But regardless of how annoying it can be to see paragraphs of words strung together on Twitter, Instagram and websites where hashtags aren’t even integrated, those measly little pound signs (yes, kids, they have a name), may be the key to boosting not only an online presence but an offline one, too.
If you have been mostly #LivingOffline and aren’t sure what exactly a “hashtag” is, here’s a little background information. Hashtags are a word or phrase beginning with a # sign, and followed by some sort of tagline or word that users are able to search for. In the beginning, the point of the hashtag was to streamline the search feature and to join people who were talking about the same things together by using a common hashtag. For example, when I’m watching my favorite soap opera, the Young and the Restless, I can search the hashtag #YR on Twitter, to see what other Twitter users are saying about the show. And to join the conversation, I can simply add #YR to my tweets so that those searching for that hashtag can read my tweets, too. After awhile, hashtags turned into a monster, with people using them #SimplyToMakeAPoint and making them #SoLongAndUniqueTheyAreUnsearchable. Then hashtags started showing up in places that don’t use them, such as Facebook and even text messages. And let’s not even talk about the woman who named her baby Hashtag.
Still, with all the outright unusability of some hashtags, it is possible to use a hashtag the right way, and to use it so that you can promote your brand across multiple channels. And for news media, hashtags are the perfect way to promote conversation about timely topics. Many television shows are putting a hashtag water mark on the screen so that Twitter users know what hashtag to use to search or join the conversation about that particular show. There are many reasons news organizations should adapt this practice:
- Hashtags are a great way to make a news story go viral. With Twitter’s retweet option and Facebook’s (who will be integrating hashtag use in the future) share option, if a breaking story is discussed with a hashtag put out by a news organization, millions of people will quickly see this hashtag, and either use it themselves, or find out what it means.
- Hashtags work well with multi-taskers. It may seem like a bad idea to promote an act that requires people to use another medium at the same time your news anchor is giving out the day’s breaking news. But according to this study, people are doing that anyway. In fact, 86% of people use their mobile phones while watching TV, and 40% of them are on social sites. If they are on social networking sites anyway, why not have them promoting your station and your news story?
- Hashtags can help gain more viewers. Picture this. You’re on Twitter and you see someone tweet about a kidnapping with the hashtag #BringJohnHome. You’re curious about who John is and want more information, so you search that same hashtag and find thousands of tweets talking about John, and probably, the station that created the hashtag. You tune in to this station to get all the information from the most reliable source, the primary source, and voila! You’ve been hashtag-hooked.
So how should one go about using this newly-developed feature? First, with each big news story (or even less breaking local stories), television stations should come up with a hashtag that is simple enough to use, but original enough to not be flooded by thousands of unrelated hashtags. Find something about the story that makes it unique and incorporate that into your hashtag. This shouldn’t be too difficult since most news stories are considered news because they are unique or have some sort of important feature. What is it about this particular story that will make viewers interested in it? Answer that, and you’ve found your hashtag.
After the hashtag has been chosen, incorporate that hashtag in every aspect of the news story. Add a hashtag watermark to the bottom of the screen so that all viewers know what hashtag to use. Ideally, this will be on the opposite side of the screen that the news station’s logo is on, so that the hashtag will not be skimmed over by eyes belonging to people who assume it is simply part of the logo. Now that the hashtag is visually available, connect to viewers via audio by having the anchor or reporter ask viewers to use hashtag “such-and-such” to join the conversation about this story on Twitter. The anchor or reporter could even ask a question, which viewers can answer by using that hashtag. It is also necessary for the hashtag to be included everywhere the news story is. So on the news station’s Facebook page, website, etc. If the story is being discussed, the hashtag should be there.
Once people start to use the hashtag to discuss the story, “reward” them by displaying some tweets on-air. This not only will make people more likely to use the hashtag because they may get their 15 seconds of fame, but it is also a great way to promote the fact that the hashtag is actually being used. And since these on-air tweets will likely contain opinions, it will promote viewers who agree or disagree with the tweeted statement to turn to Twitter to provide their opinion.
The use of an effective hashtag should be a snowball effect. It starts small, and eventually it seems that half of the Twitter-verse is using the hashtag that can be traced back to your station. The prize at the end of this snowball hill is “trending.” Once a hashtag has been used by many people, it will make the trending list, and users will see this hashtag and wonder its meaning, thus go searching to find it and in the end, find your station. And since not everyone is in front of a television all the time, but most people use their mobile phones for social networking, even consumers who are not able to watch your newscast can join the conversation away from the television.
It seems that, although hashtags can #ReallyGetAnnoying #WhenTheyAreOverused, they can actually help news organizations promote their company, as well as their breaking news stories. It’s time to #GetToHashtagging.