When should you use a Twitter hashtag?

Nov. 9th, 2011

There seems to be a love/hate thing going on with Twitter hashtags. They have a lot of benefits, like helping to target your audience and categorize your tweets. Some say they even increase the likelihood of getting retweeted, which can help grow your audience through more exposure. And the significance of hashtags is undisputed in communicating disaster information, as seen in the Japan tsunami, or providing a platform for social movements, like the current Occupy movement.

On the other hand, many Twitter users are bemoaning abuse of hashtags, like the practice of stuffing, where tweets include hashtags because of their search value, rather than the actual relevance to the post. Some users are equating hashtags with spam—and it's no wonder when the topic strings they've been following start getting watered down with irrelevant marketing junk.

So, what are the rules? When and how should you use hashtags?

Rule #1: There are no rules—only common sense

For starters, there really aren't any established rules for using Twitter hashtags. Hashtags and Twitter itself are relatively new conventions, so best practices are still being developed and will continue to change. As well, Twitter remains a user-driven community, so any "rules" are just repeated behaviors by community members; a convention is dictated by its use.

In addition to its newness, Twitter has rapidly grown. What started as a smaller community of select users who shared details of their daily lives, à la Twitterville, has now developed into a standard tool in the customer communications and marketing social media toolbox. (Early Twitter adopter Dave Coustan, on his Extraface blog, provides a thoughtful reaction to the changes he's observed on the platform.) This transition from a platform used to communicate with a personal community to communicating on a much broader scale has introduced many more use—and abuse—cases.

Most of the so-called hashtag abuse seems to be the result of platform confusion—thinking of hashtags as a form of metadata—and perhaps a small dash of irrational exuberance around the power of hashtags to increase followers. Looking at how hashtags have evolved might shed some light.

Grouping mechanism gone wild

Chris Messina created the first hashtag in 2007 to help organize communication around the BarCamp unconferences that he helped found. Since then, that simple original purpose of hashtags, linking communication within groups, has been exploited effectively, from social uprisings to creating a platinum-selling pop sensation like Justin Bieber (#bieberfever). But even these uses of hashtags tend to organize communication around physical events, like a conference, rally, or concert, or a person, like The Biebster.

Now the use of hashtags has evolved to indicate categories, somewhat like keywords, which significantly broadens their use. Some Twitter users follow specific hashtags to stay updated on topics that interest them, so including those keywords will help you reach those interested audiences.

This last point is where the hate part of the love/hate equation likely comes in. Now that the business world is paying attention to Twitter as a customer communications platform, people are latching onto increasing numbers of followers and retweets as a quantifiable metric. So the reasoning tends to be more hashtags = more exposure = more followers.

Hashtags vs. keywords

Hashtags are different than keywords. It's true that hashtags are searchable on Twitter, which makes them seem like keywords, but the effectiveness of hashtags is in their specificity.

Most people think of keywords in an SEO context, which is more like casting a net to draw in your audience. You focus on a group of three to five related words in the hopes of capturing searchers.

Including a hashtag in a tweet is more like linking your tweet to an existing thread of tweets on the same topic—or creating your own thread that other tweets can link onto. Trying to hook onto too many streams will likely just dilute the relevance of your message. In addition, you could end up on threads where your content appears irrelevant, which may just anger the users you're trying to attract.

Best practices

Hashtags function better as a means to bring communication streams and groups together, or associating yourself with existing groups, rather than a means of getting found. Here are a few scenarios in which hashtags can work beautifully:

  • Events. Creating a unique hashtag to tag communication around a specific event is a brilliant strategy. It makes a lot more sense for attendees of an event to simply follow the event's hashtag than to track all the individuals who might be tweeting at or about the event.
  • To create context. When you only have 140 characters to work with, sometimes it's easier to append your tweet with a hashtag that will indicate the context of your comment, rather than try to work that context into your 140-character statement.
  • To provide (a little bit of) metadata. Hashtags can work well for including limited simple information, like a location. But don't try to include much more than that.
  • To differentiate your tweets or start a conversation. Remember, including a hashtag is like latching onto an existing conversation stream. If you're using the same keywords as thousands of other people, your tweets won't stand out.

What best-use cases have you observed? Tell me about them in the comments.

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