What Makes a Twitter Hashtag Successful?
One of the great mysteries about Twitter is figuring out what makes a hashtag successful. Which hashtags catch on with Twitter users and spread virally? How can hashtags be used effectively for advocacy and activism and not just add to the noise?
Hashtags are words or phrases prefixed with the 'hash' or 'pound' symbol (#), similar to category tags on a blog, and are used to add context to a Tweet. An example is #nptech, a hashtag used in Tweets about the use of technology by nonprofit organizations. (Check out our how-to guide to learn about using hashtags to spread, share and organize information.)
Nowadays, hashtags are a ubiquitous part of the Twitter experience. In the world of social change and digital activism, they are most often used to organize and aggregate Tweets around particular campaigns and events or to share news and knowledge. Hashtags have also become an effective way to gather information and provide aid during times of crisis, and many Twitter users have found themselves acting as citizen journalists, using hashtags in Tweets to share news on the ground during an emergency. (See examples below.)
During a live discussion about using Twitter for advocacy on Chronicle of Philanthropy, I asked Claire Diaz Ortiz, a Twitter official who oversees the company’s work with nonprofits and corporations on social innovation, what she thought to be the most effective way hashtags can be used for advocacy. She responded:
“Hashtags are all about getting your tweets in front of people who are interested in like topics but might not already know about you. They are one of the great ways that Twitter allows you to self-identify with like-minded individuals (who are all potential supporters and donors)...This is one of the top ways to gain a presence when you don't have one already (or to widen your existing reach).”
It’s often hard to determine where particular hashtags originates from, and, more often than not, they appear to spread organically through re-tweets and other users picking them up. Some elements that factor into the successful deployment of a hashtag include:
- Using a hashtag as part of an integrated campaign strategy. The hashtag is decided upon ahead of time, used consistently and appropriately, and shared with supporters/participants.
- Having prominent Twitter users/online influencers use the hashtag so it gets seen by a wide audience.
- Organic growth: Tweets with a hashtag get retweeted frequently and go viral.
- Citizen journalists on the ground quickly begin using the same hashtag to share news about an event or crisis situation
Our how-to guide has more tips about strategically using hashtags for advocacy and awareness.
Sometimes, organizers strive to make their hashtag a Trending Topic on Twitter in order to draw awareness to their event or cause. While this is an ambitious, yet achievable, goal, it is hard to accomplish due to the way Twitter monitors and measures trends. For example, during recent protests in the UK, organizers and participants were using the hashtag #demo2010. They grew concerned when the hashtag wasn’t trending during the nationwide protest. What the demonstrators didn’t quite understand was that Twitter Trends “favors novelty over popularity.” Just because there are a large volume of Tweets about one topic or using a hashtag won’t automatically make it a Trending Topic.
“The Trends algorithm only accounts for interesting peaks: sudden gains enough attention and gets people curious about what the hashtag means (creates buzz) increases that mark an emerging trend. Twitter used to rank topic popularity by volume, but changed the algorithm after Justin Bieber’s fanbase continued to account for roughly 3% of all Tweets in the spring of 2010.”
Below are some notable hashtags used for protests and demonstrations, disaster relief and aid during times of crisis, and fundraising.
Hashtags for Protest/Demonstration Organizing and Coordination
On April 6, 2009, a peaceful protest began in Moldova in reaction to what some claimed were fraudulent parliamentary elections that led to the reelection of the incumbent Communist Party. The initial flash mob was organized in Moldova's capital, Chisinau, by journalist Natalia Morari and friends, who used SMS to ask people to descend on the central square in the capital of Chisinau, light a candle, and silently protest the election results.
The hashtag #pman (which stands for Piata Marii Adunari Nationale, Chisinau’s main square) was primarily used by the Moldovan diaspora, many of whom live in Romania, to remotely participate in the protest simply by tweeting about it. Despite many media reports to the contrary, Twitter had limited use in the actual coordination of movements on the ground. As Morari said, Twitter was used as a way of “informing and keeping in touch with people who were interested and cared about what was happening in Moldova.” Read our case study on the role of Twitter in the protests for more details.
#iranelection and #neda
During the post-election crisis in Iran, citizens living in Iran, members of the diaspora and the Twitter community began using the hashtag #iranelection to share news and information about what was happening on the streets of Iran. While there have been contentious debates about how Twitter was used in the actual coordination of protests, it is undeniable that Twitter - and this particular hashtag - was helpful in getting information out of the country.
Twitter users also began tweeting with the hashtag #neda to post their thoughts following the death - and ensuing media coverage - of Neda Agha-Soltan, a bystander during a street protest who was shot and killed, and whose death was captured on a video that spread virally. #neda quickly became one of the top "trending topics" on Twitter by Saturday evening, June 20, 2009.
In September 2010, this hashtag was used to organize Egyptians in the cities of Alexandria and Cairo in protest of President Hosni Mubarak and his rumored plans to hand power to his son Gamal. The tag was chosen specifically to throw off authorities, since organizers knew they would be looking out for a tag more directly linked to the reason for protest. They used the name of Ahmed Orabi, an Army general who led a revolt again Egypt’s ruler Khedive Tawfiq and died on September 21, 1911 - to prevent the government from easily tracking their plans ahead of time.
Hashtags During a Crisis and For Disaster Relief
Following the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the hashtag #haiti was used worldwide to aggregate news and information about humanitarian aid, the situation on the ground and how to donate money to help the relief effort. CrisisCommons volunteers developed Tweak the Tweet, “a hashtag-based syntax to help direct Twitter communications for more efficient data extraction for those communicating about the Haiti earthquake disaster.” With the project, emergency-related hashtags on Twitter became more machine-readable and could be passed on to a number of sources. (See our case study on CrisisCamp Haiti more more details.)
These two hashtags were used following the February 2010 earthquake in Chile to tweet information about missing people, tsunami alerts, services and other topics related to teh catastrophe. They were two of a handful of hashtags later analyzed by a research team at Yahoo! studying the behavior of Twitter users after the earthquake hit. Their research question: how reliable is Twitter as an information source under extreme circumstances?
The team concluded, “Our analysis shows that the propagation of tweets that correspond to rumors differs from tweets that spread news because rumors tend to be questioned more than news by the Twitter community. This result shows that it is possible to detect rumors by using aggregate analysis on tweets.”
Hashtags for Fundraising
In 2009, a Guinness World Record was set by U.S.-based social media marketing company Everywhere for the “Most Widespread Social Network Message” with #beatcancer. Over $70,000 was raised for cancer-related nonprofit organizations in just 24 hours. The hashtag #beatcancer set the record contributing to the 209,771 unique mentions on Twitter, Facebook and blog posts. In 2010, PayPal and SWAGG offered to donate $0.05 for every #beatcancer mention to cancer charities. Unfortunately, the campaign was not as successful as the 2009 one (perhaps hashtag fatigue?), raising $20,000. While hashtag fundraising campaigns like this run the risk of being deemed “slacktivism,” it does show some innovation in how the microblog can be used for fundraising.
Have you used a hashtag that was succesful? Do you have examples that aren’t listed here? Let us know in the comments below.