What is a hashtag?
Most people who are regular users of any of the major digital social networking platforms will be familiar with the concept of the hashtag; the words, either singly or in strings with no spaces between them, that are prefixed with the hash symbol. The hashtag came to prominence on Twitter, but is now widely recognised and used on a range of networking platforms.
The idea is that the hashtag can label or tag a post, in order that it can be seen as being a contribution to a wider discussion without directly replying to any one individual. On a platform such as Twitter, where many conversations, discussions, comments, observations and declarations are continually being made on a variety of subjects, the hashtag was a convention that allowed people to label their tweets within confines of the 140 character limit. This labelling meant that other users interested in that subject could search for contributions easily. Twitter also then allowed users to click the hashtag in a tweet to find other tweets that contain the same hashtag. This same functionality is now available on other networks such as Facebook and Google+.
When can I use a hashtag?
The hashtag is particularly useful both for participants and observers when commenting on live events, such as news stories or sporting events, conferences, election campaigns or television shows, to name but a few examples – it enables users to see personal reactions from a crowd of individuals who may be geographically distributed, but all tracking the same event. Most conferences and many tv broadcasts will give themselves a designated hashtag for people to use when posting comments and for others to follow.
— Museum Tweetup (@MuseumTweetup) November 28, 2014
Hashtags can also be used to contribute to (and observe) continual, ongoing discussions on the same theme. Some hashtags are weekly regulars, such as #FF – short for ‘#FollowFriday’, a recommendation to follow a named user or group of users. Tweets marked with this tag, as the name indicates, are usually posted on any Friday and are a great way to name check those other Twitter users with whom your organisation has had some support from or connection with over the course of the previous week – this also enables you to talk about your work, and encourages a retweet or reply from the other party involved, thus broadening exposure of your own brand. #MuseumMonday is a hashtag used across museums on a Monday; and some accounts make the most of the opportunity to regularly talk about their own work. There are also some subject specific tags, such as #FossilFriday, which is similarly self-explanatory.
Many hashtags in use in the cultural sector are annual events, examples such as #AskACurator, #MuseumMascot (celebrated as this is being written on Friday 5 December) and earlier this year, the Twitter endorsed #MuseumWeek event. These annual events often have specific themes or ideas behind them, but often invite broad contributions from all users. These types of events can be centrally coordinated by one organisation or agency, or can come about through a synergy of users with similar agendas that wish to highlight their cause. In the cultural sector, they are often designed to encourage engagement, and to break down barriers between the institution and the general public.
— Mark the Mammoth (@MarktheMammoth) December 4, 2014
It is also worth noting the hashtags that are used for posting across platforms. For example, #fb is added to Tweets when a Facebook and Twitter account are linked, and allows the same post to be broadcast on both networks. Similarly, a Twitter post marked #yam will post to a linked account on Yammer – the internal workplace social networking platform. Other tags for other networks exist too, and if organisations have accounts on more than one social network, it is worth checking what conventions exist. Not only do these tags allow users to save a little time by posting to multiple networks in one go, but they can also act as a signpost to other users about the other networks on which the organisation is active.
If you are interested in seeing what other hashtags are out there for Museums, Twitter user @danamuses has compiled this list: http://danamus.es/2013/05/28/glossary-of-museum-related-hashtags/
Is there anything to be wary of?
One difficulty with hashtags is that of consistency. There is no centralised registry of hashtags, and so any word in any interaction could be a hashtag if the author decides to put the hash symbol at the start of the word. For example, this means that there may be some instances of accounts that post using the hashtag ‘#museum’, while at the same time other users are using ‘#museums’. This could mean that there are many similar conversations happening but not necessarily joined up, with the potential for contributions to get lost or be missed. In this respect, it pays to see if there is a designated hashtag for the subject on which you want to contribute to, and to do some research. For example, is there an ‘official’ hashtag for the event or project, are there other hashtags that some participants are using? Which one is being used the most? If there seems to be more than one tag, find out which one has the types of interactions that you want to be a part of, and is being used by the accounts that you might want to interact with.
— NatHistConservation (@NatHistConserve) September 15, 2014
Anybody can use any word as a hashtag, but if you are starting a new hashtag for an event or project, it will pay to see if there are already some similar tags in use – it could be confusing and even potentially embarrassing to condense the initials of your latest funded project into what you think might be an engaging new hashtag, to find that the acronym you have created is already being used elsewhere for something completely different.
As with all interactions on the web, hashtags can also be used in less desirable ways; sometimes hashtags can be used in more subversive, contradictory or sarcastic ways too. As long as users look to treat hashtags with the same level-headed caution as they would other online interactions, it is quite straightforward to avoid complications.
Do hashtags make a difference?
The effectiveness of the hashtag will always depend on a number of factors. Perhaps most importantly is the groundwork in the way that an organisation uses its social network accounts on a day-to-day basis. Knowing what you want your social media presence to do for organisation is important, identifying your online audience and outlining how you will use your accounts to communicate with them is also very useful. It is generally accepted good practice that these are platforms for an organisation to have a more human voice than other official communication lines. Additionally, whilst these networks are good marketing platforms, many followers are turned off by a continually stream of marketing information; reminders about upcoming events or offers in the gift-shop are useful, but cultural organisations have a much wider remit, and their inherent physical subject matter is more conducive to range of more engaging posts. Simple ‘mystery object’ or ‘fact of the day’ posts can be very engaging to any audience, and will create more of a dialogue, thus generating reach. Following other similar institutions and creating online conversations with them also allows other users to see a ‘behind the scenes’ snapshot and can also raise one organisation’s profile among followers of the other. Hashtags can play a part in all of these kinds of interactions.
#DidYouKnow during WWII when the Royal family were onboard their train overnight, it was placed in a tunnel for extra protection?
— Nat. Railway Museum (@railwaymuseum) December 4, 2014
Many of the sector specific hashtag events can be a great opportunity for new kinds of interactions and posts from an organisation, and if the event generates enough traffic, the hashtag might appear in the list of trending topics, thus broadening the reach even farther. In this event, it is important to remember that the amount of other posts required to achieve this will mean that one or two updates will get lost among the deluge from all the other organisations concerned. At the same time a constant stream of essentially empty posts could stand out as such, and won’t achieve any of the engagement objectives of your brand’s account. Like so many other aspects of using social networks, the important thing is to maintain a balance and retain quality – one good post that gets retweeted twelve times is better than twelve posts that don’t say a great deal.
In addition to the raft of regular tags used by cultural organisations, it can aso be very beneficial to find and make use of tags beyond the sector; these can encourage new kinds of posts, and extend reach to users that may not otherwise engage with your brand.
Do you have any questions or concerns about hashtags? Which hashtags do you or your organisation regularly use? Have you ever had a bad experience with using the wrong hashtag? Do you have any hashtag related advice for others who might be embarking on a social networking journey? Post a comment below, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org, or join us for our Twitter-based surgery on the subject of hashtags on 16 January 2015 from 12.00pm until 2.00pm using the hashtag #dlnetsurgery.