Hashtag Helper: 7 tips to get more value from hashtags in SharePoint 2013

Using hashtags in SharePoint 2013: Put the cherry on top of your SharePoint social sundae.

The organizations I'm currently working with are seeing some tremendous value leveraging the social capabilities of SharePoint and Yammer. I'm going to share some great stories about how they have overcome barriers to deliver meaningful business value at the SharePoint Conference in Las Vegas. However, explaining and getting value from the use of hashtags has been a little more complicated because they don't work as expected in some scenarios and the concept of a hashtag is just not universally understood by all of our users. With that in mind, here are a few tips for a recipe I'm calling "Hashtag Helper" based on the practical lessons we've learned.

The basic concept. A hashtag is a keyword that you can assign to a post. Why would you do it? Because that tag adds another way of surfacing your post and may provide additional context. The words you use to tag the content might not otherwise be in the post - but by assigning a hashtag, you make your post more "findable" by associating it with a theme or topic.

You can "follow" a hashtag. This is a cool concept. Let's say you are interested in a specific topic. If you and your colleagues tag posts with the same hashtag for that topic, you can easily see when new content is tagged with that topic if you "follow" that hashtag. You can follow a hashtag by clicking when you see it in a post or by adding it to your Followed Hashtags in your profile.

The catch - and there is always a catch. Does it help if I'm the only one who knows the tag? In my observation, not so much - especially when it comes to following. A hashtag that only means something to you is OK, because it might help you find your post later on. However, a hashtag that means something to others and is used by lots of people gets a life that can add value to everyone.

Hashtags have rules. You need to know them. Tags need to be one word (no spaces are allowed) so if the tag you want is a short phrase, you must combine the words. To make tags easier to read, start each new word with a capital letter, as in #BusinessDevelopment.

Creating new hashtags - Prep them for your users! Hashtags are a little quirky in SharePoint. You can use them in a bunch of places but your users can only create them in the Newsfeed. You can type #Term in a Discussion post (in a Discussion List/Forum), but the word you type will not be added as a hashtag. (You'll know this because term won't get a hyperlink when you save the post.) You can use an existing hashtag in a discussion post or reply - but the only way a user can create a new hashtag is in the Newsfeed. You can also add an existing hashtag to a document (using the Tags and Notes feature in the ribbon), but this is such an obscure and multi-click operation that I doubt many people will ever do it. OK so that's clear, right? Create in the Newsfeed but use in other places. Ugh.

Since the creation of hashtags for end users only works when they are in the Newsfeed, if you are using Discussion Forums in your solution then you are probably going to have some confused users - because sometimes, typing # will actually get you a list of hashtags (the existing ones) and other times, typing #Term will just be that - a "word" called #Term. So, what should you do? Create them first. Since hashtags have the most value when they are shared, it's a good idea to create as many hashtags as you can "up front" based on common topics and terms in your organization. SharePoint Admins can do this by editing the hashtag term set just like any other type of managed metadata. If you are an engineering firm, create a hashtag for each discipline. If you are a non-profit with volunteers, create a hashtag for terms like #VolunteerAppreciation. Comb your search logs for terms your users typically use to search for content - and create hashtags for them - like #BusinessDevelopment, #Marketing, #NewBusiness. Engage communities of practice to identify an initial shared set of hashtags. We did this with different communities at one client and it worked out really well. In addition to helping us create hashtags in advance that could be used everywhere, the conversation had the added benefit of giving people ideas about what they should be posting about - and that helped drive adoption and value. Thinking about and prepping hashtags in advance eliminated a lot of confusion for our users.

Remember: when hashtags have already been created, all you have to do to use one is type # and a letter and the complete list of existing tags starting with that letter appears for you to select. With more consistent use of the same hashtag, the idea of "following" a hashtag starts to drive more value.

Creating new hashtags - Create as you go. The only way individual users can create new hashtags in SharePoint 2013 (on premises or online), is in the Newsfeed. Create a post in the Newsfeed and add a hashtag to it and that tag will automatically be added to the Hashtag list in the term store.

Given the quirkiness, how should you explain hashtags to end users? At least initially, my best advice involves a little obfuscation of the quirkiness. Here's what we are telling users:

  • Hashtags help add value to your post. A hashtag is a keyword that you can assign to a post. Why would you do it? Because that tag adds another way of searching for your post. The word you use to tag the content might not otherwise be in the post - but by assigning a hashtag, you make your post more "findable" by associating it with a theme or topic,
  • Wherever possible, use an existing hashtag. We've already defined a list of hashtags that we think will be the most valuable to our team/community/organization. You can use this list simply by typing the # sign and the first letter of the word you want to use. (Tip for solution owners: publish the list of initial hashtags in your initial training/communications.)
  • Hashtags can only be one word (just like on Twitter) and they are preceded with a pound or number symbol #. To "fake" multi-word hashtags, just "smush" the words together with no spaces but use capital letters to indicate where one word ends and the other begins. For example, #BusinessDevelopment.
  • If you want to add a new hashtag, you can - just create a Newsfeed post and add the new hashtag by typing the # symbol followed by the term you want to assign. If you can, try to use an existing hashtag - because it's more likely to get noticed by others - but if nothing fits, add your own.

When you see a post with a hashtag that is interesting to you, be sure to follow it so that you will get a notification in your Newsfeed when it gets used again. To follow a hashtag:

  • Method 1
  • Click on any hashtag that you see in a Newsfeed or Discussion post. This will take you to the page for that hashtag. (If the #hashtag isn't "clickable," it's not a real hashtag - it's just a word with # as the first character!)
  • Click follow at the top of the page for that tag.
  • Method 2
  • Select your About Me page and click to Edit your profile.
  • Select Newsfeed Settings.
  • In the Followed #Tags box, type the # symbol followed by the first letter of the tag you want to follow. Then select the tag from the list that is presented.

Hashtags allow users to engage with content and assign topics or themes to social posts (like Discussions and Newsfeed posts). If they are shared and used by lots of people, they will help surface content easily for people who are interested in those themes and topics. But if you do some planning up front, it will significantly help you and your users get more value from this feature. All of this begs the question - do you really need them to get value from SharePoint's social features? In my opinion, the answer is no. They are like the extra cherry on top of an ice cream sundae. They are fun, can be engaging, and many people will find them useful. However, you can surface social conversations in search and dynamically find what you are interested in - in the moment, without necessarily relying on anyone to tag content or without ever using a single hashtag. However, using hashtags helps users discover what is popular or trending, which can help with the serendipitous discovery of knowledge or useful information. So when you are ready to add a little extra to your SharePoint social sundae, they can be a helpful way to put the cherry on top!

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