If you’re a Twitter novice or a Facebook first-timer, wading out into the world of #hashtags can seem—like everything else social media—a bit overwhelming. Other than “the good ol’ days” when compulsive pound-sign pressing led you straight to a call-center’s actual customer service rep, when did a “hashtag” serve any real-world purpose?

Sure, they get their fair share of flack, but in our era of digital communication, they’re the backbone of most conversations. They even landed their own Oxford Dictionary callout (‘cause YOLO, amirite?) back in 2010 (Scrabble was quick to follow suit). Love it or hate it, hashtags make topics traceable, amplify any online heart-to-hearts, and act as markers for mainlining relevant subjects that matter. Plus, they’re about as enjoyable as they are essential.

That said, it’s important to understand how they work, especially if you’re launching your company’s initial online presence. Some dub it hashtag etiquette—we’ll just call it best practices. Keep reading, and we’ll cover the #basics.

While earlier we specifically namedropped Twitter and Facebook, most major social media platforms support them – even LinkedIn has finally joined the party.

WHO USES THEM:

Twitter: The origin of the hashtag and, unsurprisingly so, the easiest place to use them. For the most part, hashtags are employed to highlight specific convo topics. Be sure to keep an eye on the “Trends” sidebar of your feed as well, as the platform curates a list of hashtagged topics, relevant according to your own tweets. To search hashtags on Twitter, use the top search bar for most recent, popular posts (including those from folks you don’t follow).

Facebook: Since jumping on the hashtag bandwagon back in 2013, the practice has been growing in popularity. Clicking on hashtags in Facebook is not limited to “Friends” or people you know, and will display a list of posts using the same.

Instagram: Here the hashtag reigns. Often used to complement shared photos, the hashtag helps highlight new accounts and/or garner new followers.

Vine: Similar to Instagram, hashtagging videos helps catch the attention of interested users, reach potential customers and locate industry-specific users to follow.

Google+: Hashtag usage instigates a search that will display the original hashtag, as well as posts with similar tags and keywords. Additionally, Google offers users the option to search within Facebook or Twitter.

Pinterest: Used for marking, and searching for content. Clicking on a hashtag in a pin description draws up results with the same hashtag, as well as pins with the same word or phrase in the description.

Tumblr: Posts contain a “Tag” section where users can enter tags. Tags function like hashtags on Twitter, and the “#” symbol is inserted automatically. Keep in mind, hashtags used in the main body of a post are not transformed into links.

WHAT TO DO WITH HASHTAGS:

Be specific.

Think of hashtags as both the dream microphone and the ideal earpiece. You can tailor your hashtag to beam in on a specific community talking about a specific interest. The more specific your hashtag, the more specific your audience. The more specific your audience, the higher likelihood that you’ll have folks actually engaging with your brand. And if you’re looking to join in on a conversation, avoid vague or generic hashtags.

Be intentional.

All hashtags cater to the same fundamental purpose across all social platforms. However, their use still varies network by network. On Twitter, hashtags tend to tune in on more focused topics or conversations (or highlight a theme to engage with). Instagram, on the other hand, employs hashtags that describe the image or the elements of that photo over a broader topic. It’s a good idea to do some preliminary research to find out how hashtags are used across all platforms you plan on utilizing.

Be relevant.

Tweeting for business? What are other brands in your field of expertise hashtagging? The beauty of social media is that everything everyone is up to is right out in the open. An authentic curiosity kills any competition. Check out what seems to be working for those attempting to say (or sell) the same things.

Be on-trend.

See what hashtags are trending, and jump in. If it’s popular and already circulating, a specific hashtag can kick up some additional publicity by bringing fresh eyes to your company’s page. (That said, keep it on par with your brand’s voice and vision. Including any which hashtag—no matter how it is—with no real link to your company will just look desperate or amateur.

WHAT NOT TO DO WITH HASHTAGS:

Be too clever.

Social media seemingly dares you to step up your cleverness game. We agree—to an extent. It’s important to have fun and try new things when feeling out your voice or building up your digital presence. But with hashtags, less is more. If you’re creating a branded hashtag, keep it short and sweet. The cleverer you get, the more complicated (and likely irrelevant) your hashtag becomes.

Be too complicated.

While this does vary across networks, it’s fairly faux pas to bombard your post with more hashtags than actual words (we’re looking at you, Instagram fanatics). Sure, peppering every post with 100 hashtags does seem to garner more likes or increase reach. However, those following you back often aren’t the right kind of fans, and are spammers or those only fishing for follow-backs.

Be too broad.

Hashtags are an ideal way to feed content to a wider audience. That said, not everything you create or curate is going to fit under whatever umbrella your hashtag offers. If your post, tweet or comment doesn’t add substance to a larger conversation going on, it’s total okay to skip the hashtag. After all, you want to share solid content, but also leave your audience the right impression.

For more social media how-tos, tips on branding and design, and agile management insights, keep reading. We’re covering it all here.