Hashtags help journalists find people tweeting about topics they are covering. They also help people who are interested in the topics you cover find your tweets.
We’ll start with the basics: A hashtag is the # symbol, followed immediately, with no space, by a word or phrase: #twutorial. In tweets, the hashtag becomes a hyperlink you can click to go to a search of recent tweets using the hashtag.
Journalists use hashtags in two primary ways: to find tweets and to help others find their tweets.
Non-journo tweeps use hashtags in at least four primary ways that are helpful to reporters: regular hashtags, event hashtags, breaking-news hashtags that catch on and humorous hashtags.
I’ll address these four types of hashtags in how they are helpful in both of the journalists’ uses: finding tweets and reaching people with your tweets:
People with shared interests will use regular hashtags to help others find related tweets. For instance, journalists in Digital First Media will frequently use #DigitalFirst or #dfm in tweets that relate to our company. Every Wednesday at noon Eastern time, we use #dfmchat for a chat on Twitter about some journalism issue.
In the same way, people interested in the topics or communities on your beat may use hashtags regularly, such as #KingstonNY for tweets about news, life and issues in Kingston, N.Y., or #Mizzou for tweets about the University of Missouri. #Breaking is used widely in Twitter and by Breaking News to gather tweets about, well, breaking news.
As you read tweets about the topics and communities you cover, watch for these regular hashtags. You can save them as regular searches to check from Twitter.com or a mobile app or as columns to monitor in TweetDeck or HootSuite. These regular hashtags should become as faithful a part of your beat routine as morning cop checks for a police reporter or afternoon filings in the clerk’s office for a courthouse reporter. They will produce story ideas and tweets to embed in daily stories. They will alert you to breaking stories. They will help you connect with new sources.
Similarly, use the regular hashtags in your own tweets. People following the hashtag but not following you will see your tweets (and perhaps start following you).
Dan Podheiser, former sports editor of the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., used #Hawkeyes in a tweet posting a link to a story about a local high school football player who had signed to play with the Iowa Hawkeyes. The hashtag helped lots of Hawkeye fans see his tag and read his story.
Unique breaking stories need their own hashtags (more on that shortly), but you can popularize local or regional hashtags for recurring types of breaking news. NewsOK.com started the #okstorm hashtag that is used regularly by Oklahoma tweeps when inclement weather hits. Media and residents in Connecticut occasionally use the #ctcrime hashtag. (What are some other newsy local hashtags in regular use? I’ll embed some more examples below.)
Unless you are using a hashtag to discuss your brand (as we do with #DFM and #DigitalFirst), it might be best to use a topical or geographic hashtag rather than a branded one. Denver Post reporters covering high school sports in Colorado get more participation by the public using #copreps than they did with the branded #dppreps hashtag. Other media join in the #copreps hashtag and fans are more willing to join, too.
Planned events routinely have their own hashtags. At first these were designated spontaneously early in the event by a few people who were tweeting about it. Now many events mention a hashtag in the event program, on slides shown at the event and in emails leading up to the event.
(But watch for secondary spontaneous hashtags that might crop up, or for secondary official hashtags; some conferences will have an overall conference hashtag as well as specific hashtags for each session.) Even if an event has an official or dominant hashtag, such as #Olympics or #London2012, watch for spontaneous hashtags, such as #nbcfail, which tweeps are using to mock NBC’s tape delays and announcing and production errors.
If you are covering an event, checking the hashtag(s) can help in a variety of ways:
- You can embed individual tweets in stories (and quote tweets in print versions of stories).
- If you are attending a breakout session that’s not as newsworthy as you had hoped, the hashtag might alert you to a more newsy breakout.
- Tweets can help you identify sources to interview at the event, showing people with different perspectives on an issue or expertise in a particular topic.
- The hashtag can alert you to related news breaking outside the event.
- If you are unable to attend the event, the hashtag can help you keep tabs and possibly provide coverage from afar (don’t misrepresent this as actual first-hand coverage).
If you are covering an event, check in advance with the organizers (or at their Twitter account or website) to see whether they already have a hashtag. If they do, you’re better off using their hashtag than starting your own. People at the event who don’t follow you will see your tweets when they check the hashtag. If you have some reason to use your own hashtag, it might be best to use both.
Many breaking news stories get their own hashtags, often occurring spontaneously, but sometimes launched by swift-thinking journalists. After the midnight massacre in Aurora, Colo., #theatershooting quickly became a dominant hashtag. In a comment on my post last week Jodi Gersh of Gannett credited the hashtag to @9news. The first @9news tweet I could find using the hashtag was a retweet of this tweet by a reporter for the TV station:
During Hurricane Irene, #Irene was a hashtag in widespread use, but that would show tweets from up and down the East Coast (though you can use advanced search to search for the hashtag in a local area). In Connecticut, many tweets used #ctirene.
Huge snowstorms in Washington area in the winter of 2009-10 inspired #snowpocalypse and #snowmageddon.
