Hashtags are so pervasive these days, Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon spoof them on TV. Companies now integrate hashtags into commercials, window displays and websites. Consumers use hashtags on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter to filter their results and share their #TBTs (or Throwback Thursday photos).

The reason for their popularity? Hashtags allow you to find timely content online in real time. When you search a specific hashtag, you find recent, if not instant, results. These results can be refreshed and updated minute by minute. This is quite different from using keyword terms on a search engine and finding an article that could be several years old.

Also, for companies and their owners, hashtags allow you to track what’s being said about your industry and your business.

While their functionality is pretty straightforward, hashtags can be leveraged in ways beyond doing a simple search.

Want to be sure that you’re using hashtags effectively for your business or startup? Try one, or all, of these three tips:

Related: The Hashtag: The Search Bar for the Social Web (Infographic)

1. Virtually attend and participate in industry events.

Need to attend an industry event to connect with consumers or experts in your field but don't have the budget let alone time to attend in person? Virtually participate by using the conference’s hashtag.

You'll be able to follow along in the comfort of your own home office, with no airfare or conference fees needed.

And you don't have to wait till the day of the event to get started. Typically, conference and event planners share their specific hashtags well in advance to help attendees connect and network beforehand. By using the conference hashtag, you can keep current on industry trends while connecting with the speakers, too.

Start by searching the conference's hashtag results on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook on the days leading up to the event. This will help you determine who is speaking, when. Then, on the day of the event, tune into the conference livestream, decide which platform you'll engage the most on and introduce yourself! Be sure to include the hashtag in your tweets and posts so your comments will show up in the search results.

As a best practice, set a goal. Are you participating to expand your network or connect with strategic alliances? Tweet three attendees. Looking to keep current on industry trends? Read conference recaps and blog posts from the media in attendance.

Last, search the hashtag stream that day to see what topics are being discussed, what attendees have to say. You can retweet comments. You can favorite tweets and share your own thoughts, too.

Related: 5 Ways to Harness Hashtags to Drive Business Value

2. Use hashtags to establish further credibility.

Want to boost your online presence, credibility and visibility? First, participate in a few Twitter chats. You’ll be able to share your expertise while also observing how the hashtag can be used for engagement and tracking online impressions.

Twitter chats, typically an hour in length, hone in on a specific topic and often have a Q and A format. The moderator and participants are able to reply to one another -- and the questions at hand -- by including the chat's designated hashtag in their tweets. This allows for conversations to be organized. You will be able to search and filter results versus having to scroll through your followers tweets (without any guarantee that the content you are looking for, and trying to respond to, can be quickly found).

Then, after you’ve had some practice, host your own Twitter chat using a custom hashtag that you've create. This will give you further credibility, promote awareness of your company's brand and provide you the opportunity to connect directly with consumers and influencers.

Related: What You Need to Know About Using Hashtags on Twitter

3. Geotarget hashtags to reach the right audience.

Ready to engage with customers in your city? In lieu of advertising or using broad hashtags (that reach consumers worldwide), drill down and use hashtags that geotarget users in a specific cmomunity. Search your city’s hashtag then "like," comment and participate in relevant conversations to let consumers know you exist. Make sure to hashtag your own content with your location, too.

As an example, if you own Bob's Pizza shop in Los Angeles, make sure to add #LA or #LosAngeles to your Twitter, Instagram and Facebook posts.

As is often the case with social media, there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all approach.” If you have a hashtag strategy that hasn’t been mentioned here, post it below! As the saying goes (which is now a hashtag): #SharingIsCaring.

Related: 3 Ways to Master the Hashtag