Aug 03, 2012

Dear Gracie: Hashtags 101

Each week, Dear Gracie answers questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to grace.lavigne@prnewswire.com

Dear Gracie,

I’m an amateur Twitter user, and it’s not clear to me how and why I should use #hashtags. Since I can search for keywords on Twitter, I don’t understand what the difference is. What purpose do they serve? And is there a wrong way to use them? Sometimes I see really long hashtags — what’s the point?

Hung Up on Hashtags

*************

Dear Hung Up on Hashtags,

Five social media experts from the ProfNet Connect database “hash” it out for you:

How and When to Use Hashtags

“Hashtags arose out of the tag craze in the blogosphere, where sites like Technorati would allow you to search on blog posts with specific tags or keywords,” says Todd Van Hoosear, principal at Fresh Ground, a social media and public relations PR firm specializing in technology, startup and entrepreneurial companies.

“The characteristic feature of a hashtag is that it’s clickable on Twitter and leads to a platform-wide search for anyone including it in their tweets,” says Patrick Schwerdtfeger, author of “Webify Your Business Marketing Secrets for the Self-Employed” (2009) and international speaker on issues like online branding and the social media revolution.

Think of hashtags as discussion topics, says Dan Grody, partner at Tellem Worldwide, a PR agency that specializes in social media (among other things); and head of youth marketing, entertainment and digital projects. “They are beneficial to users because hashtag topics are easily searched on Twitter and collected and presented to you in one stream.”

“A hashtag is very much like a keyword,” explains Van Hoosear, “though generally they are used more selectively and specifically than keywords.” Different hashtags can be created for the same event, group or conversation, so they compete for attention and usage, he says.

“In some cases, hashtags reference specialties, characteristics or expertise,” adds Grody.

“Hashtags compensate for two shortcomings in Twitter,” says Van Hoosear. “First, they make up for its lack of threaded conversations, so you can easily follow posts and questions and their responses. By searching for a specific hashtag, you can see all of the conversations around a particular topic.”

“And second, hashtags make community or group creation a little easier,” he says.

If you have an obvious keyword in your tweet, put a hashtag in front of it, advises Jim Lakely, director of communications at The Heartland Institute.

“Whenever possible, we use a hashtag as part of a phrase that we’re using anyway,” says Michael Saffran, associate director and manager of new media at Rochester Insitute of Technology (RIT) University News Service, and communications professor for RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. “Other times, they’re included at the end of the tweet.”

“As for which ones to use, it all depends on your tweet topic and who you potentially want to see it,” he adds.

The trick is to identify a few hashtags that your target market might be searching for (and that are simultaneously relevant to your own tweets), and then including them to position your tweets in front of that market, says Schwerdtfeger.

Trending vs. Unique Hashtags

“If you want to start a conversation about public relations on Twitter, you could use the hashtag #PR to reach a larger audience who may be searching for that hashtag,” says Van Hoosear.

By choosing a larger, trending topic to hashtag, Twitter users ensure their tweets will appear in search results across multiple topics, says Saffran.

But if you want to have a conversation targeted at a specific audience, then create or use a unique and exclusive hashtag, says Van Hoosear. For example, the creators of PR 2.0 Chat (@PRtini51 and @JGoldsborough48) created the hashtag #pr20chat, instead of using #PR, so that they could loosely “own” the conversation.

It’s easier to isolate conversations and do comparative analysis using unique hashtags, says Van Hoosear. But it’s easier to get the big picture and run long-term analytics trends using general hashtags.

So it is worth it to start your own hashtag if you are a busy Twitter user/broadcaster or want to start a new discussion, says Grody. “If you are promoting a particular event to your audience, for example, and you have other tweets not related to that event, you could end each tweet about the event with the related hashtag, like #tweetfest2011,” he explains.

To join a discussion, search out hashtags and chime in using the hashtag at the end of your tweet, says Grody. “Remember, you are broadcasting to your followers,” he says. “They don’t know what you are talking about if you just tweet ‘Can’t wait for this weekend!’ But if you say ‘Can’t wait for this weekend! #vacation,’ everyone will understand.”

Hashtags vs. Keywords or Handles

Keyword searches are OK if you use the Twitter website and not a client, like TweetDeck or HootSuite, says Lakely. “But if you want to monitor several conversational threads at once, hashtags are the way to go.”

RIT University staff frequently use #RIT in tweets, says Saffran. “Those searching #RIT will almost always find results specifically related to the university,” he says (although there are occasionally exceptions, like when #RIT was used for Madonna’s “ReInvention Tour”). However, using just “RIT” in a keyword search, without the pound (#) sign, yields results of any use of “rit,” often shorthand for the word “right” and many other references not related to the university, says Saffran.

Grody provides another example: If a guitarist has a tech question about his/her amplifier, they might tweet, “Does anyone else have a problem with their Marshall amp? #guitar”  This is a better approach than just randomly asking without the hashtag, says Grody. “There are exponentially more posts randomly mentioning ‘guitar,’ and your tweet is likely to get overlooked or lost. Use the hashtag to focus on your discussion,” he explains.

On the other hand, for unique words, like the proper noun “ProfNet,” using the hashtag #ProfNet likely won’t yield results much different than those from using just “ProfNet” as a keyword, adds Saffran.

Van Hoosear also explains when to include hashtags versus handles: “Generally speaking, use the hashtag if you want to include everyone on your comment or question, but use the Twitter handle if you want to make sure that the organizers see your comments but don’t care if others don’t see your comments.”

Things to Avoid and Extra Tips

“Be careful not to use too many hashtags in one tweet,” says Lakely. He defines “too many” as more than three hashtags in a tweet.

“Don’t use irrelevant hashtags that no one would be searching for in the first place,” adds Saffran.

For example, some people think it’s cute or funny to use a long sentence as a hashtag, says Grody. But it’s hard to read and takes up valuable character space in your tweet, he says. #Sodontusehashtagsthatarereallylonglikethis

“Avoid including symbols in your hashtag,” advises Grody. “If you type #hi-there, all that will show up as a linkable discussion is #hi” he says.

Don’t include a trending-topic hashtag just to gain additional exposure, continues Grody. “It’s amateur, and smart users will see right through your tactics. Don’t embarrass your brand that way.”

“Additionally, hashtags in Twitter bios are hyperlinked now, so it’s a good idea to include certain hashtags in your bio,” he says.

You could also contact Twitter and advertise through a sponsored hashtag. “But if you’re like me,” says Grody, “That is the last hashtag you will click on because it is indeed ‘sponsored,’ which defeats the purpose of Twitter.”

Gracie

Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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