After much shameless begging, unopened gift bottles of wine and several used game certificates for Dave and Buster’s, I have finally succumbed to writing a monthly column for Attorney at Work, which will replace the random collection of posts I have heretofore submitted. Check out the logo in the upper-left corner of this post. Pretty sweet, right? Mad Men-esque, no? That’s like your bat signal for knowing when I’ve written something here. And I’d say it takes a close second to calling this column “Somehow I Manage,” which was already being used by NBC. Nevertheless, I will somehow manage to talk about many of the thoughts ruminating within my brain’s stew … like hashtagging.
I Know, I Know … I’m Writing About Twitter, Again
Cool your jets. I’ve still got a book to sell. (Just so you know, I’ve mapped out a substantial list of future column topics, and none of them include much discussion of Twitter, if you’re not into that sort of thing.) But, in all seriousness, I do get a number of questions from lawyers about Twitter, and one of the recurring questions relates to hashtags. My answers follow. (So stop calling me.)
A hashtag, quite simply, is a string of characters preceded by a number, or pound, sign (#), all connected without any spaces—e.g., #ilovegeorgeclooney (I do).
The collection of characters should have some meaning. Hashtag is even some poor baby’s name; and there is a Wikipedia page—so, this is a legitimate Internet phenomenon. Hashtags are valuable on Twitter because they link tweets. A hashtag becomes a clickable link to a chronological (and continually updating) stream of tweets containing that particular hashtag. The hashtag is valuable to you because it gets your tweet into another stream (in addition to those of your followers). It’s useful to push your tweets to additional streams because it means your content will, theoretically, pass before more eyes, thus increasing the “reach” of those tweets.
This is all a numbers game: The more people you reach, the more likely it is that you’ll reach someone who will ultimately use or refer your services. So, that’s all good.
The problem, however, does not come in understanding what a hashtag is. That’s pretty straightforward. Where most Twitter users get tripped up is in using hashtags. It’s very easy to apply a hashtag to a post without really thinking. Say you tweet something about iPads, and you stick in #iPad. I mean, what the hell, right? Why not? Well, here’s why not: When you’re using a hashtag, you’ve got to be thinking about what you’re trying to get out of it. Is your ultimate goal to be listed in the hashtag stream for #iPad? That stream probably includes billions of tweets at this point, over 75 percent of which, I would conservatively estimate, are inane or spam. The chances of your post being discovered in that stream are infinitely less than it being discovered in your own stream, such that hashtagging becomes an almost useless exercise.
So, how do you separate your hashtagged tweet from the crowd of hashtagged tweets?
- Determine how you will use the hashtag.
- Apply some straightforward tips for hashtag creation.
- Access resources to keep abreast of hashtag trends.
Three Optimal Ways to Use Hashtags
Use hashtags in real-time conversation. Hashtags allow Twitter users to create chat channels on the service. When you access the hashtag stream, you’re looking at a subject matter discussion, which you can follow and respond to in real-time. This is already a popular method for using hashtags, and there are a number of Twitter “chats” built around this concept. If you use a free program, like TweetChat, you can leverage the stream, and your responses, even more efficiently. Most chat streams remain active even when chats are not scheduled, such that participants can post at off-times and still gain some advantage. Now, if you tweet your latest blog post with the hashtag for a chat you normally participate in, the chances of that post being retweeted or read are higher than if you post into a hashtag stream with which you have no substantial connection.
Apply hashtags in a search. Twitter does have a search page, but it’s unfiltered. If you search within hashtag streams, you’re going to find persons who have self-selected for certain topics, conveying some level of conscious acknowledgment of expertise or skill (yeah, sometimes it’s unfounded), or at least interest. In this environment, you’re more likely to find people who know what they’re talking about, posting things that are helpful. You must be willing to wade through some of the detritus, but there is less than you would find within a general Twitter search. So, hashtags can help you narrow your search; but they can also help you expand your brand.
Use them for conference participation. This is probably the most effective single use of the hashtag. I’ve written on this before, most notably here and here. So, suffice it to say that, if you can piggyback a popular conference hashtag, especially one that is germane to what you do, then that is a great way to move your content toward parties known to be interested. Check out #ilta and #ABATECHSHOW for two popular legal conference hashtags, to see where you might envision your posts fitting in.
Hashtags are far more often used for generic labeling of specific things within Twitter (“Check out my #iPad! www.pictureofmeholdingmybadassnewipad.com”). In the majority of cases, the above-outlined, useful methods are not even a consideration—which is one clear reason why using such practices will set you apart.
Use Existing Hashtags or Create Your Own?
Of course, you can use existing hashtags to enter existing streams; but if you do, you’ve got to select the right ones. If a hashtag is too popular (like #iPad), you’re liable to get lost in the stream; if it’s not popular enough (like #PalmPilotForever), nobody else will see what you’ve posted. Like Goldilocks, your best option is to try the various porridges, chairs and beds before you, so you find the fit that’s “just right.”
