Even though they’re ubiquitous, not everyone knows what Twitter hashtags are or do. 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. Twitter hashtags can also be used to automatically repost tweets to other platforms like Facebook (i.e., #fb), but that’s not a best practice, and I generally recommend against it.
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 (for San Diego fire) to his tweets, and it became even more widespread during the 2009-10 Iranian election protests. Over time usage of Twitter hashtags has evolved, as described (somewhat snarkily) in this New Yorker piece. The convention has also spread to other platforms (e.g., Google+, Instagram, Facebook) – sometimes with the intent of connecting posts, and sometimes to just highlight a common theme or cultural meme (e.g., #justsayin or #tbt). 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 post in GovLoop and this criticism from a New York Times social media staff editor (and the responses from readers) – that there are still few standards or widely agreed-upon conventions for using Twitter hashtags. It’s hard to say whether or how they’ll evolve, but in the meantime we can all make more effective use of them.
In this post I share seven recommendations based on the most common mistakes I see people make when trying to use Twitter hashtags. I have also created a related decision-making flowchart, the fundamental point of which is to help people avoid adding unnecessary, gratuitous, and potentially spammy #s to their tweets. Hashtags are less critical than many people assume, and using them inappropriately can actually detract from a tweet rather than enhance it. Plus, with only 140 characters to work with, precious space shouldn’t be squandered. A good rule to follow is
When in doubt, leave it out!
As always, I welcome your comments and questions – and especially additional tips and suggestions. Together, we can define a workable set of best practices…
Twitter Hashtags: 7 Best Practice Tips
For the purposes of this post, I will focus on the original intent of Twitter 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 (plus others you commonly see) using the #Discover feature. Doing so will provide a variety of living, real-time examples that help illustrate the points I make.
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, as I’m editing this “Thanksgiving” and “New York” are both trending topics – and neither has a hashtag appended to it.
- 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 #HRTechConf for the annual HR Technology Conference
- Twitter chats, like #UChicJobTips
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
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.”
- Because hashtags are not case sensitive, they should read well in all lower-case letters. A classic example of why this is important is the hashtag folks were using after Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of England, died. Without CamelCase, #NowThatchersDead becomes #nowthatchersdead, which was interpreted by many as #NowThatChersDead. Oops!
- 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 include #about, #value, #media, and #music.
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 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 necessary. For example, in both 2012 and 2013 I 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 #SM4HR13. 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.
- On the other hand… when an event generates a high volume of activity, it may be necessary to create multiple hashtags. At the 2013 SHRM Conference, for example, there were so many tweets that it was overwhelming to try to follow the #SHRM13 hashtag. During Social Media Week in Chicago, although there was a general hashtag (#SMWChi), there were also multiple variations for threads related to specific sessions. This made it easier to track a single set of related tweets, but it also potentially undermined the larger objectives by splitting the conversations up rather than unifying them.
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.
Do Your Due Diligence
- Before you start using a hashtag, check Twitter and other resources to see if it’s already being used, and in what context. Doing so will ensure you:
- Connect your tweet to a relevant Twitter thread.
- Don’t inadvertently connect your tweet to an irrelevant – or worse, inappropriate – thread.
- Be careful not to set yourself up so that your hashtag gets hijacked (or hashjacked) in unintended ways. The best example of this is McDStories. McDonald’s goal was to have people share positive, nostalgic comments about the brand, but the vagueness of the hashtag also invited critics and others to share negative comments and examples. Once the negative tweets started, others jumped on the bandwagon and McDonald’s lost some control of the campaign. (Click here for more examples)
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 legitimately 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.
To Hash or Not to Hash? A Decision Making Guide
I’ve created a decision-making flowchart (available via SlideShare) that helps people decide whether to add a hashtag to a tweet, and how to find the most appropriate hashtag(s) to use. It enables people to avoid adding unnecessary, gratuitous, and potentially spammy hashtags to their tweets. Remember the Golden Rule of Twitter hashtags: When in doubt, leave them out!