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Hashtags are very handy and a wonderful tool for Twitter (and even Google +) when used correctly. When used outside of the common and major functions that have organically emerged for hashtags, it can sometimes upset other users or, more importantly, cause your tweets to get skipped and go unread.
I want to outline the common functions for hashtags and how to use them so that you can feel confident that you are writing effective tweets that get read by others! If you don’t yet know what hashtags are, please go here first. If you want a list of commonly (and not so commonly) used speech and language hashtags go here.
Hashtags have four general functions, with hidden rules behind most of them. They are used for: chat/conference participation, marking topic area or intended audience, adding emotion/intent or thought processes to a tweet, and comedic effect. Each function requires a slightly different way of using hashtagged words in terms of the number of words included and the place in the tweet where they appear. So, let’s dig into how to use these and look like a pro (or, possibly more importantly – NOT look like a newb).
This is probably the best understood function of a hashtag. If you are participating in a twitter chat or attending a conference you mark each tweet with the predesignated hashtag that everyone has agreed upon. Examples of chat hashtags are #slpchat, #ATTchat, #SpEdChat, #OTalk, etc. Examples of conference hashtags are #ASHA12 #CASLPA12 #ATIA, etc. The idea is that you use these hashtags while participating in the actual chat/conference or to provide information about upcoming chats/conferences. The hashtag usually goes at the end of the tweet but can go elsewhere if that makes sense in the flow/sentence structure of the specific tweet.
Using these hashtags for any other purpose (e.g. to advertise your product, gain attention of those who might participate for some reason, ask a question for that audience) is considered somewhat rude, especially if you do it all the time. It is more tolerated to use conference hashtags for other (albeit related topic) purposes. Some teacher-based chat tags seem to be OK with this use – for example, #edchat has become the #slpeeps tag for teachers – but I’m not certain they are OK with the (mis)use of the tag or if it’s so pervasive they just gave up worrying about it.
Why is it rude to use the tag when you aren’t tweeting about/within the chat?
It distracts those who want to participate because of off topic tweets that show up in the chat timeline. Also, it’s kind of like poaching a potential audience and then your tweets get viewed as spam, which we can all agree is a very bad thing! Also, you may not be getting your intended audience! Tweets marked with hashtags only show up for about a week in a tag search. #slpchat, for instance, only happens once every several weeks and I feel confident that SLPs don’t check that tag regularly except at chat time.
- use the tag whenever actively participating in or promoting a chat or conference
- use the tag when providing information/links DIRECTLY RELATED to that chat or conference topic (e.g. link about pragmatics with chat tag for upcoming or recent chat on pragmatics is fine)
- use a conference tag for related issues or social events you want to bring to the attention of conference attendees
- use a chat tag for advertising or topics/tweets unrelated to the actual chat topic (use #slpeeps tag for that purpose to much greater effect and respect)
Many people use hashtags for this purpose very effectively. You may want to start with or add the hashtagged word at the end of the tweet to mark it for an intended profession (e.g. #slpeeps, #audpeeps, #OT). The idea is that people in that profession or interest circle will follow the hashtag regularly and see your tweet. I follow #slpeeps and read all tweets marked with this tag once or twice a day, for example.
If you are marking an overriding topic of interest you may want to use a well followed hashtag (e.g. #AAC, #dyslexia, #autism, #SpEd, etc.). The reason to do this is the same – you are marking the tweet for an intended audience with the overriding topic of your tweet. People will often follow these sorts of tags because it is their interest area and they want to see tweets about that topic.
You may also want to mark a tweet with a hashtag so that readers can click the tag to see other relevant tweets on the topic. Did know you could click on hashtags to see all tweets with that tag? Now you do. (By the way, you can also search ANY word, not just words with a hashtag).
Only use common or ‘valid’ hashtags for this purpose
You pretty much always want to tag a tweet with a hashtag people would actually search or are actively using. How do you know if it’s a common enough hashtag that people are searching/using? Search it yourself and see what comes up. If no one or only one person (probably you) has used the tag, it’s not worth including in future tweets, unless you are actively trying to make it a new hashtag – in which case I suggest you tell people so. Also, if you search a tag and get many irrelevant tweets that are not on the same topic or audience you had intended, it’s pointless to include it (e.g. the hashtag #slp means ‘sleep’ to 99.9% of tweeters).
For example, here’s a search for #slpeeps. Clearly it is well used (one of the highest in all health care related fields!) and a general purpose hashtag intended to mark tweets as relevant or directed to SLPs. If you want SLPs to see your tweets, please mark it with #slpeeps, but don’t mark it with #slpchat, #SLPsnQs, #ASHA12 (unless it’s actually DURING or about the conference), and so on.
How Many Hashtags are Acceptable in a single tweet?
