OWNER'S MANUAL

The Science Behind Using Hashtags: Number, Type, and More

You should use hashtags...but how many, and which ones? Here's the data you need.
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To use or not to use hashtags? For many people, that is the question.

So here's the answer from Kevan Lee of Buffer, the tool that lets you schedule, automate, and analyze social-media updates.

According to Lee, "Hashtags have the potential to be truly valuable. The stats and info make a clear case we should understand, use, and appreciate hashtags."

The Data Shows You Should Use Hashtags

If you're looking for a completely cut-and-dried ruling, here it is: Use hashtags.

The proliferation of hashtags is incredible. What began on Twitter has now spread to Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Google search, and almost everywhere in between. (LinkedIn experimented with hashtags for a while before giving up.)

The widespread acceptance of hashtags should give you plenty of reason to consider using them. Not only could people type your hashtag on a Twitter search, but they could on one on Google, too. In that sense, a hashtag can make your content viewable by anyone with an interest--even if he or she isn't following you.

But how do you find the right hashtags for your content, and how do you make sure you use the right amount?

Here are some findings:

1. Tweets with hashtags get double the engagement of tweets without.

This data, courtesy of Buddy Media, is one of the most-cited examples of the effectiveness of hashtags, and for good reason: Doubling your online engagement is a big deal! Imagine going from four retweets to eight or 10 retweets to 20. And all it takes is a simple # or two?

Apparently so--although you'll want to keep it to no more than two. Buddy Media's research also showed that the volume of hashtags bears monitoring: One or two hashtags appears to be the max.

2. When you use more than two hashtags, your engagement actually drops an average of 17 percent.

Twitter's own research into hashtags confirms that there is significant advantage to using them. Individuals can see a 100 percent increase in engagement by using hashtags (the same bump as seen in the Buddy Media study). Brands can see a 50 percent increase.

Engagement, as measured in these studies, can include clicks, retweets, favorites, and replies, yet if it's only retweets your after, hashtags still would be a smart bet.

3. Tweets with one or more hashtag are 55 percent more likely to be retweeted.

Dan Zarella discovered this effect in a study on retweeting behavior that included more than 1.2 million tweets.

Tools to Find and Manage Hashtags

With the right tools, you can use hashtags as an organization system for your social-media campaigns. With everything collected under one hashtag banner, you can see at a glance the reach of your campaign and the discussions happening around the topic.

Here are some options:

Hashtagify.me One of the most complete hashtag tools you will find, Hashtagify.me has reams of data you can use to analyze hashtags. The most helpful could very well be the first data you're shown: related hashtags and their popularity.

When you type in a hashtag, the service shows other hashtags to consider, displays the popularity of each hashtag, and indicates how closely it correlates to the original.

RiteTag RiteTag helps ensure that the tags you use are well chosen by showing you how good, great, or overused a particular hashtag is. The visual organization of hashtags into colored bars works great for quick analysis at a glance.

Tagboard With Tagboard, you can see how your hashtag is used across multiple networks. The results pages on Tagboard show hashtagged posts from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Vine, and App.net.

Twitalyzer Though not a tool explicitly for hashtags, Twitalyzer does show hashtags as part of its audit of Twitter accounts. Input the username of someone you want to investigate, and Twitalyzer can tell you what hashtags he or she uses most often. This can be really helpful in finding out how your niche's influencers tweet.

Trendsmap Local businesses might find value in Trendsmap, which shows you relevant hashtags that are being used in your geographic area.

How to Find the Right Hashtag

Using the tools above, you can home in on a few ideal hashtags to start with, and like most things online, test and iterate from there.

1. Learn from the best: Which hashtags do influencers use?

Twitalyzer can give you a good foundation of where to begin for your hashtag search by showing how influencers use hashtags. Grab a handful of usernames of people and brands in your industry whom you admire and input the accounts into Twitalyzer. At the bottom of the results page, you'll see a section for their most commonly used hashtags. Add the relevant ones to your list of potential hashtags.

Let's say I wanted to find some hashtags to use in promoting social-media marketing content. I might start with a list of names such as Jeff Bullas, Jay Baer, Mari Smith, and Ann Handley.

That would result in a short list of hashtags like:

  • #socialmedia
  • #SMM
  • #twitter
  • #contentmarketing
  • #social
  • #content
  • #marketing

2. Cover all your bases: Are there related hashtags you should consider?

Armed with your list of hashtags, you can then hop on to Hashtagify.me to see which related hashtags might also be worth pursuing. While you're doing this exercise, take note of the circle size on your results: The larger the circle, the more popular the hashtag.

Not every hashtag listed will be relevant to you, but it does help to see some that you might not have previously considered.

3. Identify the all-stars: Which hashtags are the best to use?

Popularity and volume can be good indicators of the value of your hashtag, but you may wish to go one step further. Hashtagify.me has advanced premium tools that let you go deeper into statistics on individual hashtags. In a pinch, you can also get some solid data from RiteTag and its visual expression of how much each tag can boost your post's reach.

Among posts that contain the word marketing, RiteTag shows these tags as the most likely to be great, good, or overused.

4. Double-check: Could your chosen hashtags mean something else?

One last check before you finalize your list of hashtags should be whether the hashtag you've chosen is being used elsewhere in an entirely different context.

The worst thing that can happen when using a hashtag is to realize after you've tweeted that the same hashtag is used for an entirely different topic.

Jawbone tried a #knowyourself campaign on Instagram, only to find that the hashtag was already being used generically by thousands of users in all sorts of different contexts. Although that didn't necessarily ruin Jawbone's campaign, it potentially could have made life difficult for its marketing team.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Jun 18, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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