#IdeaMonth Day Two: The Hashtag Funnel

As I explained yesterday, I've dubbed April #IdeaMonth. For day two, I'm moving from the sports commentary booth to the digital firehose that is Twitter.

Of all the reasons to use hashtags, discoverability sits atop the list. Effectively using a hashtag gives a tweet greater reach than using none at all. It's not a guarantee of retweets and favorites, but a hashtag will send your tweet into a global stream of tweets that, in theory, relate to similar subject matter. If you want to engage an audience beyond your followers (and beyond your followers' followers), the hashtag is helpful.

For example, Barcelona faced off against Real Madrid in "El Clasico" two weekends ago. It's one of the great rivalries and Soccer Twitter is extraordinarily active during those 90 minutes. My soccer account (@churchofsoccer) has nearly 8,900 followers, many of which are smart, insightful, hilarious, and otherwise entertaining. Even if I don't use hashtags, I can count on higher than normal user interaction, thus putting my content further out in the Twitterverse.

If I use #ElClasico, however, my tweets' tentacles grow considerably. Not only will my followers see my tweets, not only will my followers' followers (and their followers) see my tweets, anyone who searches for #ElClasico could potentially see them. It's a nebulous thing, and a simplified description, but that's the gist. 

But what happens when there is significant hashtag variation for a single event? Fragmentation. Searching for #ElClasico will not include tweets using #Clasico or #ElClassico. It will also not include less obvious, but related tags like #fcblive and #viscabarca (used by Barcelona fans), #halamadrid (used by Real Madrid fans), #RMABAR #BARRMA (and variations including "v" or "vs" in between the teams), and even misspelled tags like #ElClaciso (which was a real thing).

Does it make sense to tether all of these tags to one another? More often than not. While it's possible a Barcelona fan might want to see a more blaugrana-tinted Twitter feed (i.e. #fcblive), most users want to see content related to El Clasico on that day and, specifically, during the two hours the game is live.

What's the solution?

Ideally, everyone would know which hashtag to use ahead of time. Twitter's Sports Partnerships team works with teams, leagues, and broadcasters to develop, implement, and improve integrations. And, for big events like the World Cup, Twitter goes above and beyond by identifying three-letter country tags (with hashflags even!), setting up match-specific feeds, etc. Despite their efforts, there is significant variation and everyone is to blame. Official sponsors and broadcasters, writers, and fans offer myriad hashtags for any given match.

For the United States' final match against Belgium, you could find all of the following: #USAvBEL #USAvsBEL #USABEL #BELUSA #BELvsUSA #BELvUSA #USAvBelgium and others. Clearly, the people who used to tags were talking about the same thing.

So, why not funnel them into the same stream? Better yet, why not give users the option to narrow or widen their funnel? I'm not an algorithmically-gifted person, but I suspect Twitter has several who are.

Corey Bennett