Hashtags – more than just a # symbol!

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Hashtag study Hashtags – more than just a # symbol!

Published on 21.05.2019 by Prof. Dr. Philipp A. Rauschnabel, Professor of Digital Marketing and Media Innovation at the Bundeswehr University Munich

More and more words are being #hashtagged today – but hashtags are not always used for what they were actually intended, i.e. to structure content. A new study by the Bundeswehr University outlines the reasons why social media users actually use hashtags.

Twitter made hashtags mainstream. The main aim was to provide people with the opportunity to structure their content themselves. Anyone writing anything about connecta in berne hashtags it with #connectabern, for example. But many other terms, about which there is clearly no other existing content to which it could relate thematically, are also hashtagged. Think of hashtags like #andanotherstressfuldayisover – a phrase that is not meaningful or easy to read. The meaning of hashtags is obviously much more complex than you might think.

In six individual studies with over 1,100 participants, we (Prof. Dr. Philipp A. Rauschnabel and Erna Herzfeldt from the Bundeswehr University Munich and Prof. Dr. Pavica Sheldon from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, USA) tackled the topic from a media-psychology perspective and explored it in great depth. The research focused on the question of the motivational significance of hashtags. And the astonishing finding is that categorizing content and generating great reach are only two out of a total of ten reasons. These are:

  1. Structuring content
  2. Generating reach: the original idea behind hashtags
  3. Entertaining people: e.g. with amusing hashtags
  4. Design: many sites restrict the formatting options for posts. Words with hashtags usually appear in bold or in colour which makes them stand out.
  5. Inspiration: many users want to make their followers think, and hashtags are a suitable stylistic device for doing so. Some of those surveyed even indicated that they make a great effort to find hashtags, the message of which their readers first have to ‘decrypt’.
  6. Herd instinct: what are referred to as ‘norms’ in the specialist literature effectively mean herd instinct: using hashtags is a matter of protocol. Some users hashtag things themselves without even knowing what the purpose of hashtags is.
  7. Support: hashtags – for example, branded hashtags – can be used to promote brands, events, people, cities, etc. At least that is the hope of some users.
  8. Insider messages: posts are often used to develop relationships with other users, particularly in the private sphere. Hashtags can encrypt insider messages that can only be decrypted by a few people, for example, only the girls who were at the cocktail evening.
  9. Trendgaging: this term comes from the words ‘trend’ and ‘engaging’ and essentially refers to the desire to be seen taking part in public discussions on current trends.
  10. ‘tl;dr’ (too long, didn’t read) is a common stylistic device used in blogs to give readers who have little time an overview of an article’s most salient points. On other platforms these are often also hashtags. A long text and at the end one or a few hashtag(s) summarising the post. #thosewerethetenreasons

What’s more: Twitter has made hashtags socially acceptable. But Instagram is leading the way when it comes to hashtags. Hashtags are also used on Facebook – but as more of a gimmick. People who use hashtags in social media marketing or monitoring should use these motives as a guideline.

What lies behind these motives and how they differ is explained in greater detail in the publication. A survey tool to measure these motives can also be found here.

Rauschnabel, Philipp A., Pavica Sheldon and Erna Herzfeldt. “What motivates users to hashtag on social media?” Psychology & Marketing, Vol. 36, No. 5, pp. 473-488.

Prof. Dr. Philipp A. Rauschnabel will give a presentation on this study at the Connecta Berne.

Prof. Dr. Philipp A. Rauschnabel, Professor of Digital Marketing and Media Innovation at the Bundeswehr University Munich

Prof. Dr. Philipp A. Rauschnabel is Professor of Digital Marketing and Media Innovation at the Bundeswehr University Munich. The focus of his research, teaching and consulting is on social media and XR (augmented reality, virtual reality, mixed reality).

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