Hashtags have changed the way we build online interactions. Giving an amazing ability to funnel online conversations and turn them into a powerful brand asset, hashtags can inspire many marketing tactics you wouldn't have come up otherwise. There are countless examples of brands utilizing hashtags in so many creative ways.

Here are the three most powerful ways businesses are using hashtags to empower their digital marketing strategy:

Customer Support

There's one misunderstanding about the whole social media customer support thing: They say if you are there replying to your customers on Twitter and Facebook, that breeds more negativity from social media "trolls" (i.e. people who are there only to spread negativity).

The truth is, whether you are there or not, your customers are already discussing you on social media. In fact, if you are not monitoring social media for your brand name mentions, you are way behind. Back in 2012, Nielsen found that 33% of customers preferred to contact brands using social media rather than the telephone. Imagine how many customers you have lost since then.

In fact, offering social media customer support is easier than you may imagine. No need to be there 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. @AppleSupport, for example, specify when they are available to talk:

Screenshot: @AppleSupport Twitter page

And using tools like Social Studio and Cyfe, you can monitor your brand mentions and archive them to address when your team is available to respond.

Screenshot: Cyfe

It does take a daily commitment but not more than responding to emails and phone calls.

Twitter can help you with many customer support tasks, from helping you understand your customer better (by talking directly to them in real time) to giving you powerful competitor advantage (because your competitors may still be out of social media support game):

Image source: Itransition CRM page

Employee Advocacy

Another widespread mistake many businesses make is to ban their employees from using social media. Yet, your employees can be your most vocal and efficient social media ambassadors helping your company on many levels.

According to Altimeter & LinkedIn Relationship Economics 2014, employees of socially engaged companies are 57% more likely to align social media engagement to more sales leads and 20% more likely to stay at their company. That said, by setting up a good employee advocacy program you can achieve a few important goals:

  • Improve company morale (building employee loyalty and engagement)

  • Increase traffic and conversions (bringing traffic from employees' social media shares)

  • Protect your brand online reputation (by ensuring there are many voices online vouching for it).

Zappos is an awesome example of employee advocacy working well. They started with the hashtag-driven Twitter chat back in 2008 encouraging employees to share their company insights using #insidezappos hashtag weekly. These days they are using Instagram to give their team a place to share company trips and events using #zapposculture hashtag:

Screenshot: #zapposculture Instagram results

Trends Monitoring

Keeping up with the latest social media news is crucial for many of us, from business owners and impromptu marketers to those simply surfing for important news and updates from around the world, and that requires coming up with a solid plan in order to get the most out of every minute that we spend learning.

Thankfully - and unsurprisingly - social media itself is the best tool for finding social media news, especially for business owners looking to stay in the loop as far as the latest trends are concerned.

  • #twitternews: For news specific to the Twitterverse, the #twitternews hashtag is a simple way to access news on the goings-on of the world's most popular microblogging platform. For business owners looking to stay up on the latest tips and tricks that will help them to share details of their stories and market their completed works, there is no easier way to stay familiar with Twitter's ever-evolving nature.

  • #socialmedianews: While not exceptionally busy, this hashtag's usefulness is obvious, being used by social media users most often when they're serving up a tidbit from the news world, or linking to more in-depth articles about social media news online.

  • #socialmedia: The most common hashtag used to highlight conversations surrounding social media on Twitter, #socialmedia is a quick and easy way to throw yourself directly into the thick of things where general social media news is concerned. The one downside to this hashtag is how often it is used; while its popularity makes for lots of information, it can prove difficult to sort through at times, especially if you're looking for something in particular.

Is your company taking advantage of hashtags? Please share your tips and ideas!

Ann Smarty is the Brand and Community manager at InternetMarketingNinjas.com as well as the founder of MyBlogU.com. Ann has been into Internet Marketing for 7 years, she is the former Editor-in-Chief of Search Engine Journal and contributor to prominent search and social blogs including Small Biz Trends and Mashable. Connect with Ann on Twitter: seosmarty