In the post “30 Terrible Pieces of Social Media Advice You Should Ignore“, Ellie Mirman says that using common hashtags in your tweets “makes you look…like a Twitter newbie who’s trying to game the system” and that this practice is “also commonly referred to as ‘hashtag hijacking’”. Really? Let’s consider the two primary ways that hashtags can provide value for people using Twitter (or Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, or other social media platforms that support them).
What is a hashtag?
A hashtag is a word or term (acronym, wordset, etc.) that is preceded with a number sign (#). The addition of “#” tells the social media system to treat it as metadata, allowing anyone to use it to filter a message stream or search for messages using this term. These two ways of using a hashtag are very important, as they provide guidance for when it makes sense to include a hashtag in a post.
As I noted at the beginning of this post, there are people saying not to include common hashtags in posts. A common hashtag is a commonly used word/term that denotes a category or idea related to the post. For example, I could tweet about this blog post and include #hashtags and #socialmedia. The reason to do this is that my tweet can then be seen by Twitter users outside of people that follow my handle — anyone following filtered streams that include these tags would have my tweet show up, along with all other tweets using these tags. Of course, given the way message streams are continuously being updated, my tweet may or may not be seen by the person using a filter; however, the possibility of its being picked up are greater than by not using a common hashtag.
The issue of “hashtag hijacking” is when people use common hashtags that have nothing to do with the content of their post. For example, if I know that a lot of people follow #fashion and I want to try to get these people to click a link in my tweet that has nothing to do with this topic, then I would be hijacking that tag. But if my post is specifically about fashion, then this is a legitimate use of a common hashtag. Choosing the best common tag(s) for a post can be figured out by running searches on the social media platform or by using a search engine. There are also useful blog posts on popular hashtags, such as this one advising on common hashtags for marketing tweets.
Both Ms. Mirman and Rachel Sprung, in her post “How to Use Hashtags in Your Social Media Marketing” advise people to use unique hashtags in their posts. The practice of creating unique tags is good for curating a conversation, so you can keep the posts focused and avoid extraneous noise coming across the network. An example of this is the Launch Festival conference I just attended, where attendees were asked to include #launch2013 in their tweets — this way, it was easy to filter and only see what people were commenting on at the event, as well as to facilitate conversations. This approach can be very effective, but only when you have a plan for how to get people to use it for a defined purpose. Obviously, unique tags make sense for events, but posts might also benefit by using a combination of unique and common tags in order to draw in additional people. Regularly occurring forums or Tweet Jams are also good for unique tags.
Whether to use a common or unique hashtag depends on what you are trying to achieve. In most cases a common hashtag is useful, as long as it is being used in an accurate, honest way to make it visible to a wider audience than just your direct network.