This post originally appeared on Social Media B2B.

Stuffing tweets with high-traffic hashtags has been common practice since the advent of the hashtag in 2007. The thinking behind this is simple. Your followers see your tweets in two ways: in their stream and in search. If your B2B company is just starting on Twitter and doesn’t have many followers, then you need to get more attention from search. By including easily searchable terms in your tweets, you increase the likelihood that you’ll get found.

Did you happen to catch Entenmanns #notguilty dust-up last week? It was a case of hashtag stuffing gone horribly wrong.

Hashtag stuffing has become such common practice that there are even tools that discover the best hashtags for your tweet. And everybody does it, from Pizza Hut to American Express to Shaq.

The problem? It doesn’t work.

Background and Methodology

The data behind this post comes from a sample of customers’ activity on Argyle Social, a social media management software provider. The selected sample included more than 37,000 total tweets from 103 Twitter accounts between November 2010 and May 2011. Our users are professional marketers, and their companies range from small to very large, and are distributed across most major industries.

The question that I wanted to answer is: Do posts with hashtags outperform posts without hashtags within a given account? For this analysis, the measure of performance is clicks, and all tweets within the sample contained exactly one link. I compared tweets within the same account to control for follower counts and editorial styles.

Results

In 53% of the social properties we analyzed, posts with hashtags actually performed worse than posts without hashtags.

In 21%, there was no significant difference between posts with and without hashtags. And 26% of social properties had better performance in posts with hashtags.

When averaging across the entire sample, posts with hashtags received 5% fewer clicks than posts without hashtags. But averages aren’t particularly instructive, so let’s take a look at the distribution. The graph below shows the 103 accounts analyzed and the performance of their posts with hashtags relative to their posts without hashtags.

Clearly, some Twitter accounts make very poor use of hashtags while others use them very effectively. Twelve accounts lose 50% or more of their clicks when they use hashtags whereas 13 accounts boost their clicks by 30% or more. Overall, however, the distribution is definitely slanted towards the left.

If posts with hashtags tend to perform worse than posts without hashtags on an aggregate basis then we have some explaining to do. What was wrong with the original logic that hashtags increase search exposure, which leads to better discovery and more clicks?

I dug into the outlier accounts–those that were performing particularly well or particularly poorly–to see whether I could identify any practices that led to success or failure. This is where I struck gold.

What Works

Hashtags work well if they’re relevant and naturally occur within the conversation. Examples include:

  • Moderately sized, well-targeted conferences
    If you’re attending a conference that is relevant to your followers, it’s a good idea to share insights and conversations relevant to the conference.
  • Charitable causes
    Limited usage of hashtags associated with charitable calls to action (#haiti, #giveasmile) work well.
  • Highly engaged groups
    If you regularly tweet about special interests that have rabid followings (#vegan, #glutenfree, #oilspill), using those hashtags works well.
  • Create your own
    If your company has created a hashtag around an event that you’re hosting or another corporate PR topic, it’s very effective to use that hashtag. It’s obviously relevant and contextual if you’re the ones behind it!

What Doesn’t Work

Hashtags don’t work if they’re overly broad, not relevant and don’t occur naturally within the conversation. Examples include:

  • Huge conferences
    If you’re attending a massive industry conference (#adtech, #sxsw) don’t use those hashtags if you want your tweets to get read. Search results on those hashtags fly by quicker than anyone can read, and your followers are usually only interested in what you have to say if they’re at the event as well. If you want to tweet from a huge conference, use the specific hashtag created for individual speakers or sub-events to keep things targeted.
  • Extremely generic tags
    This is where the really poor results show up. Sometimes marketers create content specifically to support a hashtag, rather than using a hashtag to support content. This is what I call hashtag stuffing. Examples of this include #socialmedia, #crm, #superbowl, and many many more. Tweeting about a particular topic just because it has high search volume doesn’t work.

Conclusions

Remember that your followers are your primary source of attention. All of your tweets should be targeted at providing value to your existing followers, as they are the most likely to read and share your content.

Keyword-stuffing and targeting content to high-impression keywords has been a long time practice of search engine marketers. But just as Google is slowly strangling keyword stuffers with their recent algorithm update, your followers quickly filter you out when you use hashtags inauthentically.

If your tweets provide value to your followers, then using hashtags is not a bad thing. It can even get you more clicks when the hashtag is highly relevant and adds value to the conversation. But don’t target your tweets to overly broad, marginally relevant hashtags to maximize your search exposure–it just isn’t effective.

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