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Overcoming the Hashtag Culture Shock

Hashtag.

Ten years ago, the prevalence of this word might have inspired hysteria over drug-infused playground games corrupting the kids. Thankfully the kids are now safely buried in their iPads, super fun playground games are safely buried in the past and we’re confronted with a world where topical thought across the globe is measured by a prefix that looks suspiciously like a stadium for noughts and crosses.

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So what’s the big deal about these gosh darn hashy tags?

According to our good friend Wikipedia,

  • ‘A hashtag is a type of label or metadata tag used on social network and microblogging services which makes it easier for users to find messages with a specific theme or content.’

As far as explaining its technical function, that’s its core. A hashtag is a tool to index words or phrases; on social media platforms it turns the attached text into a hyperlink that takes a user to a collection of all the content connected to that particular hashtag.

Hashtags are crucial in categorising content and subsequently searching for it, as well as creating space for topics to be nurtured.

Look at hashtags like labels for shelves in a library – they lead you to your topics of interest, as well as reserve space for upcoming topics with accelerating popularity. And not only are they a great repository for specific content – hashtags are also funtastic hotspots for discussion, so the library shelf they lead to is like a little meeting place for people who are similarly interested to discuss the content in front of them.

As well as being an effective way for people to discover and join discussions on certain topics, hashtags are a modern way to measure types of traffic. For businesses and brands, creating a hashtag for a new promotion allows the performance and reach of that promotion to be analysed with ease – the hashtag becomes a signal that all engaged individuals can display.

Okay, so they’re useful, but how do I put them to use?

The main issue with hashtags is that they’re indiscriminate – you can apply a hashtag to any text whatsoever, the primary restriction being that spaces must be omitted to keep the hashtag whole. The limitless range of hashtags makes it difficult for people to synchronise their searches and know which hashtag is the primary label for the content they’re looking to discuss or research.

For example, say you’re desperately keen to see what people are sharing and saying about… big cats.

You’ve got an assignment on leopards and pumas for your zoology masters or you simply have a penchant for elegant predators, I’m not going to judge. You want to join discussions on leopards and pumas, but you preferably want to search for something that looks at them collectively, rather than individually. Unfortunately, the hashtag #leopardpuma might take you instead to somebody sharing a photo of their exotically printed Puma trainers – back to square one.

Alternatively, you’re a training veterinarian and you need to research public perception of house cats that are abnormally large. Now, domestic cats are wildly popular on the internet, so the hashtag #bigcats should lead you to pictures of rotund tabbies. Think again, you’ve now ended up in a jaguar pen and the only companions you have are like the zoologist above.

Now, the above example is something of a stretch, but it highlights how readily one can get lost in the hashtag ether. So to use hashtags effectively, you need something of an incisive eye. Here are #5 rules for creating the most effective hashtag:

Despite its size, the rotund cat proves elusive.
Despite its size, the rotund cat proves elusive.

Outlaw ambiguity and promote specificity

The more ambiguous a hashtag is, the more likely it is to get lost in the noise. If you’re tweeting about your latest product, hashtagging #awesome is about as useful as saying ‘listen’ in sign language. The indexed results for hashtags of generic adjectives will be rife with indistinct content that is added to so frequently that your content will be lost in minutes.

To compound this, an adjective as broad as #awesome (or #gnarly, #terrific and maybe even #radical) offers no specificity for people who might be interested in your particular product. Everybody likes awesome stuff, but not everybody is part of your audience – be targeted.

Hashtagging the subject or object of your tweet, or a word that is directly associated with its content is a much more efficient way of indexing your content to be found by the right people. The key is to be search friendly and pick the words that are most likely to be used by your audience. Keywords, people.

LESS IS MORE

You might be asking at this point, ‘Why don’t I just make every word into a hashtag? That way I’m covering all my bases!’ Well think again, because too many hashtags is the best way to be written off as overly promotional. Whilst using hashtags can garner more interaction on Twitter, an abundance of hashtags will actually diminish engagement – using more than two hashtags has been found to reduce engagement by 17%. The key here is to use them sparingly, and, in conjunction with the previous point, make sure the few you do use are accurate and accessible.

THE HASHTAG IS A SIGNAL FOR SOMETHING GREATER

When people click on a hashtag link, they want to be taken to good content that relates to that tag. That means that your hashtag is going to be met with disappointment if it’s literally the focal point of your post. With this in mind, think twice before you tweet a single hashtag with the sole intention of promoting your brand and bringing people to your home page.

In the spirit of inbound, the key is to provide great content and then harness hashtags to help people find it. Even if your post is a simple comment (that is, you’re not linking to a blog or other rich content), a hashtag should be used to insert that comment into a wider discussion – giving it value.

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TAKE A LITTLE TIME TO RESEARCH YOUR TAG

To clarify, hours of research isn’t necessary. If you’re using social media, the whole point is so you can share quickly and easily – so taking ages researching the precise hashtag is counter-productive. That being said, there is a strong chance that whatever you’re sharing already has an established hashtag that’s indexed previously similar content.

Choosing an established hashtag over creating a new one should always be protocol – that way your content is nestled amidst an already substantial collection. Most social media platforms will have suggested hashtags appear when you start typing yours. If this doesn’t appear, use the search bar first to see what’s popular.

Know when to be novel

There are times when creating new hashtags is effective however – times when instead of placing your content on an existing ‘shelf’ or contributing to an already bustling discussion, you want to create a new space for promotional purposes. This tactic can be hugely successful for brands hoping to utilise social media to increase their exposure.

Almost any blockbuster movie for example will have a promotional hashtag to build hype for its release, often with money behind it to further its reach. Whilst a monetised or sponsored hashtag will have greater range, paying for a hashtag is far from mandatory. A promotional hashtag should be marketed similarly to other posts – shared at peak times and bundled with appropriate, high-quality content.

 

Hashtags are here to stay, and their capacity to be useful is constantly expanding. Recognise their attributes, use them strategically and correctly and see what they can do for you.

Nat Rubyan-Ling

Author: Nat Rubyan-Ling

Nat is compellingly unpersuasive in his writing unless he's been fed, in which case he turns into a walking literature academic. Which he was. A keen observer of online culture, you'll find him making odd statements about the existential malaise that memes signify.

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