I was chatting with someone the other day when a question came up that I’ve asked myself a few times before: “I’ve found a hashtag relevant to my brand that a lot of people use – what now?”
It’s a great question. There are a ton of services that’ll tell you what the “most popular” Twitter/Instagram/etc. hashtags are, but what they don’t tell you is “so what?” Just because a hashtag’s popular doesn’t mean it actually does anything. But it can be hard to tell one way or the other.
So what do you do? Here’s the process I go through when I find a particularly active hashtag and need to decide what to do with it:
Find out what the hashtag is for
There are what I call “throwaway hashtags” – ones like #sports or #news, where they’re so general that there’s no way anyone is watching and reacting to them – and then there are “real hashtags,” which are the ones that ostensibly serve some purpose. The real ones can be broken down into four categories:
Labels – Some hashtags exist as labels that can be helpful in categorizing a specific conversation you’re having or in succinctly expressing a sentiment. One good example is #TCOT (“True Conservative On Twitter”), which American political conservatives often tack on to their messages.
Chats – There are hundreds, if not more, regularly scheduled Twitter chats. There’s one for almost anything you’re interested in; you just have to find them and know where to look. #wjchat, for example, is a weekly chat for journalists. The people who admin the hashtag throw out a handful of questions at scheduled intervals every week, and participants answer them and tag their tweets with the tag, so everyone attending can see. A lot of times, one-to-one conversations branch out of the chat, and users end up @ mentioning each other back and forth.
Recurring memes – These are kind of in the same category as chats, only they’re not specifically chats. #ThrowbackThursday is a good example: Next Thursday, check the hashtag (or its shorter cousin, #tbt) and you’ll see people reminiscing about stuff they used to do via links/photos/updates. If you have a picture of yourself using a Zack Morris phone or a hipster-looking baby photo of yourself, post it next Thursday and tag it #tbt.
Events – Event hashtags are usually one-offs, or they recur less frequently – think the Emmys or Oscars and other things like that. If you’ve been to any kind of public event or get-together in the last few years, you may have noticed a hashtag printed on a table tent or something like that. Essentially, it’s a way to collect updates about the event, which is helpful (a) for people who want to talk about the event on a backchannel and (b) for the event organizers, so they can collect everyone’s updates and analyze/interact with them.
There’s sort of a fifth category of hashtags, which are hashtags-as-rhetorical-devices. Here’s an example:
These obviously aren’t meant to be re-used or searched; they’re just there for (varying levels of) effect.
Use it, react to it, or both
Once you’ve figured out what type of hashtag you’re dealing with, there are two things you can do with it: Use it – include it in your tweets – or react to it – see what people who use the hashtag are saying and respond to them. Don’t feel like you’re restricted to one or the other; a lot of times, doing both is a smart strategy.
For example, I can use a hashtag like #Excel in one of my tweets to get help with something I’m trying to figure out:
I can also look for other people asking questions about something I have expertise in – #socialmedia – and engage, in order to spread my reach and influence (note how I mixed the hashtag with a question mark in search):
Once you’re up and running, the only thing you’ll want to remember is to not go too crazy with the hashtags you use. You don’t need a hashtag in every tweet, and more than two is pushing it.
Remember: You want your Twitter account to be something that’s useful to your followers. Hashtags are there to support the content you produce, not to serve as the content itself. Think about what you’d want to see, and emulate how your favorite accounts use hashtags – that should put you in a good spot with regard to how you use them.
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