How to fail or succeed at social media hashtags

I was asked recently, “How can I make a hashtag go viral?”

That’s like asking how you can make a file folder in your cabinet go viral in the office. After all, hashtags are tags. They’re a way of categorizing information, a way of retrieving it. They’re not super exciting.

Hashtags are the Dewey Decimal system of social media.

For most marketers, hashtags are also self-serving by nature. They’re for the convenience of the person transmitting information so they can go back at a later time and find out what happened with the tag. Do they benefit the audience? Only if the audience is looking for that specific piece of information.

So how do you make people want to share something that’s both boring and benefits you? The same way you make people do anything that benefits you: make it benefit them, too.

Libraries made the Dewey Decimal system (which benefits the library) powerful and useful to its audience by creating a standard and predictability. You know that martial arts books are going to be in 796.815 fairly consistently. You know that photography books are going to be in 770.

Likewise, if you consistently publish content to a hashtag around a specific theme, that hashtag becomes associated with your brand to your audience. For example, almost every weekday morning, I publish 5 interesting reads under the hashtag #the5. I’ve been doing this since 2009. What happens with consistency? People start picking it up:

The most influential sharers of #the5 according to Sysomos MAP.

They share and reshare until your content reaches millions:

Cursor_and_MAP_-___the5_ 2.jpg
The number of times #the5 has been seen and shared in the last 6 months.

The hashtag fulfills its purpose as a categorization system and an information retrieval system.

Compare this with how the average marketer thinks about hashtags. They see them as one-time use throwaways, part of very short-sighted, campaign-centric thinking. Hashtags are a checklist item at the bottom of the marketing plan. They don’t “go viral” because they don’t live long enough for people to see them and pay attention.

This is how to fail at hashtags; imagine a library that threw out catalog numbers every time you checked out a book. The next time you came back to the library, you’d have no idea where the book was. That’s what you do to your audience when you use hashtags only inside of campaigns.

Asking how to make a hashtag go viral is the wrong question. Ask instead how to be known for the content you create and share that incidentally also has a consistent hashtag.

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Social Media SEO Signals are Drowning in Ice Cream

Social media does not drive SEO.

At a recent PR News SEO and Google Tools Conference, several of the presenters made reference to studies done by SEO tool vendors about social media driving search results. These studies are surveys of SEO professionals; SEO folks are asked what they believe are the most important contributing factors to a site’s organic search performance.

By itself, there’s nothing wrong with the data. Here’s one example from SearchMetrics, in which 7 of the 10 top ranking signals are social media-based:


What conclusion might you draw from this? At the conference, presenters on stage and members of the audience drew the conclusion that social media drives search traffic. They drew the conclusion that to rank well in search, you must post your content on social media.


Yet Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, openly said that social media signals are not taken into account in Google’s search algorithm.

So why the confusion?

This is a clear case of marketers not understanding correlation. All these studies are correlations only. Before we dig into why the conclusion is wrong, let’s revisit ice cream and drowning. If you were to look in any public health database, you’d notice a strong correlation between the amount of ice cream people eat and the number of people who drown. The surface conclusion you might jump to is that ice cream causes drowning, right?

Of course not. Common sense says there’s an underlying variable: temperature.

As temperatures go up, people go swimming.
People eat ice cream.
The more people swim, the more people drown.

Very few drowning deaths occur in the middle of winter.

You could likely find similar data that shows a strong relationship between deaths due to hypothermia and hot cocoa consumption.

Let’s revisit social media ranking signals. What might be the underlying variable that we’re forgetting? The currencies of SEO are inbound links. The more high quality links you get to your website, the better you rank. Is it reasonable to assume that high quality content gets great links? Yes! Is it also reasonable to assume that high quality content gets shared? Yes! Does that mean social sharing drives SEO? Absolutely not. It’s just an indicator of quality content.

The lesson that attendees at the conference should have taken away was to create content so great that people can’t help but link to it and share it vigorously. Disabuse yourself of the notion that social drives SEO in any way until we hear the official word from search engines to the contrary.

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Gray social media and social monitoring tools

Mark Schaefer asked the excellent question on his blog, how do we track, measure, and deal with gray social media? (or any nebulous marketing audience)

His definition of gray social media are interactions that are too small or too disparate to register as “buy now!” signals in most marketing automation software, yet because of offline interactions may be quite meaningful:

I would like to propose today that between dark social media and light social media, there is a third category that is rich in undiscovered marketing opportunity — Gray Social Media. These are the small, still voices who are clearly telling us they’re there, but we can’t detect their quiet signals and capture the data. – Mark W. Schaefer

How do we detect gray social media?

One possible answer is in meta-data. For example, we may be able to identify untracked influencers by who they influence in turn. Take Dawn Gartin, a follower of Mark’s, as mapped below with the orange arrow (Mark is the pink arrow):


Dawn has conversed very briefly with Mark and shared one of his links. It’s not a strong relationship, but it’s a relationship nonetheless. Further, Dawn can activate several other nodes in Mark’s network who can spread the word, such as Eric T. Tung and Laura Pence (@socialsavvygeek).

This is an example of the gray social network. We can find it by looking for those people who appear as “weak” interactions, but still activate other nodes in the network.

How else might you find these gray social networks? Look off of social media. Look to things like the Moz SEO suite to identify new, fresh links that slip in under the radar. Here are a few new links to Mark’s website recently:


Above, we have a Dutch blog on social media strategy linking to Mark as a resource, followed by a podcast, and then further down, a book review of Mark’s Social Media Explained book. How many of these people triggered a monitoring system to notify Mark? I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that none did, because Mark is a super nice guy who ALWAYS goes out of his way to thank you if he sees it, and it’s clear he didn’t see this update:


Laura Sandonato’s updates were missed by monitoring systems. The Dutch blog above might be ushering Mark into a new market, but because of language differences, become gray social media. The podcast above likely contains references to Mark in the show as well as in the show notes. All of this is gray.

My take on Mark’s theory about gray social media: Gray social media exists inversely proportional to the capabilities of your monitoring and metrics systems. The more resources you’ve devoted to stringent monitoring, the less stuff will fall through the cracks.

The followup question is: how much gray social media can your brand tolerate before its business impact becomes important enough for you to track it?

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