Hashtags on Facebook Do Nothing To Help Additional Exposure

Significant time has passed since Facebook fully rolled out their hashtag implementation. We decided to dig into the data to see the impact of hashtags on the news feed. To our surprise, the answer was…nothing. Wow, we didn’t expect to find that!

The assumption is that if people see an object in the news feed with a hashtag they’re interested in, they will click the hashtag to discover more interesting content related to the particular hashtag. Brands that talk about trending hashtags may receive additional exposure due to other Pages using hashtags because their Page may show up unexpectedly.

For example, when I click on #EdgeRank, I run into Mari Smith & Facebook Studio:

EdgeRank Hashtag

On a technical level, both of these posts received just +1 Viral Person Reached. As a user, I just contributed +2 Viral Reach to the system by clicking #EdgeRank. As marketers, we see this simple process and it seems that posts with hashtags experience increased Viral Reach. However, the data shows otherwise: posts with hashtags have less Viral Reach than posts without hashtags!

Median Viral Reach for Hashtags

Posts with hashtags actually have less Viral Reach, on average, than posts without hashtags. Brands using hashtags should hypothetically be receiving additional exposure from other brands who are using these same hashtags.

Even engagement per fan was down for posts with hashtags:

Median Engagement for Hashtags

Organic Reach had a decrease when using hashtags. The difference was fairly negligible; however, it roughly matches the loss in engagement:

Median Organic Reach for Hashtags

We were surprised to see the data reflect this. We hypothesized that perhaps only very large Pages experience an increase in Viral Reach due to the selection process of which brands are displayed once clicking a hashtag. As we saw in the example, Mari Smith (100k+ Fans) & Facebook Studio (1M+ Fans) were the two featured posts when clicking #EdgeRank.

1M+ Median Viral Reach for Hashtags

Viral Reach, once again, was lower when not using hashtags. We decided to dig into the data by segmenting a few metrics by fan size. Examining engagement showed that regardless of fan size, using hashtags did not have a positive impact on a brand’s engagement (except for one grouping, which is more likely due to sample variance).

Median Engagement Per Size for Hashtags

Organic Reach for Hashtags

Four of the eight Page Sizes experienced an increase, which is most likely due to random variance. It seems that using hashtags doesn’t have a negative or positive impact on Organic Reach. Which makes sense, as most benefits of hashtags should come from Viral Reach.

Examining Viral Reach per fan size also illustrates that using a hashtag does not increase viral exposure. This is a surprise for us, as we would have been certain that using a hashtag would have caused an increase in Viral Reach, even if it were a small increase.

Viral Reach per Size for Hashtags

Attempting To Adjust For Error

After pouring over the data, we wanted to account for all angles before we published this information. We examined a few questions to help us validate our findings:

  • Do Twitter hashtags actually increase engagement?
  • Did Viral Reach begin to increase later in the month?
  • What about brands that used hashtags evenly throughout the month?
  • Did brands posts the same distribution of different content types?

Do Twitter hashtags help?

We don’t typically study or collect Twitter data, but for this study we grabbed preliminary data to compare the two networks. We analyzed roughly 50 Twitter accounts from the Fortune 500 (all accounts studied don’t do direct replies, therefore eliminating any potential @ replies that did not include a hashtag).

Twitter-rts-per-follower

For Twitter, using a hashtag typically resulted in roughly double the likelihood of being ReTweeted. Over 70% of the brands experienced an increase in RT’s when using a hashtag versus not using one.

This seems to indicate that hashtags on Twitter tend to increase the likelihood of ReTweets (Twitter’s equivalent to Viral Reach).

Did Viral Reach begin to increase later in the month?

We broke out each week with and without hashtags to look at any potential issues with people understanding how to use hashtags. As of the last week of July, hashtags had been implemented for over a month. As the data below shows, Viral Reach once again was not positively impacted by the use of hashtags.

Median-Viral-Reach-Week-4-of-July

What about brands that used hashtags evenly throughout the month?

We focused in on brands that posted with and without hashtags, each week for all of July. These brands used a balance each week of the month, and we removed all Pages that didn’t meet this criteria. The sample size for this segmentation is roughly 100 pages.

Brands-That-Used-Both-Hashtags-Each-Week-of-the-Month

The data shows that posts that didn’t include a hashtag performed better than posts with hashtags. Again, the story stays the same—posts with hashtags don’t increase Viral Reach.

Did brands use hashtags on posts with poor content types?

Brands that posted with hashtags actually used Photos more. We know that, in general, Photos perform the best. We expected the distribution of content types to be fairly similar between posts with and without hashtags, the data shows this as well.

Hashtag-Content-Type-Distrubition

Not-Using-a-Hashtag-Content-Type-Distrubition

Why Aren’t Hashtags Experiencing Success?

Our hypothesis is that not many people are clicking on hashtags. If many people were clicking hashtags, we should see an increase in Viral Reach for posts with hashtags. The data is not showing that. If anything, it’s showing a decrease in Viral Reach. This brings up another question…

Why Would Hashtagged Posts Have A Decrease In Viral Reach?

