Though the hashtag has been around almost as long as Twitter itself, many people still do not understand what it is – or more importantly, how to use it appropriately. This post offers six tips to enable Tweeters to not only avoid looking like a Twitter rube, but to maximize the value of hashtagging for both themselves and others. Additional tips are welcome.
Even though they're ubiquitous, not everyone knows what a Twitter hashtag is or does. You can get a detailed explanation from this Wikipedia entry and/or Twitter’s help center, but it is basically a convention for aggregating tweets from disparate, unconnected Tweeters into a single stream. Hashtags can also be used to automatically repost tweets to other platforms like LinkedIn (i.e., #li or #in) and Facebook (i.e., #fb), but that’s not a best practice, and I generally recommend against it (see related resources below for a post that explains why).
Although hashtags were used previously in other applications (e.g., internet relay chats), Chris Messina is generally attributed with proposing the idea of the Twitter hashtag. The convention was popularized by Nate Ritter in 2007, when he appended #sandiegofire to his tweets, and it became even more widespread during the 2009-10 Iranian election protests. Over time usage of the hashtag has evolved, as described (somewhat snarkily) in this New Yorker piece. The convention has also spread to other platforms – sometimes with the intent of connecting posts (e.g., in Google+), and sometimes to just highlight a common theme or cultural meme (e.g., #justsayin used in Facebook or email). Click here to read more history and background.
The easiest way to find a hashtag thread is via the search feature on Twitter. Click on #Discover on the top bar of any Twitter page and enter the hashtag you're interested in. You can also search on keywords, which is important to know because it means you don't always need a hashtag to find tweets on a topic of interest. More on that below.
There are several ways to identify the hashtags people commonly use:
- A glossary site like tagdef.com
- A hashtag tracking site like hashtags.org
- Industry/profession specific directories like this one for school district management
It’s important to remember, however, as evidenced by this recent post in GovLoop, that – except for popular and trending topics – there are still few standards or widely-used conventions for hashtags. It’s hard to say whether or how they’ll evolve, but in the meantime we call all make more effective use of them.
In this post I share six recommendations based on the most common mistakes I see people make when trying to use hashtags (and yes, I have made some of these mistakes myself!). As always, I welcome your comments and questions – and especially additional tips and suggestions. Together, we can define a workable set of best practices...
- Courtney Shelton Hunt
Six Best Practice Tips
For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the original intent of hashtags – and more specifically, on their use by individuals and organizations for professional purposes.
To better understand each of these tips, I encourage you to open your Twitter page and enter the various terms and tags mentioned below using the #Discover feature. Doing so will provide a variety of living, real-time examples that help illustrate the points I make.
Tip #1: Only use a hashtag when a regular key word is unavailable or ineffective.
- There is generally no need to hashtag a brand name or Twitter handle, or even a webname or url (e.g., Pinterest, YouTube, 37Signals, Razr Maxx), unless you want to direct someone from your tweet to that stream. If your intent is simply to add to a conversation, you can drop the #.
- The same logic can be applied to a person’s name or popular event. For example, this past weekend “Drew Doughty” and “Do Division” (about a local festival) were both trending topics in Chicago – and no hashtag was necessary for either one.
- Hashtags are best for concatenating terms into a single string to create a short, unique identifier that is not otherwise available. The best applications include:
- Common themes and topics, like #highered, #socialmedia
- Conferences and meetings, like #E32012 for the 2012 E3 conference
- Twitter chats, like #UChicJobTips
Tip #2: Find and use the most popular tags in your industry/profession.
- Doing so will ensure your tweets are connected to the most active streams. For example:
- #socialhr and #hrsocial effectively convey the same idea, but the first tag is more widely used than the second.
- Similarly, if you want to link a tweet to a “social media” thread, the best tags are #socialmedia and #sm. #socmed and #socmedia are much less commonly used.
- You can identify the most popular tags by
- Paying attention to the tags used by other Tweeters
- Checking usage on a site like hashtags.org
- Searching out a glossary or directory of terms published by a professional association or other group
Tip #3: Make sure the tags you use are unique, clear and relevant.
- Neither tags nor handles in Twitter are case sensitive, which means that #SoMe and #some are identical. You can use CamelCase for clarity, but that doesn’t change the meaning or relevance of the tag. If you use the handle #SoMe, for example your tweets will be caught up in a stream that includes every tweet with the word “some.”
- Along those same lines, you should avoid adding tags for most common terms unless they’re trending as part of a meme. Examples of frivolous and somewhat useless hashtags I’ve seen recently include #about, #value, #media, and #summer.
Tip #4: Keep hashtags simple.
- When people use Twitter personally, long hashtags are fairly common, especially for trending topics and memes (e.g., #WeHaveThatOneFriendWho, #ThoughtsWhileOnAdate), but they are much less appropriate and effective in a professional context. You should be parsimonious, while still conveying complete meaning in a recognizable, memorable way.
- Don't customize hashtags beyond what's necessayr. For example, I recently participated in The Conference Board’s Social Media for HR seminars, which used the hashtag #SM4HR. Although this seminar is offered once or twice a year, there is no need to further qualify the event by making the hashtag something like #SM4HR12. The life of an event-based hashtag is relatively short (1-2 weeks at most), so it's possible to reuse the same hashtag for each occurrence of an event without causing any confusion about the specific event a tag is referencing.
Tip #5: Don’t inadvertently include spaces between hashtag terms.
- In computer code, spaces are generally used as delimiters between chunks of data. Therefore, adding a space between hashtag terms effectively breaks the tag.
- Terms in a hashtag must be concatenated into a single string to convey the right meaning. The examples below demonstrate how breaking the string can produce very diferent results:
- Right: #socialmedia. Wrong: #social media.
- Right: #digitaldivide. Wrong: #digital divide.
Tip #6: Don’t game the tags.
- As certain brands like Kenneth Cole have found out, hijacking someone else’s hashtag to serve selfish purposes is not cool – and very likely to backfire. Don’t use hashtags gratuitously simply to promote your own brand or Twitter handle. The intent should be to legimately connect your tweets to an ongoing conversation or thread.
- Don’t overhash (yes, that’s a made-up word) your tweets. Twitter itself suggests that the maximum number of hashtags you should add to a tweet is two. More than that just gets spammy (e.g., #sm, #smm, #socialmedia). Use hashtags judiciously and wisely.