An example of an overstuffed hashtag stream would be the #FF, or #FollowFriday culture, standing for the Twitter convention whereby users list their favorite other users, in the hopes that still other users will also follow these exemplars of tweeting virtuosity. No one is getting any use out of these raw streams; it’s just too much to process, and the categorization is too generic. However, as a method for highlighting other users, it’s a great way to show your appreciation for your favorite follows, by increasing their reach among your followers, and those others’ followers with whom the post will be shared.
In case you’re wondering, this is what a Follow Friday post might look like:
#FF @ErikMazzone (even though he hates Knowshon Moreno) + @brettowens (even though he probably owns a Lakers beret)
There are a number of other daily conventions on Twitter (and other social networks) you can take part in—though the true effect of most of these programs is in the cementing of existing online relationships, or the forging of new online relationships, with individual users, rather than increasing your general medium viewership.
Certainly, you can create your own hashtags. But do so with the expectation of adding another significant workup to what is likely already your full marketing schedule. The effort can be worth it, though, because a personalized hashtag can act as a gathering space for those interested in what you have to say on a particular subject—it’s another community of interest for your work. There are other things to take into consideration when you’re creating a hashtag:
- Keep it short and use an acronym if it works better. For example, we use the acronym #lhlm for discussion related to our Lunch Hour Legal Marketing project.
- Make it memorable. If you can, integrate your hashtag into natural language, as it’s less jarring to read than Internet jargon. Compare: “#Lawyers must watch out for revised #IOLTA rules: www.justkiddingidontknowofanynewrules.com” to “New IOLTA Rules: www.stillmessin’.com #IOLTA #attys #trust #rules #client #service.”
- Make sure you read the whole string, with an eye to alternate word combinations, before you release a hashtag.
This is all to say that, when you create a hashtag, do so deliberately. Find out whether the hashtag (or a similar variant) already exists. Try different iterations. Get impressions of your idea from people you trust.
Whether you create a hashtag yourself or start using one that already exists, the ultimate goal is the same: to get people to view a stream that will contain certain of your posts, from time to time. Remember, of course, that there is value in a manageable (less popular/less populated) stream, since you’ve got less competition for your hashtagged tweets; but most folks with Twitter accounts are not capable of moving really gigantic numbers of hashtag followers anyway. My apologies if you’re Justin Bieber, because you can.
Here is a simple list of dos and don’ts for promoting hashtags that you might subscribe to.
- You should decide whether, and when, you want to hashtag versus when you just want to plain old tag. For example, @ABATECHSHOW or #ABATECHSHOW. Part of the answer to the question of what you choose is whether you’d like to link to the user profile (to give more follows, or to get your mention noticed to get a follow) or to engender further discussion on the topic, perhaps stemming from your own contribution to the stream.
- You should be wary of overtagging your posts as well. When you include a large number of hashtags (say, three or more), you’re reducing character availability (and probable retweets) and necessarily limiting the amount of natural language in your posts.
- If you’re going to effectively promote a hashtag, you need to be consistent. Include the hashtag on every post related to the discussion topic, not just some. If you’re going to host chats surrounding the hashtag, keep up a schedule. Don’t spend the months leading up to a conference using the conference hashtag, and then stop using it when you’re at the conference, when interest is at its peak. Promote the hashtag in other media, too, to drive discussion on Twitter. This is the old saw respecting social media: There is not the one network, there is only the combination of networks. (Or, was that Buddha.)
Creating New Content—and New Conversations
In addition to creating conversations surrounding your hashtag, you’re also looking to source user-generated content—you want people to write things related to your hashtag, and to post those items with your hashtag included. Ultimately, if you can get people to write content specifically with your hashtag in mind, you’re golden. Then, the cycle will spin again: New conversations will spring up in relation to those posts. With the enduring popularity of content marketing, Twitter users should be watching out for these opportunities. Trends are important to Twitter; the service lists trending topics at all times.
In the end, Twitter is a social media program for front-runners, whether those front-runners fired the starting gun or joined the pack later on after disembarking the subway or something. If you can capitalize on trendy hashtags, or create, grow and promote those of your own, you’re far more likely to get the effective reach you’re looking for.
Of course, not everyone is going to be playing nice when it comes to moving the conversation linked to a popular hashtag. Internet trolls have no interest in doing anything other than raining negativity on your parade, and raising your blood pressure. This is not to say that contrary views are not valuable; but trolls aren’t interested in discussing the merits of anything—their sole interest is in flattening discussion and driving users away from conversations. Gyi Tsakalakis just published, at this very site, a succinct method for dealing with trolls. For my part, I’m here to tell you that the more popular your hashtag becomes, the more likely you are to attract trolls to it—but that’s true of anything you do online. (Though it’s not always trolling … sometimes people just call out fast food companies for the thickening of America.)
If you were able to get through all of this and would still like to read more about hashtags, there are a number of resources, including: Hashtag.org (a collection of all things hashtag, presented in a Wikipedia format); What the Trend (for hashtagged and non-hashtagged trending topics and analysis) and Twubs (a hashtag directory and promotional service).