How to start a Twitter hashtag

More and more people are covering live events and breaking news via Twitter — and usually there are several Twitter users covering the same event. Hashtags are a handy tool for pulling together such disparate coverage.

A hashtag is just a short character string preceded by a hash sign (#). This effectively tags your tweets — allowing people to easily find and aggregate tweets related to the event being covered.

If you’re live-tweeting, you’ll want to know and use an appropriate hashtag. Earlier I explained why it’s important to propose and promote an event hashtag well before the event starts. But where do event hashtags come from?…

Doyle Albee, maven of the miniskirt theory of writing, asked me:

“I’ve used hashtags a bunch, but never started one. If, by some chance, there are two events (or whatever) using the same hashtag, does everyone searching just see both until one changes, or is there some sort of registration or vetting process?”

Here’s my take on this…

Twitter is primarily an in-the-moment medium. Therefore, you probably don’t need to worry about duplicating event hashtags from weeks or months ago — unless discussion related to those hashtags is still happening (either right now, or within the last few days).

UPDATE: Also, Twitter hashtags are completely ad hoc. There’s no registration process — it’s nothing more than a convention. Just go for it and see what happens.

I’ve started a few event and breaking news hashtags, My strategy has been to devise a short, memorable character string that intuitively evokes the event name and the year or other time reference — and that, ideally, can be easily used as a word in a sentence.

Breaking news example: After the coal ash spill disaster in Harriman, TN on Dec. 21, I launched the hashtag #coalash. People are using this to share ongoing updates, views, resources, etc. related to this unfolding disaster.

Event example: For this year’s Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I proposed the hashtag #SEJ08. If it’s an ongoing event or collaboration, or something that recurs pretty frequently (like monthly or quarterly), you might want to omit the date reference.

Characters count in Twitter! That’s why #SEJ08 was a slightly more efficient hashtag than #SEJ2008 — and a far better hashtag than #roanoke (where the conference was held, but not really intuitive for this event) or #envirojourn2008 (just too damn long). And hashtags like #IS08 (for the Internet Summit, which happened yesterday in Chapel Hill, NC) was pretty much a perfect event hashtag.

Once you have an idea for which tag you want to use, then: Check whether anyone else is using it right now or recently. Search Hashtags.org and Twitter search for occurrences of your hashtag — and on Twitter search, search for it with and without the “#” sign. (That’s because lots of people won’t jump through the official Hashtags.org hoops and will just use the hashtag, perhaps forgetting the hash sign, or they may follow it via Twitter search without the hash sign.)

UPDATE: When history does matter: If you think it’s likely that people would be sharing more than a handful of photos or videos from the event, you might want to check that your proposed event tag (without the hash sign) doesn’t duplicate the tag for a former event. That’s because photo and video searches tend to be weighted more for relevance than  timeliness.

Example: Choosing a hashtag

Imagine I’m live-tweeting an annual event called the Trinidad-American Summit. My first guess for a hashtag would be #TAS08. But wait! That happened to be the hashtag used for the Thin Air Summit — an event held a couple of weeks ago which had nothing to do with Carribbean issues.

Normally I wouldn’t care that another event had used the same hashtag, especially an event on such a different topic. However, there’s still ongoing Twitter discussion related to the Thin Air Summit — people were still posting about it yesterday. Therefore, if I started using that same hashtag for a new event, there probably would be confusion from people involved with either event. This, in turn, would mean I’d probably get a lot of angry @ replies on Twitter. Too much hassle.

So I start considering other possible hashtags. The next one that occurs to me is #TRAM08 — It’s short, memorable, and evokes TRinidad AMerican. (The “summit” part is superfluous, since the “08″ year reference is enough to imply that this is an event.)

Since people might also be sharing photos or links from this event, I also quickly search Flickr and Delicious for the tag TRAM08 (no hash sign). No one’s using this tag there either. Perfect!

After you’ve picked your hashtag

Once you find a good, short, intuitive hashtag, start promoting it right away — to your Twitter followers, on your blog, in your media-sharing accounts (like Delicious, Flickr, and YouTube). Also, if you’re running the event, make sure you promote the event hashtag on the Web site, in e-mailed materials to attendees and media, and everywhere.

From the moment you start promoting the hashtag, point to Wild Apricot’s intro to Twitter Hashtags — because plenty of potential live-tweeters won’t know what you’re talking about. This will encourage more people to use your hashtag in their tweets from the event.

Also, as soon as you pick your event hashtag, set up a Twitter search feed for it (character string only, not the hash sign). Monitor that feed so you can see who’s using it, and if any conflicts arise. Most importantly, if you see someone trying to use your hashtag for a different event or topic, send them an @ reply immediately to ask them to please choose a different hashtag.

Also, keep an eye out through whatever means possible to see if other people are using other hashtags to cover that event. If they have more momentum or got an earlier start than you, then adopt their tag. But chances are if you choose and promote your hashtag early, it’ll get adopted. Either way, by the time the event starts, there should be a tag that you can announce in sessions and gatherings, or share in conversation.

…Again, that’s just how I handle starting an event or breaking news hashtag. Other people probably have different approaches. I encourage you to add your thoughts in the comments below.

31 thoughts on How to start a Twitter hashtag

  1. Great info! I’ve been to a number of events that utilize the live twitter commentary throughout the event – its a fantastic way to keep up on whats going on and meeting up with folks as events/parties/ talks, etc are happening on the spot. I think for presenters its also a great way to keep tabs on what the attendees are thinking as things happen. Great!

  2. Hi, nice post!

    Do you know any i-phone app or website that lets you find people at events using twitter or other, for purpose of networking?

    thx!

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  6. At the risk of being self-promoting. Hashtags work GREAT with http://twitterfall.com. Popular trends (and thus hashtags) are shown in a list on the left, and you can add your own too. There’s also a ‘Link Here’ link at the top, which you can use (right click and copy/bookmark) to share a Twitterfall configuration with your Followers/Friends. Great combination to events/conferences/anything!

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  9. You’ve outlined a great set of considerations to make when getting ready to use a hashtag. Considering the fact that there were three or four different hashtags going on for the Oscars the other night, getting everyone on the same page for a smaller-scale event is critical. You definitely don’t want everyone there tweeting under their own version of the hashtag, as it kills the purpose of the medium and the ability to start tracking across Twitter.

    In addition to promoting a hashtag on sites like Delicious, Flickr and YouTube, we hope you’ll consider setting up a page at What the Hashtag?! as well. We’ve built http://whatthehashtag.com as a user-edited encyclopedia for Twitter hashtags, that way its easy for Twitter bystanders to get updated on what a hashtag stands for, in case it isn’t quite so obvious (as in your #TRAM08 example).

    Again, great outline for others to use when considering where to begin with hashtag naming conventions.

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  11. Thanks for all the hashtag info- I get it now!

    I couldn’t help but notice that you have a twitter badge widget on a wordpress site. How the heck did you get that working? I don’t know much about coding except that wordpress won’t accept javascript.

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