Hashtag Basics: How They Work – Why They Fail

Nearly every marketer uses Twitter – and the vast majority of us also use hashtags – the letters that follow the pound or number sign (#) in a tweet. But here are five things you might not know about hashtags that could help you boost your Twitter results dramatically.

For example, did you know that Twitter didn’t invest hashtags? Twitter users did. Google employee Chris Messina is credited as the “hashtag Godfather” for an August, 2007 tweet in which he suggested using the pound sign as a way to organize groups on Twitter. His original idea was that like minded people could find and follow each other more easily if they self-identified their interests with hashtags.

Also, hashtags can be used in two different ways – to group tweets into categories, so they’re easier to find, and also to indicate that the person tweeting is adding an ironic comment to the message. Most of the time, people use them to add personality to a tweet, and reach people who might be searching for a particular topic.

For instance, I have a lot of friends in New Zealand, and during a series of earthquakes last year, I found that following the hashtag #NZearthquake gave me real-time information on the situation – and the information kept flowing long after the U.S. media lost interest in an event that happened 10,000 miles away. A lot of entertainment marketers use hashtags to build communities around television programming, celebrities, books or movies – and so do smart brand marketers.

Of course, there are times when a hashtag is not appropriate. For instance, last year Entenmann’s was promoting its line of low-fat bakery products with the hashtag #notguilty. Unfortunately, on the day Florida mother Casey Anthony was found not guilty of killing her young daughter, the company’s ongoing social media campaign sent a pre-scheduled tweet using that hashtag – and it wound up in the middle of the comments about the murder trial.

So the first rule of using a hashtag is to search for it before you use it, and make sure that you aren’t dropping a marketing message into the middle of something else that uses the same hashtag. (This is especially true if you schedule tweets in advance – check periodically to make sure that the hashtags you’ve added to pending tweets haven’t become associated with something you’d rather not be associated with.

Here are five times when you should definitely use hashtags.

Engaging Event Attendees

Hashtags are a great tool to monitor tweets during a webinar or conference. Set up your hashtags before your event. By following the hashtag, it’s easy to keep up with reactions to the speakers, get a sense for what event goers think of the conference, and participate vicariously in the discussion even if you didn’t make it to the show.

Hashtags also let participants ask questions and share comments before, during, and after the event, and to interact with other attendees.

Building Word of Mouse

Hashtags are a big factor in creating “buzz” and reaching current and potential customers through Twitter. According to social media influence monitor Klout, the “half life” of a tweet is only about five hours for even the most influential Twitter users. (A half-life is the amount of time in which half of all clicks, RT’s and interactions will have occurred. For some kinds of tweets, especially on very hot or trending topics, the half-life can be measured in minutes, not hours.)

A searchable hashtag can extend the amount of time that a tweet is reaching new readers substantially. This is especially important if you have a relatively small group of followers. Last year, tweeting about a post I wrote got 1,934 clicks on a single tweet – although the Twitter account I was using had just 235 Twitter followers at the time.

Emphasizing the Key Point

As Mark Twain famously said, “If I’d had more time, I’d have written something shorter.” We’re all busy, and sometimes writing the brief, compelling messages that work best on Twitter can be hard. Hashtags not only encourage brevity, they let you emphasize your overall point in one or two words.

Hashtags shouldn’t try to convey a complete thought or an entire sentence. To promote a blog post like this one, focus on one or two words such as #Twitter or #marketing instead of using a longer hashtag like #howtousehashtags. As with most rules, there’s an exception to this one: if there is an established category on Twitter, that is highly relevant to the subject of your tweet, don’t ignore it because it is a longer hashtag. Doing your homework before you tweet will make all the difference.

Repeating Messages & Hashtags

If you’re going to use hashtags, do it consistently. Why? Because once you become known for tweeting on particular subjects, someone may be actively searching for your content by searching for those hashtags. (People forget other people’s twitter handles, or may have missed a particular tweet, but if they know that a particular company or person often tweets about a topic, searching for the expected hashtags is a great way to find them.)

The most influential Twitter users tend to repeat each tweet two to three times, at different times of day. Most successful content marketers tweet a link to a new article, blog post, white paper, or PDF 10-12 times over a one-week period when the content is new, and then repeat the link periodically to help others find it.

There’s no need to add your brand or company name as a hashtag, because an account registered as BRANDNAME will show up without wasting 10 characters by adding the #brandname hashtag.

Remembering Marketing 101

Yes, we’re all busy. But that’s no excuse for forgetting the basics of marketing when you write a tweet or pick a hashtag. Doing your homework so that you don’t find yourself tweeting a hashtag that’s already in use for something quite different than you intended is just part of the due diligence that should take place before your next hashtag campaign.

It takes only a few minutes to check to see what kinds of tweets are using a particular hashtag, but it can pay big dividends. So many marketers have made the mistake of using what looked like a perfectly appropriate hashtag without doing their homework first, that there’s even a name for what happens to those who omit this step: creating a #bashtag.

You’ll also want to try it out internally, to see if you can find a way to turn your hashtag on its tail. That’s a lesson that McDonald’s learned the hard way. The company launched a campaign using the hashtag #McDStories, in hopes of getting customers to share their positive stories around the brand – but users quickly turned the campaign on its head, resulting in a negative PR backlash for the company.

Have a back-up plan in place in case your hashtag campaign goes wrong – you can turn almost any social media situation into a win for the company by listening to customers and responding appropriately. By paying attention to the 5W’s (who, what, where, when, why) we learned in Marketing 101, it’s possible to identify trends, develop a rapid response, and change the conversation from a negative into a positive.

The key lesson here is to remember that social media is controlled by ordinary, everyday people – not marketers or their agencies. Hashtags are just a tool to help people find your tweets – making sure that you’re tweeting the information in a way that won’t turn you into a laughingstock requires more than just the right hashtag. It requires careful planning, and a complete understanding of how your brand and message are likely to be received by your audience.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life. It's also the place where I publish general articles on topics that interest me -- including commentary about the acting and film communities, since I have both a son and grandson who are performers.
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