When you’re covering a breaking story, watch for secondary hashtags that show up in the tweets you find by following the primary hashtag or that you find in searching for keywords. As I wrote in 2009 about the North Dakota floods, #Flood09 was the most active hashtag, but I found other tweets using #fargoflood, #redriver, #flood and #ndfloods (and #grandforks showed up further downstream in the tweet below).
You’re better off using a hashtag that’s catching on (or already caught on) with the public than trying to establish your own hashtag. In 2009 when the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, the Des Moines Register quickly started using the hashtag #iagaymarriage and it caught on. At the Cedar Rapids Gazette, we used it too, even though we competed with the Register in covering Iowa state news. It would have been pointless to attempt competing hashtags. The Register-launched hashtag was helpful for us, as we were able to connect with gay and lesbian couples in our region planning weddings.
In a big breaking story, retweets and commentary around the country might quickly overtake the hashtag. To find local people tweeting what they saw or experienced, use advanced search to search the hashtag with a location filter close to the scene.
Thanks to Seth Long for reminding me that the Seattle Times made effective use of the #washooting hashtag in its 2009 coverage of the shooting of four police officers and the subsequent manhunt, which won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.
— Seth Long (@sethlong) July 29, 2012
— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) December 1, 2009
Humorous hashtags occasionally go viral and become newsworthy on their own or relate to news stories. Someone starts it, their friends join in and then their friends and soon it’s showing up on Twitter trends and it’s hot for a day or so.
Most of these won’t be newsworthy for a journalist (though they can be fun). But occasionally a story on your beat might generate its own humorous hashtag, such as #vaginamovielines, which took off after Michigan House Republican leaders refused to recognize Rep. Lisa Brown in debate after she used the word “vagina” in a debate about abortion.
— Mike Thomson (@MikeThomson22) June 15, 2012
Many of the #nbcfail tweets were funny, especially the ones mocking the networks delayed Olympic coverage, when results had been tweeted hours earlier:
NBC: Will Pearl Harbor be attacked? Find out tonight in primetime! #nbcfail
— Will Bunch (@Will_Bunch) July 29, 2012
Some Twitter users will throw a hashtag on a phrase in a tweet for emphasis or humor. These generally don’t catch on and generally aren’t newsworthy.
In any of the uses above, these tips might help:
- Before you launch your own hashtag, do a quick search for the hashtag, to see whether anyone else is already using it, especially if you are using an abbreviation that might apply to another event or group.
- Short hashtags are best.
- Clear hashtags are best. Yes, 2 and 3 are sometimes in conflict. #iagaymarriage was longer than is ideal for a hashtag, but because it was clear, it caught on and it worked.
- Copy the hashtag and paste it into each tweet before you start writing the tweet. This way you’re sure that you leave room for the hashtag and don’t inadvertently hit “tweet” or “send” before adding the hashtag.
- If you use TweetChat and enter the hashtag, it will fill in the hashtag automatically (it won’t show, but the characters needed will be subtracted from your character total). It also will show you other tweets using the hashtag. TweetChat sometimes doesn’t show new tweets immediately.
- If you’re searching for a story idea, see which hashtags are trending on What the Trend or which are trending locally on Trendsmap. The tweets might give you a story idea. Hashtags.org can also show trending hashtags and tell you how much a hashtag has been used.
Use hashtags in curation
A later post in this #twutorial series will address in detail how hashtags are helpful in curation of tweets. But this installment should make the point. Whether you are covering an event, a breaking story or a continuing story, you can feed a hashtag into ScribbleLive, CoverItLive or a Twitter widget. Similarly, hashtags can help you curate content using tools such as Crowdmap, Storify or RebelMouse.
Tips from my tweeps
Of course, I crowdsourced some hashtag advice (if you want to add your tips or examples, tweet them using #twutorial and I’ll add them):
Visualize a hashtag
I’m not sure how useful this is, but it’s fun and someone smarter than me might make a good use for it. Visual.ly has a tool to show the life of a hashtag. For instance, my #twutorial hashtag didn’t really catch on: create infographics with visual.ly On the other hand, #nbcfail was exceptionally active: create infographics with visual.ly #theatershooting has been widely used: create infographics with visual.ly
Send me tips, examples
I’d love to add some tips or examples from you on using hashtags effectively. Tweet them using #twutorial and I’ll add your tips to those already embedded here. Or you can add yours directly in the comments.
Next up (tentatively) in this series will be advice on what to tweet and how a journalist should tweet. I welcome your suggestions for good reporters and other journalists to use as examples. Send me specific tweets or a username of someone who uses Twitter effectively. I’m interested here in people who converse effectively with their communities, not necessarily journalists who discuss journalism issues among each other (for instance, I’m not interested in someone like me).
Previous #twutorial posts
Other helpful resources
Big hashtags for journalists by Andrew M. Scott
Why hashtags are important for #journalists by Andrew Gibson
Twitter’s What Are Hashtags (“#” Symbols)?
Tips to integrate hashtags into daily news coverage by Meranda Watling
A journalist’s guide to the Twitter hashtag by Gina Chen
Twitter Tips That Never Get Old by Deborah Petersen