What is the Current State of The Hashtag?
After almost ten years of hashtags, new studies have led social media influencers to believe that hashtags might not be as useful as they once thought. These studies have compared post performance, with and without hashtags, on popular social media platforms, revealing interesting results. For example, when Caitlyn Jenner was first trending on social media you might be surprised to know that “Caitlyn Jenner” as a keyword set on Twitter trended higher than the hashtag version, #CaitlynJenner, (700,000+ tweets vs. 200,000+).
So from decreased performance in reach and engagement, to faulty analytics thanks to spam accounts which overuse and abuse hashtags, social media influencers understandably have begun to question – is the hashtag worthless?
Below is a compilation of reports on the performance of hashtags across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Hashtags had a moment of popularity but the diverse profile privacy settings of Facebook users soon made hashtags worthless on the platform.
Facebook, unlike Twitter, isn’t configured as a widely public platform where hashtags are easily searchable. Instead, Facebook users build their Facebook community through known contacts and these contacts all have varying privacy settings for the content they share. This makes any attempt at trying to reach a broader audience with hashtags futile.
The study below showcases the difference in results between a search using a hashtag and a search without one.
Search results of “#running” on Facebook:
Search results of “running” on Facebook:
As you can see, the results vary quite significantly with the “running” search providing more thorough results. Since Facebook users don’t routinely make searches with hashtags their performance is actively diminished. A 2016 report from BuzzSumo, analyzed Facebook posts from over 30 million brand pages and found this conclusion about hashtags on Facebook to be correct.
Instagram is a great platform for social media’s prolific hashtaggers. The well-known rule of thumb has long been 15 hashtags per a post to increase engagement and reach. But that was before Instagram eliminated their chronological timeline feature, early on in 2016. The elimination of this feature meant that instead of viewing the most recent posts in a user’s feed, the most popular posts are displayed instead. This had Instagram influencers wondering if the value of the hashtag would be drastically changed as a result. The answer is yes and no.
The study below explains in-depth how hashtags currently perform on Instagram:
Avg impression per tagged post: 1,630
Avg Impression per tagless post: 1,677
Result: 2.88% increase without hashtags
👎 Post Reach:
Avg reach for posts with hashtags: 1,250
Avg reach for posts without hashtags: 1,274
Result: 1.92% increase without hashtags
💪 Post Engagement:
Avg for posts without tags: 86 likes and one comment
Avg for posts with tags: 120 likes and two comments
Result: 28% more engagement for posts with hashtags
So, if Instagram influencers are looking for greater post reach and impressions, utilizing hashtags are not useful. But for influencers focusing on increasing engagement with their target audiences, hashtags are still an excellent tool!
Twitter is widely perceived, and accurately so, as the home base for hashtags. The widely public platform’s compatibility with hashtags has been beneficial for users to search, find, and comment on communities and topics of interest.
One of the biggest benefits to the Twitter platform is utilizing hashtags to discuss topics in real time with others, creating online communities. While hashtags offer these clear benefits, they can also be a hindrance to influencers thanks to an overabundance of zero spam accounts. Zero spam accounts – accounts that follow no one but share an average of 1k posts/month using generic hashtags – use general hashtags to infiltrate a variety of Twitter audiences on a daily basis.
Zero spam accounts are following not a single person but tweeting and liking upwards of 5k times in a span of less than a half a year. That’s more than three times the amount of tweets from even the most prolific tweeter.
So can influencers utilize hashtags to their advantage and avoid the spam? You can if you’re strategic about it.
Only Hashtag Topics That Require Context
Studies have shown hashtagging popular topics is only beneficial when the context needs to be clarified.
Using Keyhole.co, we input the name of Caitlyn Jenner, who was trending earlier this year, as both a hashtag and a keyword to get our own results. Mind you; Caitlyn Jenner would be considered a topic of discussion that doesn’t require a contextual background.
Trending Results for “Caitlyn Jenner”in January 2017:
Trending Results for “#CaitlynJenner” in January 2017:
Comparatively, AJ+ did a study of their hashtag usage versus keywords in their tweets and found that their second most popular tweet during the time of their study was a tweet that contained the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. They attributed the hashtag’s positive performance to the context it provided. In AJ+’s tweet, there was a video clip features coverage of a moment of police brutality in Baltimore, USA. Adding the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was like calling those being arrested in the video “civil rights activists.” In this case, the hashtag gave people context, and this made the hashtag useful for audiences who were searching for similar topics, discussions, and viewpoints.
This screenshot below showcases how Twitter acknowledges trending topics either with hashtags or keywords.
Topics that require a contextual background, i.e., #ThursdayThought or #WAVE3Snow, performed better with hashtags, while topics that didn’t require context performed better without a hashtag,, i.e., Gulf of Mexico, or American Apparel.
Avoid Easily-Spammed Hashtags:
Zero spam accounts are very active in the Twittersphere. Luckily, it’s easy to spot the Twitter parasite accounts, one of which is highlighted in orange in the image below.
Another good thing to note about zero spam account strategies is that they predominantly abuse general hashtags, i.e., #Marketing, #Sales, #SEO. As a result, when influencers use these hashtags they may receive likes and engagement from zero spam accounts, which will affect their analytic results and confuse their social media strategy tactics. To avoid engagement with spam accounts, influencers should take more time in coming up with hashtags that are easily searchable and yet more tailored to the content provided in the tweet, i.e., #twitterfail v.s #socialmediafail, or #marketingtrends v.s #marketing.
Don’t Include Hashtags in Ads
A tweet that doesn’t include a # or @ mention will generate 23 percent more clicks. When the tweet is focused on driving an app install, forgoing a # or @ mention increases clicks by 11 percent.
Tweets attempting to lead audiences to a 3rd party site, i.e., a blog, an app install link, a website, will find that hashtags look spammy and distract audiences from reading the post. So, for ad campaigns, we can completely do away with hashtags.
In general, Twitter influencers should utilize hashtags to keep their finger on the pulse of what topics are trending within their target audiences. Hashtags can help improve engagement, build buzz on popular topics, raising a brand’s social authority. As long as the hashtags are strategically used, that is.
So, What Have We Learned?
Hashtags are great at building engagement on Instagram and Twitter, but they’re not helpful as advertising tools on any platform.
In 2017, let’s not throw hashtags away altogether, but rather let’s become more strategic in how we include them in our content strategies.