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