How and why we initiated a hashtag community
Back in January I was sitting in Copenhagen searching the internet for cool tech and startup initiatives in Belgium. The reason being that my girlfriend has secured herself a job in Brussels, so in only two months I was going to make the move from familiar Denmark to a country I knew little or nothing about.
To my surprise I discovered plenty of amazing initiatives for tech startups. Just take a look of the mapping of Belgian startup support initiatives made by the good guys at Startups.be.
There was no shortage of great initiatives. However, all of these initiatives relied on their own communication channels and there seemed to be no easy way to stay updated without subscribing to 30+ newsletters.
Therefore, when I met with Omar (@omohout) in early March, I suggested we imitated the success of #cphftw and started a common hashtag for all the terrific Belgian tech startup initiatives.
Omar was quick to grasp the value, so only few days after our first meeting, we kicked-off #BeTech on Twitter.
5 months into the life of #BeTech, it is fair to say that the Belgian startup community has adopted the hashtag. Just looking at July and August more than 190 individual Twitter accounts have used the hashtag. Without even counting those hundreds of people who have retweeted one of the #BeTech tweets.
13 concrete tips to facilitate the creation of hashtag communities
Following the success of #BeTech, a couple of guys contacted Omar and I, asking for advice on how to get #NLTech, a Dutch version of #BeTech, kicked-off. Furthermore, friends of mine have recently initiated #jtools (community for sharing journalist tools) and #leanb2b (community of lean b2b startups).
Therefore I decided to write this blogpost with the learnings from facilitating the #BeTech community. Hopefully the following learnings will encourage others to build local (tech startups) hashtag communities.
1. Obvious, but necessary: Create a separate Twitter account
Inspired by @cphftw and @STHLMTech I right away created the @BeTech_ Twitter account. This is the number 1 tip for fostering a hashtag community!
Having a Twitter account to retweet all the #BeTech tweets is an excellent reward for the contributors. Furthermore, it is one of the easiest ways for other people to keep track on all the awesome #BeTech tweets and it allows you to utilize many of the tips described below.
Tip: Tweetdeck is great for monitoring hashtags and allows you to connect multiple Twitter accounts.
2. Face the critiques and be honest.
People will surely find stuff to complain about. In the beginning quite a few people argued that the #BeTech name could be better, because in its current form it excluded all the Belgian startups that are not tech driven. Fair point!
Instead of dodging the critique, both Omar and I were engaging in the discussion. Another thing we did not do: trying to convince the critiques that the #BeTech was the best name ever. Be honest. You are not building a shady company tricking people to pay for products they do not want, you are building a community. The difference is huge!
3. Be consistent, be patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Building a community requires patience. Even though #BeTech taps into people’s existing behaviour of tweeting, it still requires them to remember and add the hashtag to relevant tweets. Not to mention to check up on other people’s #BeTech tweets. It is not accomplished overnight for people to establish these routines and you have to find elegant ways for continuously reminding them of the hashtag.
Favoriting and retweeting #BeTech tweets is one of the most effective ways to reward people for remembering to add the hashtag. Thus not one single day has passed where I have not been doing this.
Needless to say you also need to be consistent with your own #BeTech tweets. It is easy to underestimate the task of crafting relevant #BeTech tweets daily. Personally I did not use the #BeTech from my own Twitter account very often during the first month, but luckily Omar was a true pioneer. He quickly initiated two different series of tweets: 1) startup of the day and 2) why startups fail.
Omar’s tweets have inspired other #BeTech community members to create their own series. This is fantastic. 100000000 thanks to AnTanghe, StartupsBelgium, SWLiege and ArnevBalen.
Opportunity: How about starting your own #BeTech series? Could be organization of the week, investor of the week, reading of the week or continue what I once started: The Meetup group of the week.
Tip: Use Buffer to schedule your tweets in advance. If you don’t want to upgrade to Buffer’s paid plan, you can try out Stacker. It is a promising alternative.
4. If there are no tweets; create them!
Especially in the beginning there were hardly any #BeTech tweets. This is of course a problem: without a steady stream of quality tweets, the initiative is nothing but a ghost town.
The way to overcome this problem is extremely straightforward: just retweet quality tweets from other users and remember to add #BeTech. I often choose to add // in front of the #BeTech to make the hashtag more visible.
As a bonus to a steady stream of relevant tweets you achieve two important things: 1) remind relevant users of the #BeTech hashtag and 2) influence the type of content shared with the community.
Tip: Create a Twitter list of the top 20-50 most relevant people. Add the list to Tweetdeck and you will have a constant flow of potential tweets to retweet.
Extra-tip: To source relevant stories Google Alerts is one of my own top picks. Remember to utilize the site-specific search (e.g. “belgian site:techcrunch.com”). Two other terrific sources for #BeTech stories are Meetup.com’s and Eventbrite’s weekly newsletters (remember to set location to filter the events).
5. Don’t be promiscuous with the followings
It took me two failures to gain this learning. In the beginning I followed everyone who I wanted to use the #BeTech. Regarding whether they had shown any interest at all. Not surprisingly, this had little to no effect at all.