We hypothesize that hashtagged posts don’t have the expected increase in Viral Reach due to how brand’s are using them. After examining how hashtags are being used, hashtags are often used in promotional material. For some brands, they’ve created campaigns around particular hashtags and use them in all posts associated with the campaign. By nature, campaigns are promotional, therefore more likely to drive less engagement, less clicks, and ultimately less Reach.

Fun Hashtag Facts

  • The highest number of hashtags used in a single post was 19 individual hashtags.
  • 60% of posts with hashtags use a single hashtag.

Number of Hashtags Used

How did we study the data?

We analyzed over 500 Pages who posted both with and without a hashtag during the month of July. These Pages posted over 35,000 times during July. Of the 35,000+ posts, over 6,000 of them contained hashtags. For each of the particular metrics studied, we averaged each Page’s performance with and without hashtags. For any median results published, we took the median of the Pages’ performance averages. Each week had roughly the same amount of posts with hashtags, with no more than an 8% change week over week. To maintain relativity, metrics were divided by fans at the time of the post.

35 Comments on “Hashtags on Facebook Do Nothing To Help Additional Exposure

  1. Raven

    I am interested in hashtag marketing techniques. Do you have any statistical analysis of tying hashtag marketing through sites such as twitter / FaceBook / Google Plus and Viral Reach when using search engines (google, bing, yahoo, etc).
    In other words – do hashtags that trend or that are being used multiple times impact the individual on initial search (pre-social network entry)

    • Chad Wittman

      We don’t have data on that, however I think that you may be onto something. The way we view social marketing is a layer that weaves and presents itself in a variety improvements elsewhere, such as search.

  2. This is pretty interesting… Do you think that click throughs on hashtags vary by age range? For example, is the 13-17 crowd more comfortable with hashtags on Facebook? Some pages have very skewed demographics so what might work for the aggregate may work depending on who the page reaches.

    • Chad Wittman

      I’d agree with that hypothesis. We aren’t able to track click throughs on the particular hashtag.

  3. I think this is very interesting. I’m just gonna put something out there.

    People may not really know/understand hashtags.

    there are a lot of people on Facebook who “don’t do Twitter”.

    For years I had people moaning at me for posting hashtags on facebook. I only did it because my twitter feed was pulled into my facebook timeline.

    Maybe, just maybe, the majority people think that the hashtags are a twitter tags and to be ignored?

    Facebook haven’t done much to promote hashtags have they?

    • Chad Wittman

      No, they haven’t done much to promote hashtags.

      • I kind of agree, and I think given time.. it will take off. The issue is that people still don’t associate Facebook with hashtags, and better yet, no one appears to be clicking on them.

        Give it time I think, once people’s social media patterns change you’ll see more emphasis on hashtags.

  4. Ryan

    Facebook needs to update the “Home” screen. I think they should add “Trending on Facebook” and “Friends Trending Topics” to the left sidebar, or something like that. They could additionally add a menu option in the mobile version for hashtags.

    I’ve personally always used hashtags on Facebook as a joke and when I see friends use hashtags I never bother to click them. I think Facebook missed the boat on this one.

    • Chad Wittman

      Personally, I tend to use hashtags as subcontext or sarcasm.

  5. I was looking into this also from the small business owner perspective. I am not a huge fan of my FB business page and have not really engaged on there in awhile. Instead, I have been making friends with potential clients and just allowing them on my personal page.

    I did think a way around this could be to tag my business throw on some hashtags and make the post public. However, the way facebook is allowing for search through hashtags is a bit convoluted. You actually have to type #thenkeyword to get a list of people using that hashtag in the public forum. Both twitter and G+ feed you content regardless if you use the # or not. I do not see any reason why someone would search this way. The average person would know know to use #wallpaper (for instance) to search for wallpaper. They would just type wallpaper… and by doing so, get a terrible list of companies in the process. FB has a LOOOOOOOONG way to go before they will get anywhere as a search tool (and incentive for small biz users to use it more).

    Too bad, this could have been a way to make me more active on FB.

    • Chad Wittman

      Great point on the technical aspect to search hashtags! Other platforms don’t require the actual symbol.

  6. great article as hashtags haven’t worked on FB as people are still not aware of they are live and frankly what they do. With education, the links will be used 10x more once people understand.

  7. Excellent article and a great analysis. The reason, I think, is rather simple. On Twitter there is no real effective method of searching and sorting. hashtags are the solution to that – you can follow a conversation by using the hashtag,.

    However, on Facebook, hashtags are unnecessary because you follow the conversation of an individual or via a timeline or by searching for it. In other words, you don’t need to use a hashtag on Facebook to keep up-to-date with something, yet this is the only way to achieve that on Twitter.

    Combine that with brands using hashtags on Twitter for marketing purposes – something which Facebook users are increasingly finding annoying – and you have a recipe for the very situation you have found.

    The introduction of Facebook hashtags possibly reveals more than your data. It suggests that Facebook is scrabbling around for ideas to increasingly commercialise its service – and failing to do so.

