Why hashtags are important for #journalists

By Andrew Gibson
Photo courtesy of danielmoyle

One of my favorite quotes about Twitter comes from Megan Garber, an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab:
"Twitter, like many other subjects of political pique, tends to be framed in extremes: On the one hand, there’s Twitter, the cheeky, geeky little platform — the perky Twitter bird! the collective of 'tweets'! all the twee new words that have emerged with the advent of the tw-efix! — and on the other, there’s Twitter, the disruptor: the real-time reporting tool. The pseudo-enabler of democratic revolution. The existential threat to the narrative primacy of the news article. Twetcetera."
Hashtags embody the dichotomy of Twitter better than perhaps anything else. On one hand, they're a powerful way to restore information order because they let users categorize content with just a few keystrokes. But hashtags are also cultural symbols and have even stretched into spoken conversation. You might finish a sentence with "hashtag awkward" while recalling an uncomfortable experience.

Fortunately, journalists can take advantage of both the fun and the serious sides of hashtags. Here are some tips for turning the funny pound symbol into a powerful online tool.

Use it to sort information

This is the original intention of the hashtag, and it's critical journalists don't overlook it. If you're writing a story that only quotes official sources, try tracking a hashtag to see what conversations "average" people are having about the topic. Daniel Victor, ProPublica's new social media editor, touches on the crowdsourcing power of Twitter in a post on the blog 10,000 words:
"If I’m a municipal reporter writing about a new commercial development, I might only have time to call the usual suspects (the developer, the mayor, the standard citizen gadfly). 
"But there may be dozens of people out there with small, useful bits of information, and they won’t be able to inform the rest of their community unless they’re lucky enough to get a call from a reporter. With social media, reporters can increase their source pool from 'those I have the time and awareness to call' to 'everyone who has an interest in the issue.' That leads to better sourcing, better stories, and better engagement with those stories."
You can learn about these conversations by typing a hashtag into Twitter's search tool, clicking on the tag itself or visiting sites like What The Trend and Trendistic, which give detailed breakdowns of what's popular at any given time. Twitter clients like TweetDeck and HootSuite allow users to designate columns that show every tweet containing a certain hashtag.

Andy Carvin, an NPR social media strategist who curates and verifies tweets about the Arab Spring, has been hashtagging his tweets with #Libya over the past few days. This allows people to more easily track reactions to the Thursday death of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.

Stick out in the crowd

People expect journalists on Twitter to act human. Using witty hashtags to convey tone is one way to build a rapport with your followers and to let them know you're more than a fact machine. "Twitter is a conversation; it’s not about shouting 'me, me, me,'" writes newspaper journalist Gina Masullo Chen. "It’s about engaging people virtually, and people who are interesting and funny are more likeable than those who lack these qualities." That said, it's important to make sure hashtags don't compromise the integrity of your work. If the organization you work for doesn't have a hashtag policy, err on the side of caution by saving the witty ones for tweets unrelated to the newsroom.

Creating your own hashtag is another way to stand out. However, always check whether there's already a hashtag for that topic. In the words of magazine editor Meranda Watling on 10,000 words, there's no need to "re-invent the wheel." Tell your followers if a hashtag already exists, she writes.

Lastly, you can earn newsroom Brownie points by being the first person to use a hashtag for an upcoming event. This means keeping an eye on the calendar. "Go beyond the obvious events and think about other topics you may be covering now or planning to cover in the future," writes Meranda Watling. If your editor approves, he or she might instruct the rest of the newsroom to use it. You'll be the talk of the water cooler in no time.

Find out what works

There are conflicting views about hashtag effectiveness. A recent study published on the Social Media B2B blog looked at the Twitter accounts of 103 marketers and found that, for 53 percent of them, hashtagged tweets drew fewer clicks then those without hashtags. However, there were also 13 accounts for which hashtags boosted the number clicks by at least 30 percent.

Because of ambiguities like this, it's important to track your own efforts. Nolin LeChasseur, co-founder of marketing-services firm BrainRider, suggests using a URL shortener like bitly to track whether your hashtagged tweets get more clicks than those without them.

Don't overdo it

Twitter recommends using no more than three hashtags per tweet. However, what might be an even more practical guideline comes from Barbara Nixon, author of the blog Public Relations Matters. "Will clicking on the keyword be beneficial for your readers?" she writes. "If not, then you can still use the words (if they are necessary to get your message across), but avoid the hashtag." Nixon cites a @cnnbrk tweet with the words "raped" and "dead" hashtagged as an example of poor practice.  

Keep in mind that hashtagged text looks different than the rest of the tweet. It's hard on the eyes when your 140 characters look like a checkerboard.

@ONAMizzou hashtags

Most of our tweets don't have hashtags. That's because we save as many characters as possible to encourage our followers to retweet our links. However, all of our meeting live tweets have an #ONAMizzou hashtag, allowing people to follow the event no matter where they are. We used the #ONA11 hashtag frequently from Sept. 22 through Sept. 24 because we wanted to be visible at the 2011 ONA Conference in Boston. 

What's your hashtag philosophy? Drop us a comment below. Or, if you want to know more about how to use them effectively, check out this Mashable article.

Updated on Oct. 31, 2011, to include the Daniel Victor quote

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