If you feel like hashtags are pointless, you would not be alone. You would also be mistaken, but that would not be your fault.
Hashtags can have purpose, but Twitter does not make it easy for new users to discover useful hashtags or teach them how to interact with hashtags constructively. Twitter’s user interface for hashtags does not come with description of the tag, the intention of its creators, or how that particular hashtag is currently being used. When you compose a post, Twitter does not suggest hashtags. In fact, when you click on a Hashtag, the landing page is a search result query. Hashtags work more by user convention than a proper interface—and while this arrangement has its benefits, it also means that new users are left in the dark.
At its most basic, a hashtag provides a link to all tweets that mention that same hashtag; they are links that lead back to other posts… which also contain that link. Since tweets get grouped together according to tag, this makes it possible for people who search through the tag to find your posts, even if they do not yet follow you.
In my experience, hashtags come in three varieties.
- Collection tags: These are most commonly used hashtags on Twitter. Collection tags describe self-contained content, and make it easy for other social media users interested in that tag to find your post. Examples of collection tags include #dogsofinstagram, #selfie, and #tacos. These collections tend to form organically, and catch on in ways that are hard to predict. It can be difficult for users who are not in-the-know to identify which collection tags are highly searched for and visible, and which are of little value to include.
- Event tags: Event tags are hashtags used at a pre-arranged date and time, often for real world conferences or online appointments known as ‘Twitter chats’. Event tags are powerful platforms for discovering communities and joining relevant conversations. Because these event tags are typically managed and moderated by a host, there will often be an external site with details, which can be searched for. Examples of event tags include #BoardGameHour, #StartupChats, and #CBoCSocial.
- Mailbag tags: Mailbag tags are hashtags that are intended to receive and respond to messages. These mailbags can either be managed by a community with specialized knowledge or an individual account. When hosted by an individual account, these mailbag tags are more visible than questions delivered through at-mentions. Examples of mailbag tags include #AskTwitter, #LazyWeb and #VegQ.
These hashtags can be extremely useful, but the process of using and finding hashtags is a mess. The following are four strategies you can use to tidy up the process.
- See what hashtags other people are using. You can see how other accounts put hashtags to use with Twitter’s powerful search tools. Try to reduce the post you are drafting to a theme or keyword, and enter it into Twitter’s search bar. If other people are making similar posts, make note of the hashtags they have included. Click on hashtags to see if they are active, and what the rest of the content that shares the tag is like. If you are looking for a collection or mailbag tag, this is usually the best place to start.
- Check for hashtags that have been registered outside of Twitter. In particular, I recommend checking Nurph. Nurph is a website for registering, RSVPing to, and participating in Twitter chats and other event hashtags. With Nurph, chats are visibly associated with a specific host’s Twitter account, include searchable descriptions of the chat, shows lists of top contributors and most influential users, and provides visible distinctions between current, upcoming, and past chats. If you can find chat that interests you on Nurph, you will likely find relevant conversations.
- Compare hashtags to find the best tag for your purpose. RiteTag is a paid service that evaluates the quality of hashtags before you post them—but they also provide a free hashtag directory search. Users can enter enter the name of a hashtag directly or search for keywords. RiteTag’s directory will display the tag as either being unused (no traffic), overused (many users tagging, few users viewing the posts), good (high traffic of users viewing), or great (extremely high ratio of users viewing to tagging). It also shows unique tweets and retweets per hour, potential hashtag views, percentage of tweets with images, links, or mentions. RiteTag is a great tool for deciding between several collection tags.
- Do your due diligence and know what you are getting into. Just because a hashtag has traffic and views does not mean it is the best hashtag for your brand. You can use a Google Search to see if there are any news stories or articles about the hashtag in question… and if it has a reputation or meaning that you do not want to be associated with. If you are ever unsure of something on the internet, a quick search can prevent a mistake before it happens.
Do you pair your content with hashtags? Share your thoughts with us on social media, or in the comments below.