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Do Hashtags Increase Viral Reach on Facebook? [REPORT]

facebook hashtag graphicIn June, Facebook introduced clickable hashtags into its posts. Though some seemed to laugh at the idea, advising Facebook to leave the hashtags to Twitter, the move signaled Facebook was beginning to compete with other social networks as a source of news and trending topics. With all this hype around the success of the Facebook hashtag, you’d think using hashtags could do a Facebook Page some good.

According to a recent study by EdgeRank Checker, however, hashtags don’t appear to be increasing brands’ reach or engagement on Facebook. EdgeRank Checker is an online tool that allows you to check your Facebook Page’s EdgeRank, or how likely Facebook is to spread your Page’s posts. The company is well versed in Facebook’s ranking system and analyzed the posts of over 500 Pages throughout July to determine whether there was a correlation between reach and engagement and the use of hashtags. EdgeRank Checker studied over 35,000 posts, over 6,000 of which contained hashtags, and found no significant relation between the use of hashtags and an increase in reach or engagement. Instead, EdgeRank Checker found that in the vast majority of cases, Facebook posts containing hashtags actually reached fewer users and received less engagement. Why might this be happening, and what can Facebook do to make hashtags more helpful?

 

Posts With Hashtags See Lower Viral Reach than Posts Without

Hashtags on Facebook are now links, and clicking them brings users to a page of related posts, exposing them to Pages they do not follow. An increase in the number of people viewing posts by Pages they do not follow would likewise increase the viral reach of those Pages’ posts. For this reason, it made sense to assume that hashtags would make it easier for people to virally find Pages’ posts on Facebook. EdgeRank Checker’s data, though, showed that the opposite was true:

chart Median viral reach for hashtags on facebook

Posts with hashtags saw less viral reach than posts without hashtags! While the median viral reach of posts with hashtags was only 0.8%, that of posts without hashtags was 1.3%. Even Pages with over 1 million fans, those that would theoretically see the greatest increase in viral reach, saw lower viral reach for posts with hashtags than for posts without:

Median viral reach of posts with hashtags for Pages with over 1 m fans

In fact, almost no matter how many fans a Page had, posts containing hashtags saw lower viral reach:

viral reach of posts with hashtags divided by fan size segments

Hashtags create additional ways for users to stumble upon a Page’s post, so isn’t it counterintuitive that hashtags seem to reduce a post’s viral reach? Hashtags seem to work positively on Twitter: EdgeRank Checker found that tweets containing hashtags received roughly twice as many retweets per follower as tweets that didn’t contain hashtags. For brands, over 70% of posts saw an increase in retweets due to the inclusion of hashtags. So why haven’t hashtags seemed to work on Facebook?

 

Why Hashtags Don’t Seem to Work on Facebook… Yet

From EdgeRank Checker’s data, it’s apparent that brands haven’t yet figured out how to use hashtags to their advantage on Facebook. When it comes to hashtags, here’s what Pages might be doing wrong.

Using Hashtags in an Annoying Way

Engagement is a huge contributing factor to viral reach. Engagement rates indicate what percent of a Page’s fans interacted with the Page’s posts, and includes “Liking,” commenting on, and sharing posts. When fans engage with a Page’s post, Facebook then exposes that post to the fans’ friends and followers, thereby creating a possibility for viral reach. In other words, posts that many people “Like,” comment on, and share are more likely to reach users that don’t follow the Page, while posts that don’t receive a lot of engagement are not likely to go anywhere on Facebook.

While researching the correlation between hashtag use and viral reach, EdgeRank Checker happened to find a slight decrease in engagement for posts with hashtags versus posts without: for the Pages it analyzed, the median engagement rate per fan for posts with hashtags was .22% versus .25% for posts without hashtags. A slight decrease was also present from organic reach for posts with hashtags to those without. These lower engagement rates, though slight, indicate that users are less likely to interact with posts that contain hashtags.

Why would users be less likely to “Like,” comment on, or share a post containing hashtags? EdgeRank Checker made it obvious that it is not the post type that turns users off: photo posts perform the best on Facebook, and 70% of posts with hashtags were photos compared to 60% of posts without hashtags.

Chart of posts with and without hashtags divided by content type

So, in some way, hashtags encouraged users to scroll through posts without interacting with them. But how? As EdgeRank Checker suggests, it might have been the case that brands used hashtags to promote contests or campaigns that users were not interested in. It could also be that Page managers fell under Instagram Hashtag Syndrome, an unfortunate condition in which a social media user is compelled to append every imaginable hashtag to his/her post. Facebook users, who are not yet used to seeing clickable hashtags in their News Feeds, might have felt the Page was doing something strange and/or trying too hard, and so scrolled through without interacting with the post.

Hashtags Are Ahead of Facebook’s Time

The fact that Pages are not experiencing increased viral reach also indicates that people just aren’t clicking on Facebook hashtags. Until Facebook gives fans a reason to click on hashtags, or until Facebook integrates hashtags as a factor when ranking trending topics, it’s not likely that hashtags will increase the viral reach Pages experience through their posts. Twitter, for example, makes hashtags useful through its trends section, which monitors the hashtags on the rise on Twitter. Google+, too, monitors trending hashtags through its What’s Hot page. Besides this, Google+ automatically appends relevant hashtags to users’ posts on the network, a feature added in May.

Facebook began implementing a feature similar to Twitter’s trends or Google+’s What’s Hot page called Trending Topics that links users to hot, current topics while they use Facebook from their mobile browsers. This feature doesn’t seem to be influenced by hashtag use, though, and besides this it hasn’t yet spread to Facebook for desktop or the network’s mobile app. Until it allows hashtags to influence its Trending Topics monitors hashtags in a way similar to Twitter and Google+, Facebook won’t make hashtags useful or interesting to its users.

 

The Success of Hashtags Depends on Strategy

If Facebook wants to ensure that hashtags don’t flop on its network, it needs to guide brands on how to use them well. What best practices for hashtags can brands follow to increase engagement with posts? This is a question Facebook needs to answer, explicitly, for Pages.

On top of this, Facebook should look to increase the use of and the utility of hashtags on its service. On Google+, Twitter, and Instagram, clicking hashtags brings you to inspiring images, topics of interest, and the latest news. Until Facebook employs innovative ways for its users to access and view hashtags, users won’t be interested in clicking on them. Auto-generating hashtags, a la Google+, might be one way to make hashtags relevant and therefore worth clicking. When it comes to presenting the information collected through hashtags, though, I imagine Instagram-like photo grids, a hashtag-infused Trending Topics section, conversations by thought leaders that can be followed through hashtags – these are the things Facebook needs to implement in order to create a hashtag culture on its network.

 
What do you think Facebook can do to promote a hashtag culture? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section!
via The Next Web

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