Better social listening through hashtags

A key part of any social listening program is spotting trends, conversations or issues that are out of the ordinary. Anything that seems different is worth investigating. So how do you identify those issues? How do you know what to look for? One of the best ways to find these trends is to look for hashtags you’ve never seen.

Hashtags are your canaries

On channels like Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, users include hashtags in their posts to categorize them into a particular conversation or flag them for a particular community. If you’ve been monitoring your brand’s conversation for a while, you probably recognize a number of familiar hashtags your customers regularly use. They may be industry-related, tie into a specific Twitter chat, or relate to a campaign or event. But if you’re paying attention to the conversation about your brand all the time, you’ll likely see new hashtags pop up from time to time. Pay close attention to these new hashtags, because they can be helpful little canaries in your social listening coal mine.

First, look for new hashtags that are used by more than just a few people. If it’s just a one-off hashtag used by one or two people, it’s probably not worth paying too much attention to, unless it seems particularly interesting for some reason. You’re looking for the beginning of some kind of movement or trend. So look for hashtags that have some traction, which will vary depending on the scale of the conversation you’re monitoring.

Once you find one of these rogue hashtags, the next step is to figure out what it’s about. What are the posts using it talking about? Do they link to any external articles or include any media, like a photo or video? In what light does it position your brand? First, look at the tweets that mention your brand along with this hashtag, but then expand the conversation to see the rest of the tweets, even the ones that don’t mention your brand. Learn all you can about the hashtag and what it represents.

Then, formulate a plan. Do you need to get involved? Can you ignore this conversation? Should you continue to monitor for a while before jumping in? Your response will depend on the tenor and velocity of the conversation, as well as your organization’s social media guidelines. If the tweets are negative, spreading false information or growing in number, it’s best to react quickly. If they’re positive, then you should chime in to express your appreciation as soon as possible. If it’s neutral – like a new Twitter chat or event you’ve never heard of – you may not need to act at all beyond filing the information away.

Let’s try an example

In this example, we’ll look at Airbnb. Let’s assume we’re monitoring a set of Airbnb keywords on Twitter, including mentions of their official handle, along with a variety of other ways of referring to their brand. And of course in this example, we’re using one of our Union Metrics Twitter Trackers, which captures all tweets matching these keywords in real time. Now, let’s look at tweets from the past month to see what sorts of hashtags people are using alongside Airbnb mentions. Here’s a list of the most-used hashtags. You can see a set of expected tags, like #Airbnb, #travel and #sharingeconomy. You also see some related to specific campaigns or events, like #Oscars, #TED2016 and #AmericanHorrorStory. But then one hashtag stands out – #stolenhomes. If I work at Airbnb, I definitely want to know more about this hashtag.

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So, let’s dig into #stolenhomes. In a Union Metrics Tracker, we can just click on the hashtag in the above report to get the report below. This shows us more detail about how this hashtag has been used in tweets mentioning Airbnb. It’s been tweeted 882 times in the past month, from 526 different Twitter accounts and generated a sizable 3.2 million potential impressions. That’s not insignificant. There was also a spike in activity just a week ago, on March 10. We need to find out what that is.

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Every Union Metrics Tracker includes a full listing of all tweets captured. So we can read through the 882 #stolenhomes Airbnb tweets. Here are a few of them. Based on this small sample, this seems like an issue Airbnb should be paying attention to. But we can still learn more.

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So then, the next step is to expand this analysis out beyond tweets specifically mentioning Airbnb. What does the full conversation look like? How big is it? If you’re using your Union Metrics Tracker, you can click straight into an Echo search of recent tweets using the #stolenhomes hashtag. (More about Echo, our Twitter archive search, here.) This screenshot is just from the past month, but we can expand it out to see older tweets if we’d like. There have been 1,778 tweets using the #stolenhomes hashtag in the past month, so twice as many as specifically mentioned Airbnb.

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We can browse through these tweets to see what people are talking about and if there are additional keywords we might want to search for to see what else is out there. #stolenhomes is about Airbnb listings in the West Bank. So we’ll expand it out to search for any mentions of Airbnb alongside keywords like “West Bank”, “Israel” and so on. We’ll also add in the #stolenhomes hashtag and phrase “stolen homes”. That set of queries nets us 9,214 tweets from the past month. That’s more than 10x the number we found initially, making this a much larger conversation than we originally thought. It’s definitely worth paying attention to, and even setting up additional monitoring for these terms specifically. So if we’re on the Airbnb social media team, we’ll want to escalate this to our PR team or respond according to our brand guidelines.

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In just a few minutes and a handful of clicks, we identified a potentially serious PR issue for Airbnb. And if we had been monitoring this brand regularly, we likely would have noticed this earlier. By paying attention to hashtags and looking for anything out of the ordinary, you can improve your social listening program and help your company identify potential issues before they become something bigger.

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