So you’re getting the hang of Twitter, gaining followers, and maybe excited about what it can offer.  You see people use hashtags and maybe started to use them yourself, but don’t really get it – why are they important?  It’s like tagging something with a topic – what’s the big deal?   Well, actually, hashtags can be very effective and powerful in a number of ways.  But I’ll talk about three main ways in this blog:  1) More powerful tweeting, 2) More powerful listening, and 3) More powerful events.

Some Basics

First a quick reminder of how Twitter works.

When you’re a new Twitter user, just starting out, you probably don’t have many followers.  Figure A is a good example.   Our tweeting friend, Newbie is brand new to Twitter and only has 4 followers.  When he sends out a tweet, what happens?   The four people following him will see the tweet in their Twitter stream – if they happen to be watching at the time.  Four people?  That’s not too exciting.

But for the experienced Twitter Pro that has a large following – say 4,000 people.  When he or she sends out a tweet (Figure B), all 4,000 people have that tweet show up in their tweet stream.  OK, that’s interesting!

So how do hashtags help?  Well, hashtags are a way for people to follow topics they are interested in.  For example, some currently popular tags that are relevant to SAP include topics like:

  • #SAP                       (people talking about SAP)
  • #SAPPHIRENOW     (That’s our biggest customer event of the year.)
  • #Mobile                    (Mobile technology)
  • #Mobility                   (Also mobile technology.  Hey, hashtags are grass-roots, so they can be messy.)
  • #Analytics                 (Business Analytics)
  • #SAPTechEd            (Our global technical education event.)
  • #socialmedia             (Social media)
  • #sm                          (Also social media)
  • #socbiz                     (Social media for business)
  • #EnSW                     (Enterprise Software – started by @DennisMoore last year, very popular)
  • #cmgr                       (Community Manager  – started by @TheCR The Community Roundtable)

I’ll use the hashtag #EnSW as an example to see how it works.  Figure C is a snapshot of how a hashtag stream looks in TweetDeck.  It’s showing the current tweets for the #EnSW hashtag (caps don’t matter, so #EnSW, #ensw and #ENSW  are all the same.).   For those of us in the enterprise software business, these tweets are interesting.  I happen to follow a few of the folks already, so I might have seen them in my main feed – but I more likely missed them because I wasn’t watching at the time and they scrolled off the bottom.  So following the hashtag helps me see when they’re talking about this specific topic.  But here’s the other interesting thing – there are tweets in the hashtag column from people I don’t follow at all.  I never would have seen these tweets if I weren’t following the #EnSW hashtag.  And in this case, the topics are supply chain software, SAP HANA, Security, and other enterprise software topics.  Wow, that’s interesting!

So, now that we’ve covered the basics of hashtags, let’s look at the three powerful ways of using hashtags:

1.    More Powerful Tweeting

One of the main values of hashtags is in how you get your message out.  With hashtags, you can reach a broader, but paradoxically, also more targeted audience.  This is true whether you’re new to Twitter or an experienced Twitter user with a lot of followers.  As we just saw above, when you put a hashtag in a tweet, it is shown to your followers PLUS everyone that is following that hashtag – even if they don’t follow you!   A lot of people using TweetDeck and other similar products, keep a permanent column open watching hashtags they’re interested in.  So, if you put out a tweet with the #ensw hashtag, it will show up on all their streams, even though they don’t follow you.  That’s suddenly become pretty powerful – especially for new Twitter users without many followers.  Figure D below shows the same scenario as Figure A with Newbie, but this time, he’s talking about the Enterprise Software market, so he adds the hashtag #EnSW.

Say there are 1,000 people following the #EnSW hashtag.  Newbie’s tweet was shown not only to his four followers, but also to the 1,000 people following the hashtag.  That’s powerful in a few ways:

  • He’s reached a broader audience
  • He’s reached a more targeted audience of people interested in Enterprise Software (as opposed to, for example, people only interested in the latest on Justin Bieber.)
  • If Newbie has a lot of interesting things to say about Enterprise Software using the #EnSW hashtag, he has more people seeing his tweets and a better chance of picking up more followers to grow his audience.

2.    More Powerful Listening

In addition to the power of hashtags to broaden your audience when sending tweets, it is also a powerful tool to watch conversations and links being shared on Twitter.  One of the challenges with people new to Twitter is figuring out who to follow and how to engage.  Hashtags are a great way to start.  You can follow one or two of the hashtags above to see what’s happening on those topics.  You’ll be surprised at the conversations taking place – they’re typically lively, interesting, and valuable to the business and they’ll keep you aware of the current “buzz” happening in each topic.  But you’ll also start to see some interesting people that you might want to follow from your account.  So it’s a great way to start adding to your circle of people to follow on Twitter.

3.    More Powerful Events!

One final point on hashtags is events.   Hashtags and events are a “perfect storm” of capabilities because events happen at a specific point in time and involve a lot of people that don’t know each other, but are all interested in the same thing – that event.

  • Using a hashtag for events is powerful because it gives everyone the ability to talk about the event with each other, even though they don’t know who else is attending, or how to reach each other in traditional ways.  (Send out a tweet with an event hashtag and everyone following the event hashtag will see it.)
  • Hashtags do not have to be “created”, they are simply a convention that people can start to follow.  So, you choose a hashtag, start displaying it in promotional materials, people pick it up, start using it, and away you go!
  • Event attendees can follow the event hashtag and see what other people are talking about, what content is interesting, how they are reacting to what the speaker is saying – all in real time instantly on their laptops, smartphones, iPads, iPhones, etc, etc.
  • People attending an event and seeing the event hashtag discussion may discover a colleague is attending that they didn’t know would be there.
  • Recently events are getting more sophisticated about this and starting to display the tweet stream for their event’s hashtag on screens throughout the event.  For example, here’s a summary page of SAP TechEd social media activities from our event two weeks ago in Las Vegas including screens displaying the #SAPTechEd hashtag stream.

So the next time you attend an event, find out the hashtag ahead of time and start following it.  If event organizers have done a good job getting the word out, expect to see a high “velocity” of tweets –  especially during keynotes when all attendees are sitting, watching, listening, and tweeting.

I hope this is helpful as you explore the value of Twitter.  Hashtags are a very powerful, but often little understood capability with Twitter.  So, give it a try, start watching hashtags, start using hashtags in your tweets and I’ll see you online!

Additional Information on Hashtags: