twitter: You can incorporate both @ and # in tweets you create via Hootsuite, including those you're scheduling in advance. When you use the @, a list of accounts you've previously @ tagged will auto-populate in a drop-down list. If you haven't tagged an account before, you will have to know their exact handle beforehand. You will also have to know precise # tags in advance, as options are never listed for them.
- Facebook: You cannot @ tag an individual or page or # tag a topic when creating Facebook updates via Hootsuite. Once an item is published, however, it's easy enough to edit it via Facebook to add both.
This list of nuances is far from complete, and I'm sure it's quite confusing for social media rookies in particular. My general advice for tagging is "when in doubt leave it out." If you believe tags are critical to your social media engagement, however, be sure you know how to use them correctly on every platform.
For additional information on how # tags in particular work on various social media channels, click here.
As always, I welcome your feedback. What questions has this piece raised for you? What would you add to, change, or delete from the information provided about how @ tags and # tags work and should be used?