Proven Ways to Make Tweets Spread

Last Updated Feb 9, 2011 9:15 AM EST

Marketers know that hashtags are key to spreading messages. But figuring out which hashtags-those short strings of copy that mark keywords or identify topics in tweets--will catch on can be mystifying. There are hashtags for just about everything, from #bieberpremier to #idontunderstandwhy to #tcot (top conservatives on twitter).

Computer scients Daniel M. Romero, and Jon Kleinberg, both of Cornell University, and Brendan Meeder, of Carnegie Mellon University, are trying to take some of the unpredictability out of hashtags by determining which hashtags spread most quickly and why. They're also trying to figure out which hashtags have staying power, continuing to pick up new users even after people have seen them multiple times without adopting them.

The researchers started by sorting the 500 most-mentioned hashtags into eight categories including sports, games, music, and celebrities. Then, from August 2009 to January 2010, they collected over three billion tweets from more than 60 million users. They next built a network of users by looking at people who exchanged more than three '@' messages--twitter shorthand for alerting another user that you are referencing him or her.

If you're a marketer looking for your hashtag to stick, or to spread, here are some findings from the study that you may want to keep in mind:

  • Twitter idioms, such as #cantlivewithout and #dontyouhate, pick up a relatively large number of users as soon as they're introduced. But once users have seen them two or three times and haven't adopted them, they're unlikely to use them at all.
  • Political hashtags also start out strong. Often, it takes repeated exposures for new users to pick them up, so political hashtags continue to gain converts even after people have seen them a few times.
  • Celebrity hashtags are used by a relatively small group, but those people use them very frequently. On average, someone using a celebrity hashtag uses it more than 17 times. That compares to less than four times for hashtags that are Twitter idioms.
  • Relatively few people use hashtags related to politics and games, but they use them a lot, making politics and games the most-mentioned categories. The games tags may get lots of use because some users set up an automatic post to their twitter account every time they achieve a milestone in the game. The preponderance of political hashtags may actually be the result of very intense discussion. On average, each person who uses a political hashtag uses it more than 10 times.
  • A new music-related hashtag seems to spread more readily from a random group of people than it would from a group of people who are already using music-related hashtags.
Which twitter hashtags have you found useful--or useless? And do you think you've influenced others to follow them, too?

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photo courtesy flickr user keiyac
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her at www.twitter.com/weisul
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.