Slinging Hash Tags: Community Building In 140 Characters

On October 28, 1939, an auctioneer sold off the entire company-owned village of Chichester, located in upstate New York: each and every house; factory building; the old social hall; and even the two-roomed schoolhouse.

Seventy years later, this small hamlet isn’t unlike most other small rural communities. The grocery store exists only in the distant memories of some old-timers. The church’s last remaining parishioners lost the ability to maintain the building years ago, which like so many other churches, Grange halls, and Odd Fellow lodges across the country, was repurposed as an artist’s studio.

Most residents drive about 30 miles to their jobs in a nearby city, an idea familiar to most people throughout the country. The development of the national highway system and availability of automobiles enabled a mobility wherein people are no longer dependent on their local businesses. Though it was unthinkable 50 years ago, now no one is surprised when they don’t know their neighbor’s name, much less anything more personal.

When some sort of friction is introduced — for instance, if a bridge is washed out by a hurricane, or in the city, when an elevator gets stuck — people come together again and form community based on physical proximity. But in the online world, what happens is just the opposite: we take away all that friction. People really don’t have any impediments to forming community completely independent of their physical location.

“Community” is one of those words that is bandied about quite a bit, often with different connotations. Of course, before all of these great societal changes, “community” was used to describe those groups of people living in close physical proximity.  But today, it could just as easily describe a group that gathers over a weekend to celebrate the movie The Big Lobowski (which as you can imagine, features a lot of bowling) as it can to describe a group of monks in a monastery. It might be stretching the definition a bit, but it’s possible that a community could even form in a grocery checkout line.

Twitter and Community

Twitter, in particular, has been an enabling technology for whole new types of communities. On many social platforms, people connect with others based on existing relationships, but on Twitter, interests prevail. The lover of knitted doilies in Des Moines can easily communicate with another lover of knitted doilies in Portland. By simply using a hash tag (“#”) with a particular word, others searching on that word can form ad hoc groups, that often become more enduring.

Therein lies the reason why Twitter is one of the most valuable tools in the marketer’s online tool bag: it allows brands to connect with people around extremely specific interests and passions.

Since 2007, when Twitter made its huge debut splash at SXSW, many people have created scheduled chats (or Twitter chats). While ostensibly only scheduled for once a week, many of the participants of those chats continue to use the hash tag between scheduled chats. In a sense, people who use the tag are forming a community: conversations continue throughout the week.

Several groups associated with hash tags have been purposely created to be active “24/7.” Some of the communities that have been formed including #usguys, #oTable, #agxiom, #agchat, #foodiechat, and #latism. When people spend more of their time participating within the give-and-take of a particular Twitter chat group, there tends to be more coherence in the communications.  When people only chat with their follower lists, there is less flow, as people pay attention only sporadically.

Is Twitter Real Life?

While communities are formed on Twitter, they often get extended and reinforced by IRL (In Real Life) meetings. Participants often cite these offline meetings as providing real game changes in how they relate to people that they’ve otherwise only known online. The sociologists Gary Fine and Lisa-Jo van den Scott have described communities in which people only get together sporadically (such as those Big Lebowski weekends or Burning Man) as “wispy communities.”  Participants often play out a part of their personality, only to return to the lives of a more fixed identity. For marketers, the idea of wispy community can be significant, as the importance of those temporary gatherings is often maintained by participants throughout the year.

If you are going to provide some sort of souvenir or swag for an event, be sure to include something that memorializes that event itself, and not just your logo. This will serve to strengthen the association of your brand with a special occasion that has strong emotional resonance.

Marketers that make those face-to-face meetings are not simply expanding on conversations that have been born online, but are also helping break the ice for future meetings. It’s much simpler to meet again after a first get-together. And when focused on the passion points of the community, real relationships can be developed. Those unfortunate marketers that focus on trying to get someone to join a sales pitch are not only missing out on that opportunity, but are very likely destroying the possibility that a relationship will even develop.

Participating, if not leading a community, is a major and fundamental aspect of social media marketing. It’s within communities that a brand or organization is really able to earn respect and become an influential voice. It’s also a lead that other organizations or brands are not able to replicate easily — thus it becomes a barrier to entry.

Many of these online communities follow well-known patterns of group formation, such as the forming, norming, storming model proposed by group-dynamic theorist Bruce Tuckman in the 1960’s. A big difference in communities versus teams or operational groups is that communities are not always formed to achieve any particular outcome.  There may be outcomes — such as the sharing of ideas, creation of events, or even particular projects — but the community exists in order for people to be social.

Twitter communities are not “places” a marketer would think of entering in the hopes of having leadership, as the whole idea of hierarchy and leadership is frequently nonexistent in those communities. On the other hand, being a constant participant and providing meaningful information can help the brand develop the respect and influence that is desired.

Marketers and community managers can easily participate in existing Twitter chats. In some cases, a chat on a particular subject doesn’t exist, giving a brand a chance to be the pioneer and to have a leadership role in the curation of that chat.

Hosting chats is no light commitment, and should be entered into with the expectation that it will require consistent attention. If you do decide to play host, take the long view on how value is going to be created for the brand. Consider how the chat is going to fit into the eco-system of your subject, and how it might fit into a larger picture that might include real-life meetings.

Robert Swanwick has created a list of Twitter chats that is frequently cited:

Feature image and accompanying images from VectorStock, used under license.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Social Media Marketing | Social Media Marketing: Hashtags | Twitter | Twitter Marketing Column


About The Author: is the author of the DragonSearch Online Marketing Manual and Social Marketology (McGraw Hill 2012) and the ceo/co-founder of DragonSearch. He is a regular speaker for Google at their Get Your Business Online seminars. Dragon frequently speaks about the convergence of social media, process, information architecture, and sociology.


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  • Michael Martinez

    You wrote: “Since 1997, when Twitter made its huge…”  I think you meant 2007.

  • Ric Dragon

    Thanks Michael – and indeed! 

  • Climax Media

    It seems that more and more social interactions translate into real-life conversations. We notice this especially with product reviews and experiences. Often the discovery is made via a social media channel i.e. Whitney Houston dies – which is then shared almost instantaneously to the person standing next to you. It goes from digital to real life in a matter of seconds. Mobile, local and social. It’s a beautiful thing.


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