Good question. This hasn’t been narrowed down precisely, but when every second word is hashtagged it becomes cumbersome and difficult to read. This is especially true if the tags are ‘meaningless’ in that no one would ever search that hashtag (remember your search test to see if it’s a ‘valid’ hashtag).
Generally, people prefer a string of tags at the end of a tweet – maybe up to 5 or so. It’s OK to put the occasional tag in the middle of a tweet if you are only using 1-3 tags in the ENTIRE tweet. Here’s a funny but serious conversation we once had about it. Below are examples of effectively used and poorly used hashtags:
I took that example from a non-SLP on purpose so no one feels I’m potentially targeting them in this blog post (and messed up the handle so as not to offend in general) but that is a REAL tweet. Aside from the fact that the fragmented sentence is hard to read (and that the tweeter used an egg as their avatar, thus indicating they aren’t worth paying attention to in the first place), let’s look at the choice of hashtags for a moment.
I’d say the majority of those are completely unnecessary and only serve to clutter the tweet. In fact, given the topic, I’d only keep #Murdoch (valid & on topic search results) and #privacy (valid & on topic search results). #phone, #surfing, #naked, and #data come up with too many irrelevant tweets when you search them so they aren’t helpful in targeting your audience. #tapping comes up with some VERY irrelevant and off-topic (off-colour) tweets, so that’s a poor choice. #4change, while somewhat on topic, is too broad and not as relevant to this specific tweet’s content to be worth including.
When I see a hashtag heavy tweet, I almost always skip over it because it’s so
annoying cumbersome to read. I’ve even unfollowed people because their tweets are regularly hashtag heavy. I know I’m not alone in this so be aware and get your tweets noticed!
- use the common general purpose hashtags within your tweets to mark it for intended audiences
- search the tags you’re using to see if they will be effective or just clutter
- use the #slpeeps and #audpeeps tags for any general purpose, questions, or advertisement tweets directed at SLPs and AUDs.
- Include only a few topical hashtags per tweet so your tweets are more readable
- Put hashtags at the end of a tweet if you have more than 1-3 tags (but max ~5 hashtags in ANY tweet).
- Hashtag many words in a tweet
- Use hashtags that are not meaningful or do not lead to many other tweets (by multiple people other than you) on the same topic.
- Use hashtags to highlight key words just because you think people will noticed them more – people are actually more likely to ignore them (and you).
Text can be difficult to interpret correctly so we’ve designed ways to make it easier to communicate an emotion or thought behind a tweet. Emoticons are helpful, but tweeters have organically come up with some more creative solutions. Often people will add a ‘fake’ hashtag (meaning you didn’t intend anyone to search it or click on it to see similar tweets) to the end of a tweet to give it a certain emotional or topical colour. This is often used in reply to someone else.
When Tara uses #justifying – she is giving you insight into her intent or thoughts. When Carl uses #saynotohoarding, he’s doing something similar, but differently. Others use words like #sarcasm or #jk (meaning ‘just kidding’) and so on in their tweets for the same effect.
Remember that twitter is about building relationships, not just broadcasting your ideas or advertisements. So putting a single hashtag like these are helpful in bringing out your personality and making you feel like a real person behind the tweets. It also helps to give others insight into your intent or motives, which is key. I like this ability so much that I often wish I could include a hashtag for this purpose in emails. One or two well chosen words tagged at the end of a sentence can speak volumes about your frame of mind or emotional state! Where else can you (appropriately) add a random word or two to such effect? It’s genius.
- Add a word or short groups of words in one hashtag at the ends of tweets to help elucidate your motives, state of mind, emotion, or intent.
- hashtag random words that do not contribute to this process (or others mentioned above).
Along the lines of adding a ‘fake’ hashtag to clarify ideas/motives/emotions/intent, which works very well, it naturally follows to use this same technique to add a brief (or sometimes not so brief) joke or wry observation to your tweet in much the same way. There are different ways of pulling this off and some ways are more effective or witty than others.
One way to make a joke in your tweet with a ‘fake’ hashtag is to add one or two words in a combined hashtag – exactly like you would with the emotion/intent purpose.
Sometimes people use whole sentences to make a hashtag joke. I strongly suggest you closely limit the really long sentence hashtags, however. Like anything, too much a good thing is too much and becomes annoying.
Tip: If you use more than 2 words in a hashtag, consider using capitalization to help your readers so that #TheHashtagLooksLikeThisAndIsMoreEasilyReadable. Also, remember that you cannot have spaces or ANY characters in a hashtag – only letters and numbers.
- Use fake hashtags for comedic effect or to make a joke or wry commentary (when it fits the situation to do so)
- Use only one or two joke hashtags max – almost always at the end of the tweet
- Use this more often when talking to another tweeter than in general tweets to all your followers.
- Do this in every tweet – overuse any ANY/ALL hashtags can also become problematic and you will lose readers.