  8. The implication that hashtags increase the likelihood of being retweeted is a bit of a case of assuming causation from correlation. It seems more likely that any tweets by Fortune 500 companies that did NOT include hashtags weren’t meant as announcements to be retweeted.

    After all, there’s no such thing as a digital branding initiative without a brand hashtag anymore.

  9. Kevin Haras

    This is a great study! I work with a University that is littered with clubs and departments using #s. I started using them myself because I looked at it as a positive trend. Thanks for helping me stop following the crowd.

  10. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this
    topic to be really something that I think I would never understand.

    It seems too complex and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get
    the hang of it!

  11. Natalia

    Here is obviously more respond for Hashtags on Twitter then on Facebook. Do you thing it will change?

    • Chad Wittman

      Personally, I think these numbers will improve — but not match Twitter’s.

  12. I used to utilize hashtags on my facebook page posts but now I am going to stop it. This excellent article verifies that every social network is unique and that if a practice is effective for one of them that doesn’t mean that can be applied to the rest of them. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. Chris

    Could it be that the indiscriminate use of hashtags throughout a post makes it almost unreadable?. I would be interested in seeing statistics for limited and selective use of hashtags versus having hashtags everywhere. I also wonder if instead of having hashtags sprinkled within the text that if having a “glossary” list of relevant hashtags at the end of the topic might achieve better results.

  14. I personally don’t use hashtags to perform any keyword search on Facebook and professonally, indeed, I haven’t noticed any improvement in the virality of the brands’s postings.

    However, one reason I will keep using them is the actual aesthetics of it. They underline words nicely and make dull postings look a bit better. Would be interesting to perform a study on how people perceive hashtags in terms of the posting’s format or study the impact of hashtags on eye-movements of users.

    What do you think, guys? Have you ever thought of Facebook hashtags in this way? Would very much appreciate your opinion.

    • Chad Wittman

      I really like your thoughts. Maybe there is also a perception of “expertise” if the brand is using the hashtags, even if they’re aren’t being clicked. Unfortunately we have to keep this as a theory for now!

  15. Brad

    “Posts with hashtags actually have less Viral Reach, on average, than posts with hashtags.” May want to fix that line…

    • Chad Wittman

      Thank you!

  16. Insertions of hashtags are visually distracting and annoying, the practice is almost childlike. Especially posts with hashtags embedded throughout the post. As opposed to placing them all at the end.
    To me, hashtags are gobbledygook. , like placing irrelevant Chinese script throughout. I delete or pass over any post I see that contains hashtags, and I know many others do, as well. If you are trying to advertise or put out an important message, lose the hashtags. Keep your posts simple, and in plain English!

  17. Thanks for a very interesting article.

    Just from using Facebook day to day in both a personal and a professional capacity, it is plain to see that hashtags have just not caught on.

    I agree with Phil Gregory that part of the reason is the legacy of people bemoaning the presence of hashtags on Facebook back when they were not active; people just thought they ugly, vestigial and lazy (i.e. you can’t be bothered to post to Facebook directly and that you are just pulling your Twitter Feed through). The cultural shift the other way just hasn’t happened yet.

    As others who have commented noted, this is mainly down to Facebook’s own reticence in promoting hashtags and setting the record straight.

    One suspects that Facebook is now somewhat conflicted over hashtags; on one hand they want to buy into the cultural currency of them, but on the other they do not want to make posts too viral due to users’ perceptions over privacy and (more convincingly) the network’s own commercial interests.

    Why would anyone pay for a Facebook Promoted Post if a post with an effective hashtag would get the same reach for free?

  18. Why do so many of these graphs list the “median?” Are the distributions non-normal?

    • Chad Wittman

      For many of our studies, we’re looking at the impact to a typical page. We tend to average their experience, per page, then examine the median of these pages’ experience.

  19. Mia

    I used to implement hashtags on my facebook or myspace web page content but now I am going to quit it. This outstanding content confirms that every online community is exclusive and that if a exercise is efficient for one of them that does not mean that can be used to the relax of them. Thanks for discussing it.

  20. manisha

    I wont to utilize hashtags on my facebook page posts however currently i’m aiming to stop it. This glorious article verifies that each social network is exclusive which if a observe is effective for one in every of them that doesn’t mean that may be applied to the remainder of them.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  21. We have just last week launched our new company and have a Facebook business page. I was wondering if having #hashtags in the “Company Overview” or “Long Description” part of our profile would help make us more searchable? Most people don’t read these sections anyway!

    • Chad Wittman

      I do not believe adding hashtags to your descriptions will help make you more searchable. I agree that not many people will read it either!

  22. Kathy

    I have to disagree with your base premise. I have only recently discovered hashtags on facebook! I didn’t know they actually did anything until I was staring at a friends posts in annoyance for using hashtags when i clicked on one and magically I was transported to all these posts with hashtags connected to them.

    I then tested a few different hashtags to see if they were being used and in certain…categories/subjects they were being used and others not so much.

    I think the usage of hashtags isn’t well known yet on facebook as we just think its our friends being idiots.

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