I may be dating myself here, but I remember when Twitter didn’t automatically link @usernames and when #hashtag was a workaround to make disjointed streams of updates easier to find in their clunky search engine.
Well, Twitter has done a good job of integrating those ideas of its users to make the service what it is today. Why shouldn’t news organizations do the same and take the best ideas from their readers and viewers? One great way to gather their feedback and ideas is to integrate hashtags into your coverage. Here’s a few tips on doing that:
1. Have a standard hashtag for your news organization’s daily coverage. It could be #nyt or #cnntv or it could #[city]news or whatever it is (shorter is better) that is easy to remember and relatively easy for Twitter users to identify. Make sure it’s not already in use by someone else — unless they’re talking about your content. Don’t re-invent the wheel: If your community is already using a hashtag to link to your work, latch on and adopt it! Refer to this often in on air, in print and online so people start to associate that hashtag with your brand and your content. Encourage readers to use this tag when they mention your stories or when they have reaction to, questions about or tips for your coverage. Ask your reporters and staff to include the tag on their updates. That way, there is one stream of information you can send readers to for on-going updates without having to follow dozens or more accounts. The top news should make it there, and user story suggestions get that tag.
2. Adopt hashtags for special events and on-going topics. During the next #snowpocolypse or #election2012, encourage readers to tag things #minnsnow or #ohio2012 or something along those lines that’s short but easy to figure out the meaning behind. When it’s election time, start rolling out #[city]elects or #[tvstationname]election with your reporters and staff. Go beyond the obvious events and think about other topics you may be covering now or planning to cover in the future. Will the city council vote soon to ban smoking throughout the city or to sell alcohol extended hours? Is there a major road construction problem that will take six months to complete that folks would be interested in knowing about and sharing experiences with? Tag it! Your readers care about these topics and will be discussing them, so capitalize on their interest and expertise. Ask photographers to post photos and videos with those tags from the debates and pools (or from the snowed in parking lot, in the case of the first idea). Ask reporters, bloggers, editors, etc. to link to updates or tag their topic-related tweets with the additional hashtag. On the day(s) of the event, give the keys over to the community and request users tag their photos, tips and reaction. Ask them to be severe weather spotters (but be safe) and poll watchers, schools reporters and traffic observers (but not while in traffic, please), trained to pass on observations and thoughts to the cloud.
3. Keep tabs on hashtags about your city and state, and re-tweet and cite when appropriate. Make it a practice for someone, if not multiple someones, to keep an eye on tags like #Chicago or #Illinois or #NorthShore or whatever it is people are likely to tag in your community. Your sports guys should be following #localteam and the education reporter should be following #college or #school. Chances are there will be a lot of noise to filter out, but there can be some great ideas or tips there if you’re listening. When it’s appropriate, RT and cite this source. This lets people know real folks are behind the Twitter feed and that people are listening. The topic might be as simple as a power outage or as big as the first insider tips on political scandal. It could lead to stories or sources, or both. You won’t be promoting or suggesting these hashtags, but as Twitter’s growth points out — the idea of using @username and #hashtag grew organically with users before they became mainstream functionality — sometimes just listening and seeing what pops up produces great ideas.
Finally, a few words on listening. It’s one thing to throw the hashtags out there, but the most important part, really, is to listen to what comes back. Nobody will use the hashtags seriously or regularly if they’re the only one. Your staff should fill in the holes, if there are any, to keep the content fresh and to spread the word. Make it easy for your readers to see what others are saying, which will increase interest and participation.
There are any number of ways to follow hashtags. You can look plug them in for a recent summary of tweets at several places, including hashtags.org, What the Trend, Google Realtime Search or simply Twitter (or in your application of choice). If you want to pull the information onto your organization’s site, you could integrate the hashtag into a widget, such as the one built by Twitter.com. During a big event — the snow storm or election above, for instance — you could import the hashtags as live updates in a CoverItLive event on your site. Really, there are way too many ways to track these to attempt to cover them even briefly here, so look around at the people you trust and organizations you follow to see what they’re doing and what you like and dislike. Or ask your followers how they follow the news. You may learn something new.