August 21, 2009

How nonprofits can use Twitter hashtags

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Tips on how to facilitate conversation around a tag

Beth KanterWhat is a #hashtag?

A hashtag is the symbol: #. (See the definition in Socialbrite’s glossary.) It is also a Twitter term that describes a keyword, prefixed by that symbol, that helps people track conversations on Twitter.

The hashtags site, a centralized directory of hashtags on Twitter, also offers a good definition:

Hashtags are a community-driven convention for adding additional context and metadata to your tweets. They’re like tags on Flickr, only added inline to your post. You create a hashtag simply by prefixing a word with a hash symbol: #hashtag.

A brief history of hash tags
Chris Messina is credited with starting hashtags and has written about how to make them most useful. According to the Twitter Fan Wiki, hashtags were popularized during the San Diego forest fires in 2007 when Nate Ritter used the hashtag “#sandiegofire” to identify his updates related to the disaster.

Nonprofit use #1: Events and conferences

Since those early days, hashtags have been used in different ways by nonprofits. One of the most frequent applications has been to use them at events and conferences. It’s not uncommon to see the “official” hashtag included with the promotional information about the event, even events or conferences that are not technology focused.

The hashtag creates a backchannel for participants. It also makes it easy for attendees to follow the conversation thread and participate whether they are or in the room or following from afar. That’s, of course, if the tag used is unique enough.

Nonprofit use #2: Sharing knowledge/resources as community of practice

Hashtags can create an ad hoc community of practice or a channel for people in a field to informally share resources or conversation.

Tagging communities or unbounded networks that might come to life around a tag are not new. The nonprofit technology community has used a special tag, nptech, created by Marnie Webb in 2004. It still continues to be used on Twitter as well as other places. Although this was before Twitter, the advice about what makes an effective tagging community still resonates and are applicable to effective Twitter hashtags

There are many ad hoc Twitter hashtags where nonprofits, foundations, social entrepeneurs, and others are sharing resources or having conversations. Some occur on a regular basis. I don’t think there is a formal directory of nonprofit hashtags, but there are few terrific blog posts that have good lists. For example, Socialedge compiled a list of Twitter users in the social entrepreneurship sector that included a list of hashtags.

Given that hashtags seem to appear and disappear like Cheshire cats and most seem ephemeral, a massive directory of hashtags for nonprofits is probably not very useful. However, a list of the 10 best hashtag communities and conversations might be.

Some of the #hashtag communities are ongoing and unstructured like the #nptech tag community. Others are more formal, structured conversations that happen weekly at a particular time. #4change is a regular chat about social media change. Another example, although not totally nonprofit focused is #blogchat, which is facilitated by @mackcollier and uses wthashtag to aggregate the conversation.

In my initial analysis of a mega list of 90 Foundations that Tweet, I did not look at hashtags. Nathaniel Naskashima, in a comment on another post, shared some insights from his look at the hashtags used by Foundations on Twitter. He observes that the hashtags are general, not unique.

As you can see, most of the #hashtags listed above are really way way too general to be of any use. If for instance, you tagged a tweet about your Foundation’s performing arts program with #arts, your tweet would be amongst tweets about all kinds of topics in the art world – even tweets about Paula Abdul leaving American Idol. If, however, there was a standard #hashtag for philanthropy/non-profit art like #philart (stands for philanthropy art) or #npart (stands for non-profit art), then I think we would see everyone in this industry getting a lot more out of Twitter (e.g. engaging in conversation, finding it more useful as a social media tool).

I think it takes more a unique tag. You need to publicize the tag and encourage conversation around the tag. Also, having weekly summaries that can be shared in other mediums can make the information accessible to others who don’t want to participate on Twitter. For example, the #givelist tag aggregated all the suggestions from Twitter and then created this site. This takes some facilitation.

Nonprofit Use #3: Advocacy channel

Hashtags can be used effectively at different rungs on the ladder of engagement. The best example of educating and engaging is how the National Wildlife Federation is using the #nwf hashtag to engage its audience in watching wildlife.

Another example is their use in a policy debate. EDF has put together a Twitter Guide to the Climate Bill Discussion. The guide points out the hashtags used by people who are supporting the bill or against. It also provides some “tweeting” points for advocates to use. And, in the case of Twitter Vote Report Twitter hashtags have been used for real-time participatory democracy.

  • What other uses of hashtags by nonprofits are there?
  • What are the lessons learned for using them effectively?
  • What are your best resources about hashtags?

This post originally appeared on Beth’s Blog.

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Beth Kanter is CEO of Zoetica, a consultancy for nonprofits. See her profile, visit her blog, contact Beth or leave a comment.

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8 thoughts on “How nonprofits can use Twitter hashtags

  1. Thanks. I've found hashtags to be useful to connect to other nonprofits concerned with the same issues as ours. Join the #whyhomeless movement…

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  5. THE BEST TUTORIAL ON HASHTAGS ON THE INTERNET!!!!!!!!!!! Seriously. You have a pleasant voice and you set up a tutorial path with real-time examples so that I could actually follow along as gave examples. Thank you so much–I get hashtags!!

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