Lately everyone and their sister has a Twitter hashtag. Events, brands, conferences, launches, contests and more. If there’s a campaign afoot, there is a hashtag for that. Hashtags are a clever invention – literally a hash (#) mark followed by a word or phrase, and are used to track “trending topics” on twitter and to identify and filter parties and discussions happening on Twitter. For example, the conference I am attending this weekend is #EVOCONF . As I write this post, hundreds of Twitter users who are attending, curious about attending, or conversing with attendees, are using that tag.
While popular, hashtags are also the source of much controversy. The main question being, why bother? What is the point of this hashtag we are using? To be sure, a lot of hashtag use is gratuitous and without purpose. But many hashtags are carefully considered and even more carefully tracked
Brands, groups, institutions and individuals all use hashtags to count the number of impressions that their discussion has spurred. It’s a way to demonstrate the reach of Twitter and how many people may have heard a particular message. When a brand decides whether or not to sponsor a scheduled chat that already exists, they look at raw number of impressions. When companies and individuals work with PR and marketing to create a campaign or event of their own on Twitter, they also use raw impressions as the measure of success or failure of that event (at least the online portion). And therein lies the problem for which Twitter is criticized. Raw impressions, although similar to the measurements used for tracking exposure in other media (newspapers, magazines in particular) is just not enough for those who expect more from social media.
I tend to agree. It’s difficult to measure success or failure from these numbers. For starters, there is the sheer number of followers that are not real humans, the clutter of all the noise, and the transient and fleeting nature of a Twitter stream. While raw impressions give you a good idea of how big (quantity) a hashtag’s use is, this data is not useful for measuring how effective the hashtag is (quality) at achieving its goal – be that goal marketing, community building, spreading a message, or tracking trends. So why use hashtags at all?
In order to provide any sort of informed answer, it’s necessary to look closer at the way hashtags are being used successfully. As we invent ways to mine, measure and interpret the data that enables us to to define success, we’re moving beyond the oft criticized raw impressions measurement. We’re now able to include data from sites that weed out “true followings”, giving us a more accurate picture of who is really listening. We’re taking a closer look at party participants and how they have participated. These metrics give us a new understanding of the impact of hashtag conversations, and far more data on which to base our strategies. One such measurement that I am loving are the hashtag “Characterizations” pioneered by Hashtracking.com.
If you went to a party or event in person, would you tell people about it afterwards in terms of raw number of attendees or would you recount the lively conversation, the notable people who were there, and what interesting news you might have learned? Raw numbers might indicate success, but not if guests had little to say to one another, recognized an unpleasant stink and only stayed long enough to grab a goody bag and run
Hashtag characterizations give us valuable insight into the nature of a hashtag conversation and break them down into four categories:
Social hashtags: Have a high degree of discussion and interactivity – this is the most community oriented type of hashtag and a marketers dream. These conversations are characterized by looking at the number of @messages associated with a tag and delving deeper into how many impressions were cast via conversation, and by whom. Such analysis can also be invaluable in helping to identify natural brand advocates and community leaders.
Broadcast hashtags: Have a high degree of re-tweets by participants and less interactivity. These type of hashtags may be viewed as spam but are in fact an excellent means of quickly dispersing information in case of emergency and/or as a public service. It’s essential for brands to monitor if/when their hashtags ventures into Broadcast territory, as the messages being spread, may quite likely be perceived as spam. Damage control may be needed.
Lecture hashtags: Center around one or a few “experts” who are the draw for the hashtag event or who are popular participants in the topic. This is measured by looking at who casts the biggest shadow impression-wise and also who has used the hashtag the most and/or is the most “popular” attendee, getting the most @mentions. Lecture Hashtags are a good strategy for many types of twitter conversations, both information and market driven. They are a good way to draw in curious onlookers who want to learn more about a topic or brand, but who are not already a part of the community. Social conversations may become a lecture when certain individuals distinguish themselves as leaders. This can be a good thing or a bad thing (worst case scenario – a hashtag is maliciously “hashjacked”) and definitely something brands will want to monitor in real time.
Special Interest hashtags: Most commonly witnessed as “trending topics”, but do not have the high degree of interactivity, re broadcast, or expert participation that other hashtags enjoy. They represent the (often brief) intersection of a thought, deed, product or event, within a group of people who might otherwise have little in common. There is no specific call to action or community within these tags. They exist almost as a stream of consciousness, giving us a rare window into the popular psyche.
I would argue with any naysayers not to throw the baby out with the bathwater just yet when it comes to Twitter hashtags. With just a little more information we are able to tell so much about our hashtags. About our campaigns, our communities and our modes of modern interactivity. I’m really thrilled to be a part of this new social science. As geeky as it sounds, it’s very exciting to look at Twitter hashtags with the above filters.
Disclosure: I have based my above theories on the data acquired via Hashtracking.com which is the venture of my spouse, Brian Maso. He is very shocked to discover after 16 years of marriage, that I am, in fact, such a geek and a data head. It’s all about the tools! If you haven’t checked out Hashtracking.com yet, please do! I’m proud of his work. And endlessly fascinated as well.