The science of the EMS hashtag
Twitter hashtags can be extremely useful for communicating with the public during emergencies
If you've spent anytime on Twitter, chances are that you have seen something that looks like this: #CoEMS, #MyEMSDay, #EMSBlogs, #SMEMS and #EMSGoodNews.
These are hashtags, the use of the pound symbol (#) coupled with a word, acronym, or phrase. Hashtags act as keywords so that users can easily categorize and group their messages together to make them easier to find in search engines (and in Twitter's search) with other related content.
Hashtags are also used as a personal comment on a message, often with a snarky or ironic tone. There is no formal rule regarding the creation or use of hashtags, but there are some best practices.
Understanding effective hashtags
In order to understand what works as an effective hashtag, we should look at what has developed organically in the past.
In September of 2009, the southern U.S. experienced a tremendous amount of precipitation. There were a number of areas that were inundated by water, most notably around the city of Atlanta. During this time the hashtag #ATLFloods became a quickly trending topic as reports of road closures and dangerous conditions flooded Twitter. The hashtag's use was bolstered by its adoption by responding agencies that appended it to messages related to the disaster.
In December of 2010, New York City experienced a record-breaking amount of snowfall. During this time there were a number of hashtags created and widely used such as #Blizzageddon, #snOMG and #Snopocalypse. While the hashtag #NYCSnow was also used, it seemed to lack the wide spread usage seen in other locations. One contributing factor was the lack of adoption by city agencies.
In February of 2011 Dan Limmer introduced the #EMSGoodNews hashtag. Tired of constantly hearing all of the “bad” news about EMS, Dan wanted to take the opportunity to highlight the good that is being done out there but is often under reported.
Creating and using effective hashtags
Not every message needs to have a hashtag but they do offer certain benefits.
Aside from the obvious (categorizing your message), hashtags can broaden your audience beyond your current subscribers to those
To creating an effective hashtag there are three things to remember:
- Keep it simple – use simple language that appeals to a broad audience
- Keep it relevant – the hashtag should be relevant to the actual message and answer one of the who, what, where, and when questions
- Keep it short – effective hashtags are kept as compact as possible to allow room for the actual message
Creating hashtags during a crisis can be slightly more challenging. The key is to keep the hashtag as compact and relevant as possible to allow room for the message meant to relay vital information for a specific event.
Hashtags should be something simple and easy to remember, such as #CITYcondition. We've seen this format work organically with #ATLfloods and it could have developed with #NYCsnow, had city agencies adopted it (and if New Yorkers weren't so snarky). This is a simple format that is easy to remember, has a low character count, and can be easily adaptable to any crisis your agency might face.
Take a look at the hashtags being used by the EMS twitter community, and good luck creating relevant, usable, easily adoptable hashtags. Or, I should say, #goodluck.