Instead I started only following people who had engaged with #BeTech tweets. Basically anyone who has favorited or retweeted a #BeTech tweet. This approach was much more meaningful and the number of followers for the @BeTech_ account did grow. However, the people rarely ended up using the #BeTech in their tweets, which is a significant problem when the purpose is to foster a hashtag community. Also, if I just wanted to gain many Twitter followers there are faster ways to do that.
Based on these two learnings I am now only following people who actively use #BeTech in tweets or relevant people who started to follow the @BeTech_ account. The following/followers rate is also happy for this.
Note: Do not follow back #followforfollow-ish accounts. The accounts make your numbers look better, but they provide no interaction whatsoever. Quality beats quantity when building a community.
6. Ignore that you are being ignored by influencers
Early on I was very focused on getting the influencers from the Belgian tech startup scene on board. It seemed like the best approach to get #BeTech established in the community.
However, quite a few of the influencers I identified simply ignored my various attempts to get them to use #BeTech. This bothered me. And honestly, I wasted too much energy figuring out how I could get them on board.
You should not make this mistake. Do not worry too much about the influencers. The influencers are already super busy doing their own stuff. Rather, you should focus all your energy in making the life better for those who are using the hashtag. These early adopters are your best friends in establishing the hashtag community. Thank them!
Note: Recently, together with @LudwigDumont, we came to the conclusion, that it was #BeTech’s luck that none of the influencers jumped on board early on, because it would have been easy for them to take full ownership of #BeTech.
7. The #ff hack: The power of the daily shout-out
One of the most powerful tricks to gain followers while at the same time pleasing community members is the #ff hack. For a short period I started each morning by thanking all of the people who had tweeted #BeTech the previous day.
The only reason why I discontinued this was the time it took to create the tweets. Whereas it was not really a problem when only a handful of people used the #BeTech on a single day, it became more time consuming once that number surpassed 20 people.
Note: I have noticed that Sumall now allows to automate retweeters on a weekly basis. If I could find a way to hack this service and automate the daily shout-out you will probably see the #ff hack re-introduced.
8. The power of The #BeTech Heroes Twitter list
Towards the end of June, summer hit the #BeTech community. Fearing the decreasing #BeTech engagement I decided to make a Twitter list with all the people who had tweeted #BeTech within the last few weeks.
This is a super simple way to give relevant people a little reminder of #BeTech, as they (most likely) get a notification announcing when being added to the list.
Do: Go ahead and subscribe to the awesome list of #BeTech heroes.
9. Go offline: Drink coffee and meet people #win
Obviously, so I will not elaborate much further, except that engagement in offline events is even scientifically proven to be a good strategy to foster communities.
10. Celebrate and be positive
Is it impressive to gain 100 followers in 10 days? Probably not. However, positive framing is a thing, so better utilize it.
11. We: The power of the first person plural
Right from the beginning I decided to use first person plural from the @betech_ account. “We” simply has more community feeling than “I”.
Cry for help: In Buffer’s recent blogpost on words that convert, they highlight three words to encourage community: join, become member and come along. There must be a more extensive list somewhere. If anyone has such a list or know of one, please do share :-)
12. Be agnostic & leverage existing communities
Whereas #BeTech might be a new initiative, it is not a new community. The community existed before Omar and I decided to push forward #BeTech. So rather than building a new community, #BeTech is a new way for an existing community to communicate and connect.
One important consequence of this is that #BeTech will stay agnostic. #BeTech will not subscribe to only one organization or sub-community, and it will not develop into its own website. The focus is to bridge all the great initiatives already existing in Belgium and support them to achieve their goals when possible.
Note: Recently it was announced that #cphftw has hired a manager to develop the initiative further. I am curious to follow how this will develop for #cphftw as an initiative as it implies a change from being platform- and organization agnostic, to becoming an organization itself.
13. Don’t be afraid of being pushy
People need a friendly reminder to use #BeTech. Do not be afraid to give it to them. Here is one way I did it with the good guys from Startup Weekend Leuven.
Similarly it happens that people use @betech_ instead of #BeTech to reach the community. Then you just need to send a nice reminder, that #BeTech is the message.
Help us bring #BeTech to the next level
Here are three actions you can take to help us bring #BeTech to the next level.
1. Use #BeTech when posting relevant content
Really! In return for using #BeTech I promise you increased reach and interaction.
2. Create an awesome logo for #BeTech
The current logo was created by me. In a rush. Needless to say it can be done much better. So why not give it a try? Just email me your version and we will let the community decide if it should replace the existing.
3. Become a #BeTech community promoter
#BeTech was born on Twitter, but is increasingly being used on other platforms as well, including Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn. This is amazing! However, I do not have time to nurture the development of #BeTech on these platforms, so it would be incredible if someone else would undertake these tasks. If you are that person, let’s do a coffee meeting and get you started.
Of course you are also very welcome to share any other sublime ideas for #BeTech. I would love to help, just hit me on Twitter or email me.
“First they ignore us, then they laugh at us, then they fight us, then we win.” — Ghandi, paraphrased.
Ps. Here is a network analysis of the #BeTech community back in May. And here is an updated network analysis of the #BeTech community as of August. Thanks a lot to Tom (@ruettet) for the visualizations.