After months of speculation, Facebook has finally rolled out a new feature that allows users to put clickable hashtags in their posts. “Hashtags turn topics and phrases into clickable links in posts on your personal timeline or your Page, and help people find posts about topics they’re interested in,” Facebook writes. Hashtags do not override privacy settings, however, as they are only visible to the people you already share your post with.
The arrival of hashtags on Facebook comes with mixed reviews. Businesses are welcoming the symbol-formerly-known-as-pound-sign with open arms. Before, Facebook did not have any search function that would enable company pages to find out what their customers were talking about outside of their Facebook page. Now, businesses can use hashtags to “eavesdrop” on users to find out what people are talking about, and usually, whether it’s positive or negative.
Some people do not share the same enthusiasm about the new feature. Many are afraid that their News Feed will be overrun with hashtags that #dontserveanyrealpurpose. There has also been complaint about the formatting of hashtags—bold and blue type—compared to the standard type of non-hashtag posts. Facebook is known for its clean look, and opponents of the hashtag takeover believe this will clutter the interface.
From a communications perspective, I think the addition of hashtags on Facebook should be a welcome one. We’ve already seen the benefit of this on Twitter—hashtags have allowed professionals to reach a large audience with a simple word and a pound sign. While it may be a little more cumbersome on Facebook (Twitter’s privacy settings have two options—everyone can see your tweets or no one can), hashtags will allow businesses and communication professionals to reach both their internal and external audiences where they may not have before.
Internally, the addition of the Facebook hashtag will come with a much higher success rate for communication professionals than externally. If the professional is trying to reach an audience from a personal Facebook account (not a business page) and they have some sort of privacy settings, the hashtag won’t be beneficial unless the people they are trying to reach are friends with them on Facebook. Most likely, an internal audience will be friends with the communicator because they have a professional relationship with this person outside of the social networking site. This doesn’t affect business pages too much because the majority of business pages are viewable whether or not you have “Liked” them.
Externally, the use of the hashtag might not be as beneficial to someone communicating from their personal Facebook page. If they are not Facebook friends with their external audience, then chances are that audience won’t be able to view the post that included the hashtag. Again, business pages have less to worry about because they generally have very few privacy restrictions.
So how can a business or communication professional use the hashtag to reach a broader audience? Turning key words into hashtags—for example, in a post about physician services, words like #patient and #physician would benefit from a hashtag—will give your post a broader reach than using the hashtag on words that wouldn’t be as popular or are too long. Also, adding “subject” hashtags at the end of the post will boost your reach because people may be searching for information on that topic. So if we were still going with the example above, a hashtag like #healthcare could be added so that people searching for information about healthcare will find your post.
Another benefit of the Facebook hashtag isn’t so that the communicator can reach more people, but so that they can learn what people are talking about, and what they want to hear. For example, if the communication professional were writing a post about physician services, they could first a) search and see which hashtags are the most popular for that topic b) find out just what people are asking about physician services. This allows the communicator to craft his post to fit the needs of people discussing that topic.
Although hashtags on Facebook may be annoying to the layperson, a communication professional who sees the full potential of this new feature can really use it to his or her benefit. Just as SEO works on Google (there are other search engines?) finding the right hashtags to include in your message can increase views, generate new business and boost brand awareness. Who knew that little pound sign would eventually do so much?